Paul Verhoeven is a filmmaker who takes no prisoners. He wants nothing more than to fracture reality through his particularly pulpy cinematic lens and to project this grotesque image in front of as many spectators as possible. He makes no excuses for his excesses and this is one of the reasons why he has been marginalized by much of the mainstream media. They have comfortably divided his career into two convenient phases: on the one hand, he is the Dutch art filmmaker who received worldwide acclaim for his “complex” films such as “Turkish Delight”, “Soldier of Orange” and “The Fourth Man”. On the other, he is the tabloid Hollywood sensationalist who glorified sleazy sex and extreme violence in such films as “RoboCop”, “Total Recall”, “Basic Instinct” and his American albatross, “Showgirls”. The division is merely convenient and nothing more than an illusion. All of the films mentioned, Dutch and American, are the work of a singular, brilliant filmmaker whose work has not changed at all from Holland to Hollywood and back.
Following the release of 2000’s “Hollow Man”, Verhoeven seemed to find himself at a creative crossroads. He had by this time a very successful career in Hollywood making witty and subversive genre films like “Starship Troopers”, but seemed to be weary of working on films he felt were getting more and more reliant on special effects and of a constant criticism that his work was, in his words, “decadent, perverted and sleazy”. It was the same widespread criticism that caused him to leave Holland in the first place. Over the years, while he remained stereotyped in America, his Dutch reputation grew in stature. His tremendously popular 1973 love story “Turkish Delight”, which starred Rutger Hauer, had been named in 1999 by The Netherlands Film Festival as the “Dutch Film of the Century”.
It was at this time that Verhoeven dug up a long cherished project, “Zwartboek”, a screenplay he had been developing for more than 15 years with the talented writer of his Dutch hits, Gerard Soutemann. The time seemed right for a return to his home country and the resulting film, Verhoeven’s first Dutch production in more than 20 years, brings his career full circle, and creates a critical loop between all of his films. “The Black Book” is Verhoeven’s take on the WW2 spy adventure genre and, in a way, a follow-up to his 1977 WW2 thriller “Soldier of Orange”. As usual, the director does not avoid the cliché of the genre so much as he absorbs and subverts them.
The story is presented in the form of a flashback, as we first meet Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) living and teaching at a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee in 1956. A chance encounter with an old friend sparks memories of how she survived the Nazi occupation of Holland, when she was a vital member of the Dutch resistance. The daughter of a rich and well-connected family, Rachel is a beautiful, independent and intelligent Jewish woman, who in 1944 is seen living in hiding with a strict Christian family on a Dutch farm. Dogmatic Christians are always a target for Verhoeven’s well known anti-clericalism, and so it’s not exactly a surprise when a few minutes after we meet the annoying bunch, their home is bombed from the air and Rachel survives to run from the Nazis who are combing the countryside.
She’s saved by supposed members of the Dutch resistance, and reunited briefly with her beloved family. Briefly, because they are all quickly betrayed and gunned down. Once again, Rachel barely survives and this time, falls into the hands of the real resistance, who bring her to safety. With her family gone and her world lost, Rachel commits herself to helping the resistance fight against the Nazi occupiers. Gerben Kuipers (Derek De Lint), the resistance’s leader, wants to know how far she is willing to go. Will she give her body as well as her spirit to the cause? When her charm and beauty captures the eye of the Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch), she agrees to go as far as Muntze desires in order to help the cause.
And since this is a Verhoeven film, Muntze very much wants to go to bed with the newly blonde Rachel, who has prepared herself for this by dying her pubic hair to match. She creates a world of trouble for herself by falling for Muntze, who in turn risks his career and life to protect her when he learns her secret. This creates a conflict within the resistance, as only Dr. Hans Akkerman (Thom Hoffman) seems to believe that Rachel is still loyal to their cause. But no one can really be trusted in the world of “The Black Book”, since everyone has something to lose and protect. When Allied soldiers arrive to liberate Holland, Rachel and Muntze find themselves being hunted down as traitors by everyone, and the truth lies within a secret “Black Book” which has controlled their fates from the beginning.
Once again, we are on familiar ground. The thematic elements are always the same: The power and currency of sex, the randomness of cruelty and death, and the illusory nature of reality. The film’s structure is built on twist upon twist, which creates a shape shifting reality onscreen that can never be trusted. Verhoeven’s hyperrealism has always been a back door to a personal kind of surrealism in which nothing is really what it seems. Rachel finds that her understanding of reality is tenuous at best, and that it can be blown up at a moments notice.
