“If the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now.” Hiding from the Nazis in 1944 Holland, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is working for a family out in the country. Surrounded by children at the breakfast table, she recites the latest bible verse she’s learned and hears out her righteous employer, grateful for her life. And sometimes she sneaks off to see her boyfriend, who scoots by on a boat and admires her bathing suit. For all the trade-offs, and even knowing the war continues far away, Rachel has found a kind of respite. And then she loses it.
Her awakening is tragic and spectacular. She sees her “hiding place” — and the Christian family who took her in — blown to bits by a Nazi bomber. Coming near the beginning of the film-long flashback that comprises Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (Zwartboek), it sets up the costs of war in terms that might best described as “Verhoevian.” Broadly drawn and ballsy, the movie features horrendous violence and stupefying melodrama: it’s WWII without the usual sober romance, the Greatest Generation meets Starship Troopers.
Triggered by a chance meeting with an old acquaintance in Israel, where Rachel is teaching schoolchildren on a kibbutz in October 1956, her memories of the war are shaped by regret and rage. More to the point, they are shaped by Rachel, who is sensational. Following her close encounter with the bomber, Rachel appears unnervingly unrattled; maybe, she muses, “It’s a blessing in disguise. I don’t have to rattle off silly old bible verses to get some grub.” Following a couple of other near-deaths — she witnesses her own family’s bloody murder by SS forces during an attempted escape from Holland, then makes her way through Nazi checkpoints disguised as a corpse in a coffin — she accepts a very conveniently timed offer to join the resistance. Despite the high risks involved, an undercover assignment offers a chance to get some payback.
It also gives Rachel the chance to sing again. A chanteuse with something of a high profile back in the day, Rachel takes the showy name of Ellis de Vries so she can cozy up to a local Gestapo officer, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). She takes up her mission with gusto. (Asked how far she’s willing to go to “resist,” she comes back bluntly: “You mean, would I screw him?”) She signs on as a secretary, slipping into his office to plant a bug and bleaching her hair (all her hair, revealed in a scene that’s equal parts salacious and seductive, evoking the glorious Showgirls) in order to pass as the golden girl so irresistible to Aryan true believers.
That she remains irresistible even when Müntze discovers her dye job is testament to Rachel’s singular verve, but also to Müntze’s emerging conscience. Hardly your average movie Nazi, he’s practical-minded and compassionate, drawn to Rachel’s mystery at the same time that he’s doubting his Führer’s excesses and increasingly aware of the coming end. Together, Rachel and Müntze form the sort of unexpected, even wacky couple who turn up in Verhoeven’s films (think: Shooter and Catherine Trammel in Basic Instinct). They’re delirious, driven, and enthrallingly extreme.
Their outrageousness, of course, pales in comparison to their circumstances. Their hubris accelerated by greed, the most exuberant Nazis here are fond of big-breasted women and gaudy baubles. Müntze’s immediate rival is the grotesque and self-pleased killer Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus). A man of ferocious appetites, regarding his girlfriend (and Rachel’s best friend/coworker) Ronnie (Halina Reijn) with a combination of contempt and lust; that he also happens to be the very SS officer who slaughtered Rachel’s parents only makes him more deserving of a dreadful death. Scandalous and outsized, he embodies both personal vendetta and narrative contrivance, the villainous counterpart to the equally cartoonish resistance fighter Hans (Thom Hoffman).
Careening in a plot that has her running guns, surviving first poison and then assault by sewage, decorating the Gestapo office for Hitler’s birthday party, and singing a bizarre duet with Günther, Rachel more than holds her own. Spunky and courageous, she’s also wily, appropriately distrustful and deeply passionate. She wants to believe in love with Müntze, but he is, after all, a man, which means he’s easily exploited and fearful of reprisal for all the evil he’s done during his career as a Nazi.
Still, the movie is less interested in moralizing judgment than in fundamental assessment: humans, perhaps especially in wartime, are vulnerable and malevolent, stupid and unspeakably generous, sometimes all at the same time. If Müntze’s past bad acts aren’t precisely forgiven, they are at least contextualized. When Günther, in an effort to have his rival arrested and dragged away to certain execution, accuses Müntze of “negotiating with terrorists,” that is, resistance fighters, the terms are familiar: the Dutch fighters oppose their occupation, the Nazis respond with predictably tyrannical tactics, the under-equipped and underfunded Dutch defend themselves. The cycle is illustrated here by the sheer absurdity of the plot: no matter what one side achieves, the other finds a way to be meaner and more aggressive, from the explicitness of explosions to the manipulations of money (the titular “book” is a list of would-have-been Jewish refugees and the property stolen from them by Germans who arranged for their “passage”).
The movie makes clear as well that the fighting never ends and moreover, that none of its antics could be as large, contentious, or ridiculous as “history.” Despite treaties and agreements and declarations, vengeful desires and dark memories remain intact. The fact that all the sides suffer horrendous loss is not enough. When Rachel’s lengthy flashback ends, her current situation is clarified: the kibbutz is hardly a sanctuary, as Israel, along with England and France, undertook to resolve the Suez Crisis by invading Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. As Rachel ponders her past, the future is framed by missiles and paratroopers.