Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoven is probably most famous for the infamous bomb Showgirls. Before that 1996 disaster Verhoven made a handful of Dutch films before breaking into Hollywood with a string of unique action films like Robocop and Total Recall. Verhoven’s Hollywood films became increasingly sexual throughout his career, culminating in the freeze-frame classic Basic Instinct and the aforementioned Showgirls. After that debacle Hollywood became increasingly unwilling to finance Verhoven’s wild De Palma-esque sexual thrillers. Verhoven was able to infuse some of his sensibilities into later films like Starship Troopers, but was largely unable to get financing for the project he wanted. For his latest project Verhoven has returned to the Netherlands for the first time in over twenty years with the film Black Book.
Black Book focuses on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman in Nazi occupied Holland late in World War 2. When stein and her family try to escape they are found by the Gestapo who murder her entire family. Stein escapes the massacre and flees to occupied Amsterdam where she meets up with the local resistance group. Along the way Stien meets a German officer named Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) who is clearly attracted to her. The resistance convinces Stein to seduce Müntze in order to spy on his activities. Over the course of this espionage Stien spots an officer named Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) whom she recognizes from the massacre she escaped from.
I’ll leave the summery at that because a big part of the fun of Black Book comes from seeing the story unfold in new and unexpected ways. The film’s original story written by Verhoven and long time collaborator Gerard Soeteman is the film’s biggest asset. It moves along in the great tradition of World War 2 spy films. The film is not just a thriller, its story goes beyond the war itself and into the post-war issues. The characters manage to surprise often and the viewer is fully invested in what happens to the characters.
The film also has a few subtle parallels with the current state of world affairs. The Nazi occupiers refer to the resistance group as “terrorists” throughout, a label I doubt was specifically used by the Nazis but which does serve to point out that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, as well as examine the ramifications of refusing to negotiate with such organizations. More interesting still is the post-war aspects of the story in which many people have their lives ruined by being given a label without being given a trial to explain themselves.
Despite the great story, the film is burdened with an abundance of flaws, mostly courtesy of Paul Verhoven’s general wackiness. Verhoven seems to feel obligated to fill this movie with the sexual material that Hollywood stopped allowing him to use, despite the fact that most of it is completely inappropriate in this setting. There were certainly sexual aspects of the story, namely Stein’s affair with Müntze, but Verhoven also adds a lot of extra stuff that is completely out of place. A big part of the problem is that Verhoven was never know for the type of serious artistic eroticism that may have worked here; instead he is known for campy, sleazy, borderline pornographic fare like Showgirls. This material works as what it is in the more frivolous films Verhoven was making in Hollywood, but is nothing more than a distraction in a World War 2 film involving the Holocaust.
There are other problems as well, most notably a completely gratuitous frame story which could easily be cut and also removes any suspense about the fate of the Stein character. Also the movie runs into some major third act problems, the last half an hour feels fairly anti-climactic and it also has an ending which seems to contradict the movie’s ultimate message.
All that said, I still enjoyed Black Book. I think the story is so strong that it still manages to stand up despite its director’s unfortunate excesses. There are better movies about the subject matter this film depicts, still there was more than enough here to keep me intrigued. Recommended, but with a lot of reservations.
*** out of four