dir: Paul Verhoeven
[img_assist|nid=794|title=Black Books, without the alcoholics|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
Sure, Paul Verhoeven has directed a few decent flicks in his long career, but Starship Troopers, Total Recall and Robocop were a long time ago. And they were sci-fi films.
When you think of what directors you’d hire to direct a flick about the exploits of a Dutch Jewish woman fighting with the Resistance against the Nazis just before the end of World War II, you don’t think of Verhoeven.
This is, after all, the guy who gave us the gift of Sharon Stone’s vagina in Basic Instinct, the invisible rapist fantasy of Hollow Man, and the crime against acting and humanity that is Showgirls. Showgirls is, in terms of how it treats its female characters, and the English language, the stripper version of Battlefield: Earth. That great British director Michael Powell’s career virtually ended after he made the reviled but masterful Peeping Tom in the early 60s, and yet Verhoeven continued to be allowed to make films after Showgirls, is proof positive that there is no higher power or justice in the universe. Because no metaphysical system could allow for such evil to go unpunished.
But, in truth, we live in a universe where Karma is only in reality the name of a porn star, and I’m not sure if what she gives or gets comes around or goes around, but I’m pretty sure she isn’t a system based on the cosmic apportionment of justice.
The philosophical concept of karma (and, as far as I know, the porn star) hasn’t reared its toothy head to bite Verhoeven in the arse, because he’s made a damn fine flick here. And in Dutch and German no less. He has no right to, but I’ll let it slide for now.
Even thought it says Based on a True Story as it begins, Black Book is not based on a true story, not in the goddamn slightest. Sure, there was a World War II, and sure, there were these cool, leather-wearing badasses called the Nazis, but other than that the story as told is a complete and absolute fabrication. Rachel Stein, who becomes Ellis De Vries, so ably played by Carice Van Houten, never actually existed.
But she is created so vividly, and is such a compelling and captivating character that it hardly matters. I don’t need my historical ‘get those Nazi bastards’ flicks to have any connection to actual events as long as the story is interesting and well told. Which Black Book certainly is, though it does rely a hell of a lot on multiple coincidences to keep the plot rolling along. So many coincidences in fact that anyone who thought the flick coincided at all with reality would have soon started doubting their eyes and ears.
Rachel Stein is a Jewish Dutch woman hiding out with a nice family in the countryside once the Netherlands is occupied by the Germans in the 1940s. Her family is hiding elsewhere with other families, but they are brought together by coincidence and treachery when someone offers to smuggle a number of Jewish people out of the occupied territories.
Rachel is the only survivor of a massacre, and through resourcefulness and a desire to see the specific bastards responsible for her family’s slaughter fucked up, she ends up working with the Dutch Resistance.
Okay, so whenever the Resistance pops up in a WWII-era film, I can’t stop myself from thinking about that most cynical of memes regarding how when the Nazis were in power, most (non-Jewish) people throughout Europe seemed content to collaborate to their hearts’ content in order to survive or even profit, but once the war was over, everyone actually was a fiercely loyal member of the Resistance. But the manner in which these Resistance fighters here are depicted goes a bit further than just making them angels with dirty faces and bomb-making skills (to be used for ‘good’, not ‘evil’).
Rachel, now known as Ellis, and blonde to boot, is tasked with the seduction of an officer called Muntze (Sebastian Koch, last seen, at least by me, as the playwright character in The Lives of Others). Rachel isn’t only attractive, and charming, and quick-thinking, but she also, in her former life as a cabaret singer in Berlin, mastered the difficult art of being found fuckable by powerful German men. I don’t know how she does it: it must be some kind of secret women’s business. Her familiarity with German, and Germans, and her dedication to her task (which not only goes down as far as dying her pubic hair, but also goes down to going down) means that she ends up working her way in to the hierarchy of the local Nazi leadership.
Muntze isn’t a complete bastard, which is where the confusion begins, and the more uptight members of the audience may start feeling their underwear bunching up. See, not all the Nazis, at least in this flick, are sadistic evil pigs, and not all the Resistance fighters are heroic heroes of heroicness. In fact, someone is betraying the Resistance from within, the Jews in hiding, and possibly pushing their own grandmother down the stars in collaboration with the most odious of the Nazis, Franken (Waldemar Kobus).
Not only is Franken fat and balding, which surely means he’s a villain, but, much to Rachel’s gut-wrenching revulsion, he is also the Nazi who took great pleasure and profit from exterminating Rachel’s family in the opening minutes.
What a tidy little neat package it could all be wrapped up in if Rachel could just get all the revenge that she wants, free the Resistance fighters and Jews, and then live happily ever after as either a hero of the Resistance or the wife of a German officer with a conscience.
Yeah, right. When the war ends, Rachel finds herself in even more trouble than when it was only the Nazis after her for being Jewish, being a resistance fighter, or for wearing those shoes with that top.
Who’d have thought there were people in Holland worse than the Nazis, just waiting in the wings?
At many stages during this very strong and enjoyable production, which looks great, is well paced and well acted, I couldn’t help but remember other flicks with similar stories that look like ugly piles of crapulence in comparison. I recalled that excruciating Cate Blanchett vehicle from a few years ago called Charlotte Grey, which was about as dumb, dull and unconvincing as one of these flicks can get. Then I recalled another flick set at the tail-end of the war where Cate Blanchett again stars called The Good German, which made all previous uses of the word excruciating in relation to films redundant, null and void. In fact, Cate, darling, stay the fuck away from World War II flicks, I’m begging you.
All those flicks and many more are not as good as Black Book is, but, by the same token, Black Book is not exactly going to revolutionise cinema or turn Carice Van Houten into a household name, despite the fact that she’s attractive, has a nice smile, has a lovely singing voice, is not shy about exposing her breasts continuously as if they’re afraid of the dark, and is a pretty convincing actor.
But it does confuse people like me who completely wrote off Verhoeven, or the idea of ever enjoying a flick of his again.
It’s a strong flick, and a thoroughly enjoyable one. With the exception of one hideously disgusting scene of humiliation visited upon Rachel towards the flick’s end, which, since this story wasn’t actually based on a true story and never happened, you wouldn’t want to change a thing.
This World War II caper has proved such a wonderful source of quality cinema across the dramatic and genre spectrum. How lucky we are that wars occur and provide us with so many countless hours of cinematic enjoyment. We live in a blessed age.
7 times that humiliation scene is the pure vintage Verhoeven misogyny coming back up to the surface that we know and love out of 10
“I’d like to see your stamp collection” – Black Book.