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. She's left in the cold, with 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. The craft is machine-gunned by the Nazis. 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 has to make the decision: Will she prostitute herself for the resistance?
As in Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers, Black Book has indecision about whether this is erotica, comedy or a serious statement about the underground fight against the Nazis. Critiquing the ruthlessness of the resistance is not new; a 1996 French movie here titled 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 Hollow Man has 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 throughout this film, as Rachel suns herself in her underwear and indulges in frequent bouts of toplessness even in a cold climate. Verhoeven refers to his most famous scene--Sharon Stone crossing her legs in Basic Instinct--in showing Rachel bleaching her pubic hair so as to better play the part of a natural blonde.
Maybe the universal appeal of sex is supposed to leaven the references to today's occupations, as in this utterly subtle line when a Nazi officer is speaking to the Dutch Gestapo, congratulating them: "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, and 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 in Black Book, because of the dramatic last-minute escapes and the glossy, adventure movie sheen here, Verhoeven is still 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, like an airport hotel.
Verhoeven may think his lack of tone in this story is the ultimate kind of moral relativism, and that it's daring to suggest that an SS man could be kind and resistance leaders could be 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' opens Friday, April 13, at the Century CineArts Sequoia, 24 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley. 415.388.4862.
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