Jaap Vrenegoor ©2006 Content Film, courtesy Sony Pictures Classic
All blonde on the western front: Rachel (Carice van Houten) dyes her hair for the cause in Paul Verhoeven's 'Black Book.'
Paul Verhoeven gives World War II a 'Showgirls' sheen in 'Black Book'
By Richard von Busack
IN PAUL VERHOEVEN'S Black Book, the rich, beautiful and talented Rachel (Carice van Houten) has a little problem. It's 1945 in Occupied Holland, and she's Jewish. Her current residence—a cubbyhole in the barn of a Bible-walloping farmer—was accidentally bombed. Left in the cold, she possesses only a sizable packet of diamonds and a wad of $100 bills that would choke an elephant. Fortunately, the Dutch Resistance intervenes and gets her aboard a canal boat to Belgium, but the Nazis machine-gun the craft. She survives scratchless, except for a demure ricochet wound to the forehead. Later, during an assignment for the Resistance, Rachel is picked up on by a sensitive SS officer, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). She must make a decision: Will she prostitute herself for the Resistance?
Like Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, Black Book evinces a lot of indecision about its intentions. Is it erotica, a comedy or a serious statement about the underground fight against the Nazis? Critiquing the ruthlessness of the Resistance is not new; the 1986 French movie A Self-Made Hero did a memorable job of it. Black Book supposedly has merit as Verhoeven's return to his Dutch roots. To be fair, this director's first film since 2000's Hollow Man displays elements of national color and regional humor. Some have resented Verhoeven for the titillation of his work—American critics can get punitive when they get aroused—and it's true the Dutch have a more relaxed attitude toward skin. Thus the deliberate Gouda cheesecake—Rachel sunning herself in her underwear and her frequent toplessness even in a cold climate. Verhoeven even refers to his most famous scene—Sharon Stone crossing her legs in Basic Instinct—with a moment of Rachel peroxiding her parts to play the part of a natural blonde, a singer named Ellis de Vries. Maybe the universal appeal of the sex is supposed to leaven the references to today's occupations, as in this utterly subtle line when a Nazi officer congratulates the Dutch Gestapo: "You fight against the terrorists for our fatherland."
As that line suggests, Black Book is not a movie to take seriously. It's simplistic, madly nostalgic and larded with romantic visions of the end of the war. Koch is nearly as magnetic as he was in The Lives of Others. Van Houten has a hundred years of Hollywood good-time girls behind her to draw upon (Stella Stevens comes to mind, when watching Rachel smirk as another man bites the dust). But because of the episodic and heartless direction, because of the dramatic last-minute escapes and the glossy, adventure-movie sheen, Verhoeven remains what he has been for years: a director in the international style. And that means the same thing as an architect who builds in an international style—everything looks like an airport hotel. Verhoeven may think his lack of tone represents the ultimate moral relativism and that it is daring to suggest an SS man could be kind and Resistance leaders brutal. It's not just a matter of self-respect or the respect of your contemporaries; once you make a movie as lowball as Showgirls, with such bottom-grade coincidences and ultrabasic melodrama, you never really come back.
Black Book (R; 145 min.), directed by Paul Verhoeven, written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman, photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and starring Carice van Houten, opens April 13 at Camera 7 and CinéArts Palo Alto.
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