When Stephen Spielberg resurrected the World War II war movie back in 1998 with “Saving Private Ryan,” he did so by upping the level of battlefield intensity and perceived realism. One thing he didn’t lose though, was the moral certainty that has long been a staple of the genre — it’s hard not feel righteous when your cinematic enemies are Nazis.
The mood has certainly shifted over the past decade, and the recent crop of World War II films has largely reflected this. Whether it’s Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” Stephen Soderbergh’s “The Good German” (forthcoming) or Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist,” these films have tried to move past the given dichotomies, and illuminate the moral complexities and dilemmas inherent in every conflict, questions that feel particularly pertinent these days.
Perhaps no film has gone further in that regard than Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” a Dutch film that looks at the Nazi occupation of Holland and its aftermath. On one level, the film is pure popcorn entertainment, “The Diary Of Anne Frank” re-imagined with a post-Spielbergian aesthetic, with “Anne” a sexy spy femme fatale, sleeping her way into Gestapo headquarters. On another level, it’s a troubling examination of who did what to survive, how postwar “justice” was rough and random, and how good can bleed into bad.
Verhoeven has long had a thing for strong, sexually dominating women — think Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct,” or Gena Gershon in “Showgirls” — and that’s how he imagines his Jewess in hiding from the Nazis. Rachel (played by newcomer Carice Van Houten, just 20 years old) is trying to wait out the war and Germany’s Final Solution of exterminating Europe’s Jews. Verhoeven pulls no punches for his countrymen: We see the Christian family that’s hiding Rachel force her to “earn” her dinner by memorizing New Testament passages.
As the Allies draw closer in 1944, Rachel — relying on a tip from the Dutch police — decides to flee further into the countryside. Reunited with her family, they board a boat along with other Jewish refugees . . . and run straight into a Nazi ambush. Everyone is killed but Rachel. But who set them up?
Rescued by the resistance, she’s offered a chance for revenge: She’s to pose as Ellis de Vries, a cabaret singer, and seduce her way into the German headquarters. She does this by working her wiles on Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), a German Army commander who seems to have retained some of his humanity, unlike his Gestapo counterpart Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), a man who gleefully enforces Nazi racial policy for his own profit.
After sleeping with Muntze, Ellis/Rachel lands an office job at the HQ, where she plants a bug so the resistance can monitor the Germans. Various subplots raise the suspense, as Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a bold resistance fighter, leads actions against collaborators and eventually the Gestapo prison itself. He’s got a thing for Ellis, but she finds herself increasingly attracted to Muntze, who learns her secret but decides to protect her anyway.
It’s a wild ride, full of well-executed double-crosses and breathtaking action sequences, but Verhoeven saves all his bitter irony for the final reel. There, resistance-fighter Rachel is savaged by a baying mob (who don’t know her true identity) for being a collaborator; Muntze, meanwhile, is betrayed by his higher-ups, who cover up their own culpability by nailing the one man with a conscience. And within the resistance, scores are settled brutally as it’s discovered all is not what it seems.
This is clearly a Verhoeven film — the man goes for shock value whenever the opportunity presents itself. If there’s a bullet dug out of an arm, or a syringe entering a vein, you can be sure it will be in sudden closeup. And Rachel, echoing “Basic Instinct’ “s iconic moment, gets her own moment with legs spread and no undies. (Admittedly, there’s a plot point for this.)
Nevertheless, the director is tweaking us time and time again to consider how easily we categorize into “good” and “bad.” The liberated Dutch here are seen taking vengeance with a sadistic glee that is truly disturbing. Among the “good guys,” the resistance, there is one really ruthless, self-serving quisling, and among the “bad guys,” the Nazis, there’s one family man just caught up in this mess called a war. Always question, always look closely, always be careful of whom you trust — that’s the director’s message. (And he underlines this point by — historically — having the Nazis call the Resistance “terrorists” and waterboarding their prisoners.)
Still, despite his cautious cynicism, Verhoeven has yet to meet a sex bomb he didn’t like. Rachel, despite her tightwire walk between the resistance and the enemy, is the one character who never loses her way, simply by trusting her heart. A Disney movie this is not, but Verhoeven remains a romantic despite himself.
See related story:
Home sweet Hollandafter Hollywood hell