Paul Verhoeven knows how to keep you pinned to the edge of your seat, but he’s awfully careless with history. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t matter: One hardly looks to the director of RoboCop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls for piercing social commentary. But in his latest film, Black Book, Verhoeven means to rewrite his patriotic 1977 movie, Soldier of Orange, and set the record straight about the supposed heroism of the Dutch resistance, while showing us that, hey, Nazis were people too. In the process, a viscerally effective thriller ends up a repugnant exercise in moral relativism, delivered with the grandstanding swagger of the self-styled provocateur.
Drawing on evidence (much of it culled from a 2001 book by Chris Van der Heyden) of lousy behavior among the resistance and acts of generosity by Nazi bigwigs, this luridly gripping tale of compromised heroism and ubiquitous betrayal in Nazi-occupied Holland gives us a badass resistance leader, a high-ranking Gestapo apparatchik striking bargains with the enemy, and a raft of unsavory Dutch middlemen. Verhoeven’s characters occupy a slippery area between composite and fiction, including the movie’s heroine, Rachel Stein, a celebrated Jewish singer played with flirty brio by Carice Van Houten, a smashing redhead, at least for present purposes. After witnessing the brutal slaughter of her Jewish family as they try to escape by boat to freedom, Rachel joins the Dutch resistance in order to avenge herself on those who betrayed her parents. Her success depends in part on recovering, with the aid of a dashing underground leader (Thom Hoffman), a small black notebook belonging to the ambiguously compassionate lawyer (Dolf de Vries) who arranged her family’s rescue.
Spiced with Cabaret-style showiness, Black Book is loads of trashy fun as Verhoeven puts his spirited, if hopelessly naive, heroine through hurdles of escalating flagrant dramatic vulgarity. For all I know, there is documented evidence for every one of Rachel’s Houdini stunts, which include passing herself off as a typhus casualty in a coffin and singing an enforced duet with the piggish German officer (Waldemar Kobus) who played a key role in her parents’ deaths. As we saw in Roman Polanski’s far more sober The Pianist, the history of World War II is studded with outlandish but true stories of great escapes. The mendacity of Black Book lies not in its departure from the historical record, but in the way Verhoeven and his longtime screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, rearrange and manipulate the facts to suggest that when it came to anti-Semitism and all-round treachery, there wasn’t much to choose between the Nazis and the resistance. There really was a black book, which belonged to a lawyer, shot on the streets of the Hague just after the war, who had negotiated between the resistance and German army command in order to slow the number of street assassinations on both sides (and perhaps to try to save his own neck). In Black Book, no less than the head of Gestapo in Holland (played by Sebastian Koch, last seen as a playwright stalked by the Stasi in The Lives of Others) also gets to play mediator. Here, the movie takes an absurd detour into Brief Encounter territory, in which Rachel falls so deeply in love with this sensitive fascist that when the Thousand Year Reich finally collapses, she claps a hand to her damask cheek and cries, “I never thought I’d dread liberation day.”
Verhoeven is hardly the first to observe that, for better and worse, people continue to behave like people in wartime. Jean Renoir’s World War I classic Grand Illusion featured a gentlemanly German officer played by Erich von Stroheim. And as soon after World War II as 1969, Jean-Pierre Melville’s valentine to the French resistance, Army of Shadows, was candid about the cold-blooded internal discipline of the resistance movement. Still, it’s true that the cinema of the Second World War, even on the more sophisticated terrain of Holocaust documentaries, remains mired in juvenile heroics that convert victims into saints and oppressors into goose-stepping cartoons. It is neither sacrilege nor Holocaust denial to show Jews, resistance fighters or others on the right side of a “good war” as flawed or even unlikable beings, or, for that matter, to show a Nazi with a conscience. But Black Book takes a sledgehammer to its most significant moral distinctions. Indeed, for sheer Ken Russell–ish hyperbole, Verhoeven’s rendering of the vicious retribution visited by the Dutch on anyone remotely suspected of collaborating far outstrips any scene of Nazi torture. What’s more, his jubilant rip-off of a climactic scene from the Dutch thriller The Vanishing to ratify an act of revenge near the end of the movie reeks of exploitation.
If Verhoeven is merely telling us that everyone is tainted by the exigencies of war, or that human nature is frail, period, he is guilty of nothing worse than banality. At the end of Black Book, though, he slips in a scene of Israeli soldiers armoring up, which suggests either the equally banal thought that war never ends or, idiotically, that the Israelis are just as bad as the Nazis. Though the script for this slipshod movie has been 20 years in the making, it surfaces just in time to dovetail with a small but significant sign of a shift in German attitudes to the war, from silence to apology to a desperate search for points of light. The 2005 drama Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, which pays tribute to the White Rose student resistance movement, is an honorable, if slightly dull, contribution to this quest. Black Book sullies the search, and contributes only to those twin hazards of modern consciousness — the inability to distinguish between kinds and degrees of evil, and a mindless urge to shock.
BLACK BOOK | Directed by PAUL VERHOEVEN | Written by GERARD SOETEMAN and VERHOEVEN | Produced by SAN FU MALTHA | Released by Sony Pictures Classics | At selected theatersClick here to read Evidence Grise, Scott Foundas' interview with Paul Verhoeven.
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