In making the jump to Hollywood, however, Verhoeven’s blatantly commercial efforts exploded with violence, sexuality and betrayal (his thematic stock-in-trade), while slyly commenting on our culture’s fading humanity. Whether it was war, fantasy (Flesh+Blood) or suspense, the violence was lurid, the women were ridiculously sexed-up and, with much of his work, you were never quite sure if he was criticizing or embracing fascism. Whether he was satirizing America’s desire for unrestrained law enforcement (Robocop) or mocking military jingoism (Starship Troopers), science fiction seemed to bring out his best. The incredible success of Basic Instinct, however, led to the colossal embarrassment of Showgirls and Verhoeven’s days in tinsel town were numbered. His perverted invisible man thriller, Hollow Man, was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and the director moved back to Holland, abandoning cinema. Or so it seemed.
Tossing aside the solemnity of recent World War II films, Black Book — Verhoeven’s first Dutch-language film in 20 years — is an unabashed melodrama that boasts the director’s typically prurient instincts yet is filled with a cynically murky view of moral certainty.
In an attempt to flee occupied Holland, Jewish cabaret singer Rachel (the striking Carice van Houten) watches as her family is brutally massacred by the Nazis. Stranded, she hooks up with the Dutch resistance and becomes a spy. Dyeing her hair and pubes blonde (this is a Verhoeven film, after all), she uses her feminine wiles on a high-ranking SS commander, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), and infiltrates Nazi headquarters. As she struggles to help free imprisoned members of the resistance, she discovers that Müntze is more man than monster and starts to fall in love with him. Double crosses become triple crosses, and Rachel is forced to pull off one narrow escape after another. Once the war ends, things only get worse.
Verhoeven keeps Black Book’s melodramatic wheels spinning as cliffhanger action scenes give way to breathless drama. Each real-life, too-astonishing-to-believe event careens into the next, and it’s hard not to get swept up by the sheer velocity of the film. Despite all the turmoil, however, the film never finds much emotional resonance. Despite its sprawling story and 2-1/2-hour running time, Rachel is rarely given time to react to her never-ending losses. Only at the end do we finally see the cumulative weight of personal tragedy as she sobs, “When will it ever end?” And even then her plaintive moment is cut short by yet another betrayal.
What holds the whole thing together is van Houten’s remarkable performance. Even when Verhoeven’s camera is ogling her firm nipples, she maintains a balance of fragility, tenacity and pain that sells his most outlandish moments. And being a Verhoeven movie, there are plenty of those. A crooning Nazi goon, an explicit bout of vomiting, champagne poured over jiggling breasts and a vat of shit dumped over someone’s head, Black Book uses every lowbrow trick in the book to reinvigorate a typically sober genre.
Though many will claim this crass wartime soap opera is more a “flick” than a “film,” Verhoeven sneaks in some important ideas about our desire to see history neatly depicted in black and white. Targeting the sins of extremism on both sides of the struggle, he portrays the Dutch resistance fighters as equally unable to fathom a German of conscience as imagine a duplicitous ally. In a brutally ironic moment, Liberation Day quickly turns the oppressed into the oppressors. Even as Black Book arouses and offends, it dares to provoke serious thought.
At the film’s beginning and end, Rachel is shown living happily with her family on a 1950s Israeli kibbutz. What at first seems to be a trite and reassuring narrative convention turns out to be a profound answer to Rachel’s earlier cry. The commune is surrounded by barbed wire and the sounds of gunfire snap and pop in the distance. Man’s capacity for violence never ends.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at 4 and 7 p.m. Sunday. Call 313-833-3237. In Dutch, German, English and Hebrew with English subtitles.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].