In Paul Verhoeven's film about a Jewish spy infiltrating the Nazis, heroism and treachery are hard to tell apart.
Sebastian Koch is a Nazi from whom Carice van Houten tries to get information. (Jaap Vrenegoor / Sony Pictures Classics)
All these pleasantly dizzying contradictions, as well as the film's great energy and breakneck speed, come courtesy of director Paul Verhoeven, making his first film in his native Holland in more than 20 years and returning to the subject matter of his premier international hit, 1977's "Soldier of Orange."
In the years since, Verhoeven has made quite the splash in Hollywood, directing, among others, "Basic Instinct," "RoboCop" and the ever-notorious "Showgirls." But fearful, he has said in interviews, that he was "losing my soul" through involvement in standard studio projects (anyone who's seen his "Hollow Man" will sympathize), Verhoeven reunited with his longtime Dutch collaborator, screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, in a project about a beautiful Jewish spy infiltrating the highest echelons of the Nazi occupation. It's a project the two men have been tinkering with for decades.
Now that it is on the screen, "Black Book" reinforces the notion that World War II is the subject that suits Verhoeven best. It's a canvas large enough to contain his various manias, excesses and idiosyncracies and keep them from overwhelming the story. It also showcases his gift for involving action. This is a film in which everyone is on the move at all times, incident piles on incident and, as shot by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and edited by Job ter Burg and James Herbert, more can happen on the screen in five minutes than other pictures manage in hours.
It's not just that things happen; it's the way they take place. As viewers of "Starship Troopers" can testify, Verhoeven has the ability to make things especially visceral and intense. His occupied Holland has a sensibility a world apart from "the greatest generation" pieties: It's a terrifying, unsettling location where expectations are always reversed and interlocking webs of secrecy and betrayal leave everyone always on edge.
There are claims on all sides for the moral high ground, and the Nazis' insistence that they are "fighting against terrorism for a free Europe" is the script's clear nod to the current situation in Iraq. Despite the claims, the occupation and its aftermath are unapologetically viewed by "Black Book" as a distinctly anarchic and amoral time in which heroism and treachery are hard to tell apart, a time in which the director, who is clearly disgusted by moral smugness and "to the victor go the spoils" triumphalism, couldn't be more at home.
Given that it is a Verhoeven film, along with the amorality goes considerable sexual energy. "Black Book" does not stint on either nudity or candid bedroom scenes, and it is likely the only World War II drama ever where the heroine is shown dying her pubic hair blond to better fight the Nazis. Thank God John Wayne didn't live to see this.
That intrepid young woman starts out in 1944 as Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a dark-haired Jewish singer hiding from the Nazis with a Christian family who delight in telling her, "If the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn't be in such a mess now."
Grim as it is, that situation doesn't last long, and neither does a lot of the rest that happens to Rachel early on. Suffice to say that after several catastrophic encounters, she ends up a member of the Dutch Resistance. There her assignment is to turn herself into the blond Ellis de Vries, the better to vamp high-ranking German officer Ludwig Müntze and gain vital information. Asked how far she is prepared to go, this determined young person doesn't hesitate for even a second.
Because Müntze is played by the sensitive-looking German actor Sebastian Koch, who was the playwright in "The Lives of Others," we get an early hint that this stamp-collecting Nazi is not going to be a leering sadist of the "Hangmen Also Die" variety. And his relationship with Rachel/Ellis turns out to be more complex than either one expects at the outset.
The supporting actors in "Black Book" (including Koch, Halina Reijn as party girl Ronnie, Thom Hoffman as Resistance stalwart Hans Akkermans and Waldermar Kobus as evil Nazi officer Günther Franken) are uniformly strong, but it is the breakthrough work of Van Houten that truly carries the picture.
An award-winning performer in Holland, Van Houten carries off this complex role with aplomb. Unselfconsciously flirtatious, with an intoxicating smile, Rachel is a hellion with nerves of steel, someone who simply won't be kept down. She is Verhoeven's representative on screen, the life force that has helped give a renewed sense of purpose to both the veteran director and the venerable World War II genre he's taken on.
"Black Book." MPAA rating: R for some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes. Opens today exclusively at Pacific's Arclight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), (323) 464-4226; Landmark's NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd. at Euclid, Santa Monica, (310) 281-8223. Opens Friday at Laemmle's Playhouse Cinemas, 673 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 844-6500; Town Center, 17200 Ventura Blvd., Encino, (818) 981-9811; Regal/Edwards Westpark, 3755 Alton Parkway, Irvine, (949) 622-8609.