Anyone who did the happy dance when Paul Verhoeven admitted defeat and bailed back to Holland from Hollywood will be annoyed to discover that Black Book sees the director thoroughly uncowed. A wartime thriller of daring do, double crosses, Nazi collaborators and resistance fighters, it purports to be exactly what Verhoeven said he would make when he went home: An American film, with European money.
But American directors don’t actually make stuff like this. Verhoeven falls on Black Book from a great height, steaming over plot holes and audience objections in a mad gallop, achieving juggernaut momentum without any inclination to start wobbling the camera or dabbling in slow motion. Plus the subject is contentious stuff for an action flick, Holland’s treatment of its Jews under the Nazis being no one’s idea of a light lunch, least of all a Dutchman who was there at the time.
Verhoeven scratched this itch twenty nine years ago in Soldier of Orange, and echoes of that film turn up all over the place in Black Book’s performers, plot, and extremely dim view of the Dutch resistance. But the style and atmosphere draw directly on his U.S. movies, and the result is splendidly bonkers: All of Verhoeven’s historical baggage, minus the satirical fantasies of Starship Troopers, wrapped around his psychosexual kinks and plugged into the mains.
Objectors won’t feel they have to look very hard for their complaints. Verhoeven’s Nazis are cartoons, prone to lurching around drunk and collapsing onto the chaise lounge, sneering on a level equal to anything his sci-fi villains ever produced. But Verhoeven had been shoved around by the real thing, so he should know. Equally shitty behavior from the good guys inevitably occurs when they get the chance, and Verhoeven arranges for an actual barrel of shit to be on hand for a practical demonstration. As a final downer, the film ends not in WWII but an entirely different conflict, a bleak final shot that damns human nature wholesale.
Fervent film grammar in the service of cynicism, crudity and pubic hairdressing – It’s the Verhoeven paradox. It also results in a film that’s roughly 110 percent alive, a humanistic tumult that’s surely preferable to any Hollywood blather about Krakens. Plus the added bonus that most of the turmoil occurs in the head of the beleaguered heroine played by Carice van Houten. A pocket rocket of screen charisma with similar elfin allure to Renée Soutendijk – a Verhoeven muse from an earlier era – van Houten is simply a knockout.
© 2006 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.
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