It’s very much the nightmare reality Verhoeven has presented as far back as “The Fourth Man”, and repeated in many of his Hollywood films, particularly the Philip K. Dick world of “Total Recall”. What has been added is a stronger sense of classical storytelling structure enforced by Hollywood, and a greater command of visual storytelling and technical precision. But none of the grit and infectious enthusiasm has been lost. This is no stiff and ponderous drama, but is instead a slick, thrilling, trashy, and melodramatic and serialesque soap opera adventure which conceals the complex tale of moral ambiguity beneath. The script has more twists and turns than an entire season of “Heroes” or “Lost”, and a heroine as tough as any seen in film history.
It’s just this kind of hype and broad storytelling that gets Verhoeven in trouble, especially in a story based upon “true events”. Everyone expects the director to become more tasteful in his maturity, but the ensuing years have done nothing to blunt Verhoeven’s knack for intense, visceral metaphor. The director who had Rutger Hauer express his disgust at his lover by throwing up all over her at a party has taken this to a much more epic level in “The Black Book”. In what looks to be a grand metaphor for the holocaust as well as an homage of sorts to Brian DePalma’s “Carrie”, Rachel is stripped naked and made to stand still while gallons of human feces and urine are dumped all over her. It’s disgusting, depressing, perverse and unforgettable. This is reality as Verhoeven sees it, in widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Sound, where pistols sound like canons and canons sound like nuclear missiles. He has been quoted many times as saying that growing up during the war was like watching “special effects”. With “The Black Book”, he’s been able to use special effects in order to present his memory of that surreality.
The cast is exceptional, from veterans of previous Verhoeven films like Thom Hoffman and Derek De Lint, to the charismatic German star of “The Lives of Others”, Sebastian Koch. They all give powerful, emotional performances, but the key to the film and the best surprise is Carice Van Houten. Her performance as Rachel is the emotional center of the entire film, and Van Houten doesn’t disappoint. She is charismatic, sexy, witty and projects great gravitas and intelligence. She does not fall into the trap of pushing the emotions to create false effects, but rather allows the emotion to remain bottled up or just on the edge of spilling forth. It creates a stoical power onscreen that makes her a believable and admirable heroine.
The loop between Verhoeven’s Dutch and Hollywood careers is closed by “The Black Book” in one very important way. While all of his films have had the same thematic thread, there is a divide in narrative construction. His Dutch films followed the path of many European films, in that the narrative is not powered by a strong spineline of cause and effect, but rather through a series of large, impressionistic scenes that reveal the story. In Hollywood, though often clumsily built, the classical narrative is king. It’s a narrative built firmly on cause and effect, with each scene bringing the protagonist closer to achieving his or her goal. When it works, it immerses the audience deep within whatever fantasy is being presented.
Verhoeven has clearly learned to respect this kind of narrative, since he returned to Holland with a script that married the two worlds: a tale powered by European dramatic irony and driven by a classical hero’s journey narrative. “The Black Book” is a thrilling adventure story as well as a powerful drama. Nowhere is this complexity more evident than in the film’s final act, when the war ends in the Hague and peace is “celebrated” all over the city. It is at this point that Rachel’s life is at its lowest point. The drunken, disheveled and vengeful locals behave no better than the Nazis, and the violence continues. Rachel wants it to end, but is barely able to end the hate within herself.
At the very end, Verhoeven has one last, ironic trick up his sleeve, as he shows Rachel back at the Kibbutz in 1956, seemingly far away from the horrors of her past, her reverie interrupted by the sounds of gunfire. Her reality remains a nightmare of war, and her dreams an adventure of desperate survival.
Paul Verhoeven (director) / Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven (screenplay)
CAST: Carice van Houten … Rachel Stein aka Ellis de Vries
Sebastian Koch … Ludwig Muntze
Thom Hoffman … Hans Akkermans
Halina Reijn … Ronnie
Waldemar Kobus … Gunther Franken
Derek de Lint … Gerben Kuipers
Christian Berkel … General KÃ¤utner
Dolf de Vries … Notary Smaal
Peter Blok … Van Gein