Black Book (Paul Verhoeven 2006) – Review

Zwartboek (Black Book) (1996)

Paul Verhoeven’s latest is an interesting, if flawed story of the subject that is apparently closest to the director’s heart – the Nazi occupation of Holland. Verhoeven was a child during the occupation, but to a greater or lesser degree it has shaped every film he has ever made. There are even apocryphal stories of him directing films in full SS uniform. Certainly even his Hollywood output, particularly Robocop and Starship Troopers, shows a fascination with fascism and its superficial trappings that borders on fetishism.

So now that he has returned to approaching his subject directly, as in his early Dutch films, how does he fare? Interestingly, this is a film that sees a collision of his two styles, the earnest European filmmmaker and the Hollywood trash-monger. The first half hour or so is an impressive, almost worthy tale of the hardships of out plucky heroine Carine Van Houten as a Jew in hiding, attempting to escape the Nazis. She is reunited with her estranged family just in time for them to be brutally massacred in an SS trap that is just the first in an increasingly improbable series of double -crosses involving the Gestapo and the Dutch Resistance.

Surviving this, Carine becomes more deeply involved with the Resistance, disguising herself by bleaching her hair. It’s the point when you see her applying the same treatment to her pubes that you find yourself in more comfortably familiar Verhoeven territory, and by the time she goes to a party with top SS honcho Muntze and his cohorts Paul lets it all hang out. Literally, in the unwelcome case of paunchy SS goon Franken, who wanders blithely naked into the ladies’ room to cop a feel  of his redhead girlfriend and an eyeful of Carine, who obligingly flashes her tits at him. Yes, the Third Reich has met Showgirls!

To be fair, Carine’s illicit affair with Muntze ( who has discovered she is Jewish) is well realized, a typical Verhoeven plot of the innocent seduced into darkness. And the twisty, turny plot has more than its share of wartime action, impeccably photographed by Verhoeven with the experience of a director of Hollywood action films. The problem is, it’s all rather too polished, too gripping even. By making it a Dutch Resistance thriller -cum – action movie, Verhoeven distances himself from the realistic portrayal of the Nazi occupation he so obviously also wants to portray. Occasionally, hard-hitting details like the exhumation of a mass grave of SS victims are somewhat undercut by John Woo-style action face-offs between the resistance and disposable SS troopers. It’s a movie that doesn’t know quite what it wants to be; wartime action epic, or intimate portrayal of the effect of Nazi occupation on individuals (With gratuitous bits of muff thrown in)?

It does hold the attention very well, the two and a half hours fairly flying by, though by the end you’ll probably feel there’s been a betrayal (or eight) too many. It makes Where Eagles Dare look straightforward in its corkscrew portrayal of where its characters’ loyalties lie, and at times you’ll be asking yourself if anyone in the Dutch Resistance WASN’T secretly working for the Nazis.

Still, the compelling characters, well-observed details and impeccable sense of a tyrannical occupation in its death throes do make for a gripping movie, whose real failing is its frequent straining for a depth it doesn’t have. If you’re looking for a Dutch Schindler’s List, look elsewhere; however if you think Shining Through actually had the potential to be a good movie this could be the film for you.