Of all the filmmakers to tackle the story of a young Jewish woman's struggle to survive in Nazi-occupied Holland during World War II, the pulp sadist behind "Showgirls" and "Starship Troopers" wouldn't be the most obvious choice. Against all odds, though, Paul Verhoeven succeeds wildly with the period epic "Black Book."
Following a lucrative run in Hollywood, the Dutch-native director returns to his home country to tell this unexpected tale. Though there remain a few unfortunate reminders of Verhoeven's punishing way with onscreen sex and violence, "Black Book" dazzles as both a gripping, action-packed melodrama and a thought-provoking inquiry into wartime morality (or lack thereof).
Carice van Houten delivers a remarkable performance as the film's heroine, Rachel, who joins the Dutch resistance after seeing her family gunned down by SS officers. The rebels send Rachel on a treacherous undercover mission to romance a Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch, "The Lives of Others") who takes a liking to her. But once Rachel discovers an innocence within the officer and anti-Semitic prejudice among the resistance ranks, she must re-examine her loyalties in order to make it to the end of the war alive.
Packed with twists and betrayals, the riveting narrative doesn't waste a second of the film's 145-minute running time. And while it's true that scenes like the one in which prison guards pour a vat of fecal matter over Rachel's half-naked body strike a distasteful note, Verhoeven's unmistakable empathy for oppressed victims of history's cruel low points more than compensates.
That quality also makes "Black Book" as relevant as it is entertaining. And in Van Houten, who projects both old-fashioned glamour and powerful inner strength, the film has the perfect star to match its exhilarating mix of thrills and sober pathos.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times