Black Book (2006)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Gerard Soeteman and Paul Verhoeven
Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman
For all his regard for Hitchcock, Paul Verhoeven differs from the master in one very significant aspect—degree. Whereas Hitchcock’s films are controlled evocations of suppressed sexuality underneath rigid social prescriptions, Verhoeven’s films are all about excess—from the blatantly sexual imagery to the graphic violence and extreme disregard for social propriety. Whereas Hitchcock dispenses his gallows humor in discretionary portions, Verhoeven’s is brazenly full frontal. If Hitchcock is a cup of tea spiked with a shot of single malt Scotch, Verhoeven takes that teacup, fills it full of hooch and downs it in one gulp. And then he fills it up again, and keeps at it right until the last shot.
“Basic Instinct” was Verhoeven’s debauched homage to Hitchcock’s “Vertigo,” with a nod to “Marnie.” And now there’s “Black Book,” only this time underneath the blonde dye job are the dark roots of a Jewish girl in hiding during the last days of the Nazi occupation in Holland. And this time, it is another Hitchcock movie that comes to mind—“Notorious.” Just as Cary Grant enlists Ingrid Bergman to help infiltrate a Nazi spy ring, the Dutch resistance enlists our heroine, Rachel Stein (Dutch actress Carice van Houten) to pass as a Gentile and infiltrate Gestapo headquarters in The Hague. And just as Bergman weds (and supposedly beds) a Nazi for the Allied cause, Rachel Stein, undercover as Ellis de Vries, deftly finds her way into the pants of Gestapo head honcho Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch, the playwright in “The Lives of Others.”). Unlike Bergman, however, Rachel falls in love with her Nazi lover, who turns out to be just another misunderstood stamp lover with an enormous…er…collection, who only points a gun at her when he’s “really” provoked.
Of course, the seduction scene in “Black Book” involves a lot more flesh than Hitchcock ever revealed. Verhoeven may have gone back to his native Holland to make a historical drama about the Nazi occupation, but he didn’t leave his libido in San Francisco. The bare breasts are still very much in evidence; there’s even a crotch shot of our lovely heroine, a perfectionist who knows what a thorough dye job should look like.
Just as in his two previous heroine-driven vehicles, Verhoeven’s penchant for having his stars disrobe does not feel erotic. There is really no arousal here, just power games with flesh as a weapon. Although Verhoeven’s films are hardly pornographic, Verhoeven has a pornographer’s moral compass. In human relationships, it is the materialistic, the physical—the corporeal—that is the guiding principle. When Rachel/Ellis declares an emotional attachment to her Nazi lover, the romance seems to come out of nothing more than gratitude that he has decided to keep her in his bed rather than blow her cover. It is love as a form of exchange. And so, too, when Muntze clandestinely negotiates a truce with the resistance, the agreement is based on logistics rather than moral considerations (the Germans have lost the war; why add more dead bodies to the pile?)
In fact, “Black Book” manages to reduce the ugly immoral stain of the Holocaust to good old-fashioned money-driven villainy rather than the 20th century’s bleakest hour. The Jews here are not sent to death camps; they are captured and murdered for their money and jewels. The disregard for humanity is the same, but it is more a matter of material gain than the more chilling concept of the extermination of an entire race as a moral imperative. Verhoeven’s Nazis are more like corrupt Roman generals during the Empire’s last days than servants of a cruel ideologue.
But Verhoeven’s films are not meant to offer profound moral insights. And “Black Book” does not aspire to historical accuracy. Instead, “Black Book” is pure entertainment, of the hollow variety. Verhoeven gives you your money’s worth of titillation, gorgeous women, graphic violence, plot thickenings, and nail-biting last-minute narrow escapes, all of it set to a luscious, often thunderous, score that will certainly leave no doubt in your mind that you’re being taken for a ride.
And at the center of this thrill ride is our wily heroine, who seems born under a lucky star even as she is put through the wringer. As the woman who fronts it all—who shows her crotch as well as other finely wrought body parts, who sings German cabaret songs while pretending to make eyes with the German soldier who killed her parents, who pretends to be a corpse in a coffin to get past barricades, and who even gets a bucket of human feces dumped on her—Carice van Houten is nothing short of amazing. She’s in virtually every scene, and her vitality, stamina and beauty keep the whole bawdy display from sinking into vulgarity. This spunky young actress deserves a Sharon Stone-sized career boost for not only enduring the indignities of Verhoeven’s excess, but giving it all a little class.