I’ll tell you what I think about Dutch director Paul Verhoeven: he loves Hollywood movies, but he hates Hollywood. He hates the way that all of the satire in his science-fiction movies was completely ignored by audiences and critics alike. He hates the way that the MPAA is constantly censoring his films – in an interview with the AV Club he claimed that he had to change Basic Instinct 9 or 10 times. And as the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, he hates the prudishness that American audiences can display about sex.
You can tell he loves Hollywood movies, though, because his 2007 film Black Book plays entirely in the style of his previous Hollywood blockbusters. There are shots, music cues, and lines of dialogue that reminded me of Robocop and Starship Troopers. The action is as bloody as Total Recall, in some cases even more so. Certain scenes are as crowd-pleasing as any World War II movie Hollywood has ever produced. In fact the film was basically the Titanic of the Netherlands: the most expensive movie ever made in the country up to that time, and also one of its biggest financial hits.
The convoluted plot deals with Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) and her time with the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis during the waning months of the second World War. To say much more would spoil several key twists, but suffice it to say that this is not a film in which every Nazi is an evil person who receives a much-deserved comeuppance, nor every freedom fighter a saint who either triumphs or dies a noble death. It’s an ambiguous film in which the heroes tread over moral ground that the villains occupied just a few scenes before.
This is a very personal film for Verhoeven because he lived briefly under the Nazi occupation when he was a child. But don’t let that fact, or the “Inspired By Actual Events” title card, fool you. This is an entertaining, fast-paced action thriller that uses a lot of thriller conventions you’re familiar with. In particular an early conversation in the film pays off later in such a way that I stifled a groan, because it seemed so obviously telegraphed.
That’s not to say Black Book is a bad movie. In fact it’s fantastic; a hugely entertaining film which can turn on a dime and deliver deeply powerful political and social messages. Verhoeven uses a lot of tricks of the trade that he learned making action pictures for Ah-nuld, but he earns every trick with gut-wrenching drama and tension. He proves a rule which has been true since the first movies: you can get away with a lot of crazy stuff as long as you have characters that the audience cares about, and Rachel Stein is one of those.
According to van Houten’s Wikipedia page, she has won the Dutch equivalent of the Best Actress Oscar three times, including for this film, and it’s not surprising. She’s utterly fantastic as a character who has to carry horrible pain, but can’t ever afford to let it out on pain of horrible, Nazi-inflicted death. After this film helped her to be named Woman of the Year by New York Magazine, Hollywood tried to import her in movies such as Valkyrie and Repo Men, and it’s mystifying to me why she hasn’t caught on.*
Maybe it’s because Hollywood is afraid to subject her to the kind of punishment that Verhoeven can dole out in his native land. Two scenes in particular stand out for me: one in which Rachel is molested by a Nazi couple, and one near the end of the film in which she is degraded in a way so disgusting that you probably wouldn’t believe it if I spoiled it. Like any great performer, van Houten raises her game when it’s needed most, delivering a dynamite combination of horror and courage in both of these moments.
If you read the interview I linked to above, you’ll see that another reason Verhoeven didn’t even bother trying to make this film in Hollywood is that he didn’t think he could get its political content through the door at the height of the Bush administration. Both Dutchman and German rely on ugly torture that is supposed to recall the atrocities at Abu Ghraib and the long-standing debate over waterboarding. As Rachel digs herself deeper and deeper into the resistance she finds herself faced with moral conflicts and trade-offs that go well beyond simply saying “War is hell.” It seems like Verhoeven is standing behind the camera and asking, “what does it mean, if even a war against the Nazis cannot be just?”
Black Book had me well before it was even one-quarter done, and it never let me go. Even liking it as much as I did, though, I was floored by its final shot, which seemed to take the movie to a whole new level. It’s difficult enough to ask yourself why you root for some Nazis and wish ill on some of the Dutch Resistance during the movie. Then, it ends on a note which suggests that World War II was only the start of a deeper, much more difficult ambiguity.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*well, okay, not so mystifying … I mean, did you see Repo Men?