Oh, Paul Verhoeven, you wacky Dutchman. You first came into the American consciousness with 1987’s classic “Robocop, although hardcore cineastes will say they first caught you in 1985’s “Flesh+Blood.” After that it was on to “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” “Starship Troopers” and the atrocious “Hollow Man.” People are more divided over your oeuvre than any other director I can think of besides Spielberg. Your films are racy, bloody, controversial and above all, entertaining. So the question is, what would zany Paul Verhoeven do with the WW2 drama “Black Book?” Sadly, I’m not sure I have an answer.
Since I’m thoroughly confused by the choice to open the film the way it opens, I’ll cut to the opening of the main story in “Black Book.” We meet young, beautiful Jewess Rachel (van Houten) as she learns New Testament bible quotes in order to earn a meal from the family that’s keeping her hidden from the Nazi’s. We immediately learn that Rachel is a sort of cultural chameleon, able to do and say pretty much whatever is needed in order to get what she wants. As Nazi pressure forces her to flee her safe haven, Rachel soon becomes Ellis de Vries and finds herself in cahoots with the Dutch resistance. Ever beautiful and able to sing like a bird, Ellis is used to infiltrate the Nazi compound and away we go on a dramatic, war movie about spies that’s really a mystery movie at heart. Sound confusing? Yeah, it is. But why get bogged down with genre when there’s so much entertainment to be had?
I must admit, there were several times in “Black Book” where the tone left me scratching my head. This is not the type of WW2 movie one has grown used to. The characters here flip-flop loyalties and emotions and I also couldn’t help but think Verhoeven was screwing with his audience throughout. It’s hard to put into words but I get the distinct impression Verhoeven is making fun of Holocaust films and their uptight and serious tones. Are Holocaust films fair game for parody? I’m not sure. Then again, I’m not even sure if the film slips into parody, but it sure felt like it sometimes. But I also think it’s best to not get caught up in social issues and points of view upon first viewing, just sit back and enjoy the ride. But trust me, this is a film I intend to watch several times over once it hits DVD.
Carice van Houten as Rachel/Ellis is as captivating as any screen siren working today. It’s little wonder she’s being rumored to star in the next James Bond installment. And Sebastian Koch nails another solid 2006 performance (he was outstanding in “The Lives of Others”) as Müntze, the SS officer who, like everyone seems unsure where his loyalties lie. But the true star here is director Paul Verhoeven who blends elements to make a truly entertaining film. His signature sleaze is here as well and I mean that in a good way but he also seems more…grown up. In most of his other films he reminds one of a pervy guy with a camera, hell bent on controversy. Yet here those elements exist, but not at the cost of the film. In fact “Black Book” reminds me of a less bitter and better executed Lars von Trier movie. Both directors are tricky cinematic imps, you can almost see them laughing and rubbing their hands together from behind the cameras and monitors as their films unspool before unsuspecting audiences.
“Black Book” is something to behold. It’s engrossing, entertaining and downright odd. There’s much, much more going on here than meets the eye but what is up front and easy to clue in on is how entertaining the film is and how easy it is to let yourself fall into a wild ride. As I said, go back and watch it again and again but go to it now with open eyes and mind. You won’t be disappointed.