During his 15-year Hollywood career in the '80s and '90s, Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven may have been America's most misunderstood major director. Verhoeven specialized in cold, acid comedies in disguise, always drenched in sex (Basic Instinct, Showgirls — the latter's alleged unintentional comedy highly intentional) or violence (Robocop, the prescient militarism satire Starship Troopers). These films were too often dismissed as trash when they really deployed the language of American trash-cinema for their own critical purposes.
Verhoeven's latest film, Black Book, is his first feature film produced in his native Netherlands since 1983's The 4th Man. It shares some characteristics with his Hollywood work — a penchant for gonzo entertainment that includes audacious action set pieces and daring twists, traits fueled by an underlying mercilessness that has long set Verhoeven apart. But it's also a warmer, more realistic film than any of the director's Hollywood work.
Black Book opens and closes in October 1956 at a Jewish settlement on the banks of the Sea of Galilee, but the main action — presented as a memory — takes place in Nazi-occupied Holland circa 1944, where the protagonist, Rachel Stein (a dazzling Carice van Houten), is a Jewish woman in hiding, waiting out the war in the home of a farm family that makes her recite New Testament verses in return for her meals.
Within minutes, Rachel's haven is destroyed and she's launched on a journey that takes her from a failed escape to enlistment with the Dutch resistance to infiltrating the local Nazi headquarters. The result feels as much like a Hollywood action-adventure yarn as an art-house think piece. In fact, there hasn't been a more briskly paced, consistently exciting film released by a Hollywood studio this year. Yet here, every hairpin turn and plot-altering revelation is governed by a sure narrative logic. Black Book's plotting is outrageous, provocative, and highly entertaining but never feels contrived.
Despite there being something of the comic book and the matinee cliffhanger here, Black Book is as serious (and probably more so) than Schindler's List. As breathless as the film is, Verhoeven situates his tale in a world of moral complexity. One of the most sympathetic figures in the film is a Nazi commander (a just-taking-orders type who senses his war is lost and tries to minimize further casualties on all sides) while the resistance is suffused with anti-Semitism. Wars are by definition messy and tragic, and Black Book points out that the aftermath isn't exactly tidy. Even on the right side of a necessary war, villains profit, heroes are persecuted, and no one seems trustworthy.
Beholden to neither religion nor ideology, Rachel is presented as a pragmatic life force. She's free-spirited (stealing a bite of carrot from an acquaintance's pet rabbit, flirtatiously showing some leg to passing soldiers) and earthy (painstakingly dying her pubes in preparation for seducing the head of the local Gestapo).
Near the end, when Rachel is thought a collaborator by the newly freed Dutch mobs, an Allied victory parade becomes a source or menace and paranoia. "I never thought I'd dread liberation," she says. Moments later, Rachel finally breaks down, asking, "Will it never end?" in between dry sobs, and the audience feels the weight of a journey that has a few more twists to come.
Foreign-language films typically reach very small, very specialized audiences in the U.S., but there are exceptions. In recent years, both Pan's Labyrinth and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for instance, have broken out of the "art film" ghetto to forge a larger following. This hasn't happened with Black Book, but it should. Were it in English and with a couple of recognizable American actors, this might be an early Oscar favorite and box-office hit. Certainly, it's as impressive and entertaining a feat of old-fashioned moviemaking as we've seen this year.