Before Paul Verhoeven became notorious as the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, he had a modest international success with Soldier of Orange, a (mostly) heroic tale of the Dutch resistance during World War II. Nearly 25 years after last making a film in his native Holland, he’s returned to the same milieu but this time with a different attitude. Black Book is both more playful and more cynical.
Since its protagonist is a Jewish woman, Black Book can be seen as a swipe at the piety of the typical Holocaust drama. As we learn from the prologue, set in Israel in 1956, former cabaret singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) survives the war. But she does not, and cannot, do so with dignity. Verhoeven’s and co-writer Gerard Soeteman’s scenario—purportedly “inspired by true events”—makes her recite New Testament verses to earn her supper while hiding with Christians and not only seduce but fall in love with a Gestapo officer. Things actually get worse after the Nazis surrender: Accused of being a collaborator, Rachel is stripped to the waist before a jeering crowd and drenched with human excrement. And, as the film ends, the 1956 Arab-Israel war has just begun. It’s always something.
In style, Black Book is largely a traditional war picture. Verhoeven doesn’t use flashy contemporary visual techniques, and the music, by Art of Noise veteran Anne Dudley, wouldn’t ruffle a ’40s Hollywood epic. Yet the director is quick to muck things up thematically. Just a few minutes after he flashes back from Israel to 1944 Holland, a stricken Allied bomber sputters overhead, forced to drop its bombs at random to lighten its load. One of the explosives hits the farmhouse where Rachel has been living, destroying her hideout in an utterly random, completely amoral act. There will be more of those.
Homeless and ID-less, Rachel finds her way to her family’s lawyer, who provides money to pay a smuggler to take her and others to Belgium. To her delight, the trip reunites Rachel with her parents and brother, but the passage is a Nazi setup, and soon the young woman is alone again. Rescued by a resistance cell, Rachel dyes her hair—including her pubes—and becomes Ellis de Vries, a “pure” Dutch woman and thus by Nazi standards an “Aryan.” (This favored national status may explain why the Netherlands was among the nations most cooperative with the German occupation.) Soon Rachel has been assigned to entice Gestapo commander Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch, who plays the exemplary secret-police victim in The Lives of Others).
Rachel does her job well, even managing to sing cheerily at a German officers’ party at which her accompanist is a man she knows to be a brutal murderer. Yet when the cell makes a bold attack, its members learn they’ve been betrayed by an informer. Since she’s Jewish, Rachel is promptly (if illogically) assumed to be the turncoat. Even after Canadian troops triumphantly arrive, there’s still a lot of intrigue to be explained, including what’s in the small folio that provides the movie’s title.
Black Book has been received with some derision: Manohla Dargis dubbed it “supremely vulgar” in the New York Times. In part, such hostility reflects people’s expectations from Verhoeven, who will never live down that flash of Sharon Stone’s crotch. But it’s also a reaction to the movie’s disorienting mixture of two kinds of nonsense: the earnest baloney of the classic melodrama and the self-conscious absurdity of Brechtian satire. Thus the way Rachel and Ludwig discover each other’s loneliness and become genuine lovers is the usual Hollywood contrivance, but the fact that she’s a Jewish entertainer and he a Gestapo commander accentuates the artificiality. During war, neither victim nor oppressor can reveal their true selves, so how can this be a “true” story? Verhoeven doesn’t mean to deny history, just only perfectly ordered accounts of it.
With van Houten just as sexy and a lot more versatile than his usual Hollywood leading ladies, Verhoeven can’t resist a few lascivious digressions. In a bit of foreshadowing, toilets are also a motif. But the movie is mostly concerned with the corrupting effect of ideology—also a theme of the director’s Starship Troopers—and moral anarchy of life during wartime. Rachel will do anything to live, but for people whose social status is more secure, World War II is a chance to do anything for profit. Some will think that, by making no absolute distinction between Nazi evil and Dutch opportunism, the director goes too far. Decades after the moderately jaundiced Soldier of Orange, however, it’s clear that Verhoeven has made exactly the film he intended. Black Book is his apology—not for Showgirls, but for being Dutch.