Grijs Verleden (or Gray Past) is the title the Dutch historian Chris van der Heijden gave to his 2001 account of the morally murky landscape of Holland under the Nazi occupation, and it’s the phrase director Paul Verhoeven (RoboCop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) uses to explain why he returned to his home country after two decades in Hollywood to make a modestly budgeted ($20 million) drama about the Dutch resistance during the final years of the Second World War. “The Dutch are looked upon as having been extremely helpful to the Jews because of Anne Frank,” Verhoeven told me recently. “But if you look at things more precisely, then you realize Anne Frank was betrayed by the Dutch. As wonderful as her story is, the Dutch, statistically speaking, allowed a lot of Jewish people to be sent out of the country to extinction.”
Drawn from true events, Black Book follows an extraordinarily resourceful Jewish cabaret singer, Rachel Stein (played by the remarkable Carice van Houten), as she attempts to flee Holland, sees her entire family slaughtered before her, joins the resistance, and eventually finds herself assigned to seduce a high-ranking Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch), with whom she promptly falls in love. And things only get grayer from there. With its litany of traitorous double agents, peace-minded Nazis and ordinary Dutch civilians hoping to save their own skins by playing both sides against the middle, Black Book serves, like Clint Eastwood’s recent Letters From Iwo Jima, as a powerful corrective to absolutist notions of wartime heroism and villainy. Or, as Verhoeven puts it, “It was not that the resistance was wonderful and heroic and all the Germans were diabolical and devilish. This is a silly proposal. I felt that the movie should break that.”
If that makes Black Book sound like an atypical effort for a director best known for his inspired weddings of comic-book violence to tongue-in-cheek social satire, Verhoeven hasn’t exactly gone all stodgy and “respectable” on us. Like so many Verhoeven protagonists — from the two Amsterdam fantasy madams of his debut feature, Business Is Business, to Basic Instinct’s ice-pick-wielding authoress Catherine Tramell — Rachel Stein is a young woman who uses mind and body alike to make her way through an oppressive, male-dominated society. And with its locomotive pacing and Hitchcockian twists of fate, Black Book may well be the first movie about the Holocaust that can also be called a nonstop, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.
“I think this kind of plotting, this narrative that is so compelling and driving, doesn’t come from Europe,” says Verhoeven, who co-authored the Black Book script with Gerard Soeteman (the writer or co-writer of all of Verhoeven's Dutch films, including Soldier of Orange, The Fourth Man and Turkish Delight). “It comes from 20 years of working in the United States. If you look at my Dutch movies from before 1985, you wouldn’t see much of that — they’re much more Fellini-esque. Here, I was thinking about how I could reach a young audience with something that happened so long ago. So there’s a certain element of entertainment, which can be condemned if you see the movie completely from a Holocaust perspective. But while the movie is about the Holocaust, it’s also about the Dutch resistance, and about opportunistic behavior.”
Verhoeven’s comments are a reminder that few in cinema outside of the late Japanese master director Shohei Imamura have shown a greater attraction to the lower depths of the human psyche and our animalistic urges of lust, desire and revenge. “You know that our DNA chains are something like 98 percent similar to chimpanzees,” he says, “and chimpanzees are quite aggressive. But there’s also this other animal, the bonobo, that’s a nice animal, also an ape, and we have a little bit of that too.” That Darwinian sensibility achieves perhaps its most unsettling and resonant expression in Black Book’s gut-wrenching third act, as accused war criminals and suspected traitors are treated to humiliating reprisals lacking in due process or simple human decency. “It’s Abu Ghraib, isn’t it?” Verhoeven asks rhetorically. “Or the French in Algeria? Everyone’s so upset, as they should be, about Abu Ghraib, ?but we should not think that the Americans are the only ones that have done these things. Every nation, the Dutch included, has done them.”
Such scenes, says the director, are just one of the reasons he could never have made Black Book in Hollywood. “Not in the same way. To tell the American studios that I’m going to portray a Jewish girl who has an affair with a German officer and falls in love with him — I think that would have been a tough sell. It would also have to have been shot in English and, from a historical point of view, I wanted to be honest with the language. English was forbidden in Holland during the war, so the idea that the Dutch people would be speaking English at this time would be ridiculous. I really wanted for the Dutch to be Dutch. I chose all German actors to play the Germans. I chose Canadian actors to play the Canadians, and Englishmen for the English.”
By the time of his last American production, 2000’s deliciously kinky invisible-man story, Hollow Man, Verhoeven also realized he’d become typecast as “a science-fiction-action director, expensive and not very reliable.” Yet, to assemble a film of Black Book’s scale — small by Hollywood standards but enormous by European ones — without the backing of an American studio was no mean feat. The film went into production in 2005 with an elaborate co-production deal that involved financing from Dutch, Belgian, German and British sources, plus a variety of tax-credit deals and other incentives that Verhoeven describes as “a financial mosaic that at every moment seems about to fall apart.” But Black Book held together and, even before it opens in North America, has already been a massive hit in Holland and performed strongly in other international territories.
That doesn’t mean, though, that Verhoeven, who continues to reside in Los Angeles, has turned his back on America. “I never changed location,” he says with a smile. “I just took a sabbatical.” His next movie, The Winter Queen, which he hopes to shoot this summer, will be filmed in English, though the financing was again assembled independently. “It’s from a Russian novel [Azazel, by Boris Akunin] that my daughter discovered — a detective story that’s pretty edgy but also quite charming, so it’s really a step away from the more realistic darkness of this movie and toward another world.” Perhaps by then, Hollywood will have picked up on the fact that Paul Verhoeven is anything but a one-trick pony. “At least,” he reasons, “it’s good for them to know I can also work for $20 million and direct actors.”
Black Book opens Wednesday, April 4, in Los Angeles theaters.