The Reeler


April 4, 2007

Black Book

Verhoeven's high-kicking espionage drama also a bitterly cogent revisitation of the Dutch resistance

The spottily celebrated, stalwart provocateur Paul Verhoeven has described Black Book, the director’s first Dutch-language film in over 20 years, as a "correction" to 1977's Soldier of Orange. Where that film venerated the Dutch resistance for subverting the German occupation during World War II, Black Book cuts a more gimlet eye on their role. While it's difficult to describe such a high-kicking, hot-to-trot espionage drama as having a level gaze, Verhoeven does not spare his countrymen in doling out behavioral demerits, and even the Canadians, largely credited with liberating the Netherlands, take some hits. That process of leveling also accounts for the inclusion of a nice-guy Nazi, and perhaps even more shockingly -- for a Verhoeven film -- a sympathetic female lead.

The woman in question is Rachel Stein (Dutch ingénue Carice van Houten), a cabaret singer whose hothouse loveliness is regularly belied by her flinty survival instinct, as well her more salty onstage persona. Co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman and Verhoeven, who developed their historically based script for years, found the key to tying up outstanding narrative loopholes when they changed their protagonist from a man to a woman, and indeed many of the plot points turn on the squeaky wheel of feminine wiles. As a Verhoeven heroine, Rachel is atypical, and yet in her indomitable will to survive, game sexual maneuvering, sometimes quizzically emotionless adaptability and frequently exposed breasts, she finds some common ground with her predecessors.

After a brief opening scene which finds Rachel teaching in an Israeli kibbutz in 1956, we return to the Dutch countryside in 1944, where the Jewish Rachel, separated from own her family, is being hidden in a Christian farmhouse where she must literally pray for her supper. When that set-up goes ka-boom, Rachel visits her family’s lawyer, Mr. Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who has been working with the Dutch resistance to export Jews into liberated territory. Securing her passage and that of her family members, he adds their names to his little black book, a detail Verhoeven borrowed from the actual diary of a similarly engaged lawyer in The Hague. In the terrifying scene of their crossing, the barge is stormed and everyone aboard is machine-gunned, including Rachel’s family; she escapes by diving into the river. Half-submerged, Rachel watches the pitiless Nazis looting the bodies of their nest eggs, and is transformed.

The first part of Rachel's transformation, and entrée into the Dutch resistance, is giving her the proper Dutch name of Ellis de Vries, the second is re-christening her brown locks as a golden halo, and the third, my friends, in a rather raunchy reference to Basic Instinct, involves the scrappy Netherlander’s nether regions, and her thorough approach to bleaching. Verhoeven packs Black Book with references, and not only to himself: in the figure of the scheming songstress there are nods to the Dietrich who would reapply her lipstick before execution by firing squad and Garbo’s Mata Hari (“But Garbo got it in the end,” Ellis is reminded); slick, skin-rippling music cues and shootouts in trenchcoats are delectable Hollywood noir; there’s also a zing of The Night Porter's wire-crossing sexual dynamic, at least initially, between Rachel and her Nazi target. While escorting resistance leader Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) on a gun-smuggling mission, some logistical maneuvering lands Ellis in the train cabin of Gestapo leader Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch, last seen in The Lives of Others), where she is welcomed; a beautiful (blonde) woman has a passport to everywhere.

Circumstance conspires to send Ellis into Gestapo headquarters to cash in on her rapport with Müntze, and Akkermans, her newly minted lover, reluctantly lets her go ("At least I get you first," he gallantly notes). Once Ellis succeeds in infiltrating both Müntze’s office and his pants, the political intrigues, infighting and double-dutch side-switching are compounded by the heroine’s growing attachment to the conflicted Müntze. Kneeling before him during their first intimate encounter, Ellis' roots, literal and figurative, are exposed, and the good German (as the title of Soderbergh's latest film suggested, there can only be one in any given movie) decides that for a piece that nice, the final solution can be damned.

Verhoeven, aided by sleekly restless camera moves, hustles the densely plotted narrative along at a breakneck pace that shrugs off plausibility with a wink and a shimmy into the next gorgeous outfit, or heart-wracking mission. Kitschy, Spy vs. Spy details like a chloroform bottle marked "CHLOROFORM" in huge letters, and an extremely providential bar of chocolate lend themselves to an overall tone best described as glossy, where the gossamer-thin conceits are exactly as they should be.

When things go pear-shaped for Ellis and her crew (along with Müntze, whose diplomatic efforts are twisted against him) the torture they face in prison is not quite as fearsome as the prospect of liberation. Ellis and Müntze emerge from hiding to seek out Mr. Smaal, and his little black book sheds some blinding light on the cause, and the men, she was working for. The “victorious” resistance run rampant, punishing Ellis as a traitor in a stomach-flipping scene; Müntze’s fate is almost more humane by comparison. "Will it never end?" Ellis wonders, even as she vows to exact revenge. This bitterly cogent, crazily entertaining film seems to suggest an answer in the final scene’s return to the Promised Land, and a military truck rumbling by a scrum of children at play.

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