Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Gerard Soeteman
and Paul Verhoeven
Starring Carice van Houten
and Sebastian Koch
Stylish European director goes to Hollywood, makes it big ( RoboCop), makes it bigger ( Basic Instinct), then makes it so bad he nearly torpedoes his career ( Showgirls) and, a chastened but wiser man, returns to his native Holland to get back in touch with his cinematic roots. Such is the saga of Paul Verhoeven and the happy ending demands that his return-journey film - Black Book - be a rousing artistic triumph. It isn't. Too many of his lazy Hollywood habits have followed him home.
As he did once before in Soldier of Orange, Verhoeven revisits the Second World War and the Dutch resistance, but this time with the admirable intention of casting the period in a less heroic and more ambiguous light. It's late in the conflict, 1944, and our protagonist is a tragically familiar figure: A Jewish woman fleeing persecution, Rachel (Carice van Houten) is being hidden on a farm in rural Holland. Yet her rescuers, while brave, are not above exacting a price for their benevolence, weighing her down with a daily dose of Christian bombast ("If the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn't be in such a mess now"). Yes, the anti-Semitism that motivates her persecutors also infects her protectors. That's an intriguing irony, and, in its early frames, the movie promises to deliver more of these clear-eyed truths.
The promise is never fulfilled. Instead, Hollywood beckons, starting with a series of action scenes that seem less designed to convey the reality of the war than to advance the demands of an increasingly Byzantine plot. For example, when Rachel sees her family killed in a Nazi ambush, and sustains a gunshot wound herself, she recovers with cartoonish alacrity, emerging a scene later as feisty and fabulous as ever, set to seek revenge by joining the resistance. Speaking of whom, in a time when the entire country was ravaged by starvation, the Dutch fighters all look remarkably, attractively robust.
You can't let a trifle like historical accuracy mar the eye candy.
Indeed, as if to prove that his own basic instinct is still alive and throbbing, Verhoeven has Rachel trying to disguise herself with a blond dye job - first the hair on her head and then, in a full frontal shot, the stuff lower down. (The guy just keeps treating "showgirls" as a verb.) Anyway, so disguised, she accepts the mission of inveigling herself into the affections of Müntze the Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch). Not to worry, though - turns out he's the rare exterminator who has risen through the Gestapo ranks without losing an iota of his human compassion or decency.
Naturally, then, Rachel's feigned love turns sincere, while the narrative leaves the dirty work to be done by Muntze's second-in-command - a mean, porcine Nazi from the old school, who refers to the Dutch underground as "terrorists" and uses "water-boarding" as his favourite form of torture. I'm guessing these references are designed to bring a period piece up to contemporary speed, but this sort of pasted-on relevance doesn't stick. All it does is an injustice to the complexities of both eras.
Meanwhile, back in the resistance movement, there's a traitor somewhere in the ranks, whose undisclosed identity gives the flick an excuse to lumber on for nearly 2½ hours, through more bloody action and sexual escapades right on to the liberating arrival of the Canadian troops. As a child, Verhoeven witnessed that liberation, and knows it wasn't all happy smiles and flag-waving and chocolate bars tossed from parading tanks. So he's right to point out that the postwar treatment of suspected collaborators was appalling in its severity, with the victors coming perilously close to aping the behaviour of the vanquished. But his methods of dramatizing this malaise (an upturned bucket of feces one moment, a trite chase sequence the next) are equally crude and just as derivative - they borrow from the bogus pictures he has ostensibly left behind.
This is a film that dearly wants to be important, that wants to do for Holland what Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française does for France - examine the German occupation through a prism of painful honesty. Yet the lofty ambition comes dressed in cheap attire; Verhoeven can't seem to stop himself from shopping downmarket. Black Book means to be morally grey, but ends up a different hue altogether - the movie equivalent of purple prose.