Published on July 10th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
The Black Book
To paraphrase Forrest Gump, Paul Verhoeven is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna ge-eet. While positioning your arsecheeks comfortably on your cinema seat, you could be forgiven for glaring balefully at the opening credits and wondering if you’re to be treated to a ripsnorter like Starship Troopers, a guilty pleasure like Basic Instinct, or a festering turd like Showgirls. Fortunately for everyone involved, Verhoeven’s latest film, The Black Book, has no discernible turdlike qualities.
To be truthful, it’s not quite a ripsnorter, or a guilty pleasure either – but then that merely proves the point that chocolatiers are creative so-and-sos (and that every metaphor has a breaking point).
According to the balefully-stared-at opening credits, The Black Book is “inspired by a true story”, which is cinema code for a kernel of truth in a sea of made-up shit. Be that as it may, it’s a film about Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jew fleeing Nazi internment (and worse) during the closing stages of WWII. After narrowly escaping an errant Allied bomb and not-so-errant Nazi machine-guns, Rachel falls into cahoots with the Dutch Resistance. During all the espionage, counter-espionage, and counter-counter-espionage (you get the picture) that Verhoeven uses to flesh out his plot, Rachel must seduce the debonair, stamp-collecting Gestapo officer, Müntze (Sebastian Koch). She does, of course, fall in love with this torture-sanctioning, execution-approving, Holocaust-abetting – but really quite dishy – slab of hot German masculinity. Complications, not to mention conflicted loyalties, ensue.
The Black Book is handsomely staged and almost insanely full of incident. To pack it all in, Verhoeven omits details other films would lavish with attention, and whizzes the plot along at Raiders of the Lost Ark pace. Inevitably, this pace costs the film depth. In one scene, for example, Rachel watches a family get blown to smithereens; in the next, she’s singing, cooking, and flirting with the man who rescued her. This has the unintended effect of making her seem unattractively blithe. Even so, the actors do a fair job with what they’re given. Sebastian Koch pulls off the unlikely task of making a Gestapo officer appealing, while Carice van Houten is a winsome actress, albiet one who can’t manage the Olympian task of being as impressive as her frequently bared breasts.
Although best viewed as a superior entertainment, The Black Book isn’t all breasts and no brain. As he does in all his films, Verhoeven debunks notions that corruption and evil are the property of only one side. To that end, he delights in showing that the distinction between the heroes and the villains isn’t as simple as distinguishing between the Nazis and the Resistance.