Thu 5 Jul 2007
I’ve never been the biggest Paul Verhoeven fan. Actually, let me re-phrase that. I’ve despised Verhoeven’s work for a long time. He’s made two films that I think are not only worthless but loathsome: Hollow Man and Showgirls. I walked out of Robocop because of its dehumanizing violence. And even the simple pleasures of Starship Troopers were ruined for me by Verhoeven’s obvious satisfaction in discovering new ways to dismember his human characters. Now I can already hear the hip revisionist bloggers coming out of the woodwork to justify Showgirls and try to convince me that Robocop was ahead of its time. But I’m not going to be swayed on this one. I suspect I’m too much of a humanist, but I have fundamental issues with someone who takes such delight in sadism, rape, and the like.
Still, I was intrigued about his latest movie Black Book when it garnered raves at Toronto from almost every film critic I respected. I wasn’t excited for yet another WWII resistance story, but maybe Verhoeven was the right man to puncture what is often a self-congratulatory genre.
The film begins in 1956 in Israel where our heroine Rachel is living in a kibbutz. A tourist bus pulls up, and out steps a woman she hasn’t seen in years. They’re thrilled to see each other, but the brief encounter stirs up Rachel’s memories. The rest of the film functions as a flashback to the closing year of the war. At first, the glamorous Rachel is being hid by an overly devout Christian family in the Netherlands, but when a bomb accidentally drops on their house, she’s forced to flee. She survives a series of tragedies until she stumbles upon a small Dutch resistance force.
The rest of the tale tracks Rachel (now using the name of Ellis) as she works with the resistance. At first, she pretends to be the fiancee of a resistance fighter, so he can easily move through Holland. Later, her feminine charms and beautiful voice become even more critical as she infiltrates the Gestapo. There she’s confronted with the Nazi who murdered her family (the pudgy Waldemar Kobus) as well as a more genial SS officer whom she tries to seduce (the bland Sebastian Koch).
The script by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman is as tight as a drum. Not a scene is wasted, and Black Book covers several months of intrigue with verve. I wish more filmmakers could be as sharp with their storyline as Verhoeven is. He never lets things slow down long enough for sentiment to creep in, and the conflict keeps veering from apparent success to potential tragedy so that I never quite gained my balance. That’s a far cry from most films where I could paint the whole thing by numbers.
More importantly, while Rachel is clearly our protagonist, she’s not the virtuous good girl struggling against the evil Nazis. I can’t remember a WWII heroine that was this unabashedly sexy as well as morally compromised. Rachel is played by the gorgeous Carice van Houten, and she lights up the screen. She also has the acting chops to go along with her pretty face, carrying off a variety of emotions and scenes. Verhoeven doesn’t always know what to do with his female characters (besides send them through the wringer), but she has a strength about her that transcends her glamour.
I kept thinking of two different movies as I watched Black Book: Roman Polanski’s The Pianist and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows. Verhoeven steers clear of the mistake Polanski makes in sending victimized, morally virtuous characters through the Holocaust shredder for two and a half hours and expecting us to feel some sort of moral catharsis. But he’s still too much of a showman to give us resistance fighters like Melville’s, who soldier on without delusions about the brutality of their actions–or any dreams of heroism.
Still, for all the script’s strengths, it loses its footing toward the end. A chase sequence is a bit too convenient. Characters bump into each other a little too easily. Realizations fortuitously pop into people’s heads. I’ve also never understood why so many screenwriters and directors choose to begin a movie by letting you know how it ends. That can be effective in certain situations, where you watch a character develop over time. But Rachel doesn’t grow as a character, so we’re not contrasting who she was in 1944 and who she was in 1956. Rather, this is a thriller, and knowing ahead of time that our heroine will survive the various events she encounters takes a lot of the thrill out of those situations. That’s particularly true for Black Book, as I wouldn’t have put it past Verhoeven to kill off Rachel somewhere along the way. But since I know she lives until at least 1956, I watched each difficult situation knowing roughly how it would end.
That’s a relatively small quibble, though. Verhoeven largely keeps his sadism in check, and he constructs a story that’s both compelling and thoughtful, not just exploitive. He also avoids most of the WWII cliches. That probably cost him votes with the Academy, who love their war stories but want their heroes squeaky clean, but it left this reviewer pleasantly surprised. I’m not about to go re-visit Robocop, but I won’t cringe the next time I hear Verhoeven’s making a film.
Black Book: four, out of five
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