Black Book Review

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Escaping a trap that kills her family, Dutch Jewess Rachel Stein (van Houten) turns to the Resistance, going undercover as the floozy of the local SS commander (Koch). She will come to discover the line between good and evil is far from clear.


It’s been six years since Paul Verhoeven last flashed a leading lady’s nether regions or exploded a human head like a watermelon and, boy, have we missed him. The flying Dutchman’s lusty approach to filmmaking, a singular mission to detect the limits of common decency and pursue a course far north of them, hid a febrile, satirical mind, a need to gnaw and press at the moral platitudes of Hollywood formula. Part deranged; part naughty schoolboy; part thrilling, whimsical filmmaker, he stood for something heroic: sticking two fingers up at whatever establishment came within range, utilising a triple-whammy of ultra-nudity, ultra-violence, and ultra-cheek.

Now he’s back, but instead of subverting Hollywood’s generic ways, he has returned to his roots to make a Dutch language WWII drama, fuelled by his own experiences of growing up under the Nazi occupation. Black Book is assembled from fragments of truth, a Secret Army-style blizzard of intrigue and death surrounding the remarkable Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), an indomitable Jewess who disguising her origins — collar and, most sensibly, cuffs — ends up fraternising with the local German bigwigs on behalf of the Dutch Resistance. Which does sound worryingly worthy. Has our lascivious director tempered his randy habits for a tale of courage and honour? Is this a Verhoeven minus the wobbly parts?

Not a bit of it. While Black Book is a telling portrayal of wartime vicissitudes, it is still has the sensibility of a man who deems restraint the stuff of wimps. With its morass of double-treble-quadruple crossings and squib-popping shoot-outs, you could coin it Total Reich. With the captivating and impressively resilient van Houten portraying much of the ensuing drama with her privates on parade, you might dub it Basic Insurrection.

The plot propels us unsteadily through the succession of close shaves and tragic blunders that made-up Stein’s turbulent war, and this trembling gait that makes it unlike any other war movie. Verhoeven harries proceedings impatient with any worthiness, unable to resist the urge to poke a stick at it — if a scene contains a vat of slopped out human excrement, you can guarantee it’s going be tipped over a half-naked leading lady. This is Verhoeven's war.

But if there is parody, the target isn’t the traumas of WWII rather than the dubious moral certainty with which it is so often portrayed. In this dizzyingly complex world, Nazis can be handsome and decent, and the Resistance’s drab warriors corrupt. You suspect the often laughable depiction of conflict may get closer to the messy, unconventional business of war than tenfold tales of enduring nobility. Such horrors are, perhaps, best processed by gallows humour. And the Dutch provocateur is not stopping there. Repeated references to the Resistance as terrorists are surely designed to echo the cruelties of Guantanamo Bay and the purposes of Bush's regime.

A strange mix indeed: Verhoeven’s tacky exaggerations as applied to the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. It’s implausible and outrageously comic, but equally memorable and passionate. Worth seeing.