by Fiona Underhill
Paul Verhoeven is best known for his schlocky and shockingly violent sci-films (Robocop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers) and his sex-and-nudity-filled 90s thrillers (Basic Instinct and Showgirls). Two central themes of his career have been fascism (depicted via graphic violence) and fetishism (depicted via graphic sex) and these two themes continue into his World War Two drama Black Book. Zwartboek (to give it its Dutch title) was a return to Verhoeven’s homeland. He had made many Dutch-language films in the 1970s, regularly collaborating with Rutger Hauer and his 1973 film Turkish Delight (aka The Sensualist) was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. But Black Book was a return to Dutch-language films after a 23 year gap and to themes closer to home.
Born in 1938, Verhoeven’s early childhood was obviously dominated by the war. He lived very close to a German military base in Holland which was repeatedly bombed and although the war was an exciting adventure for a small child, there was also the ever-present threat of fire, violence and death. Seeing dead bodies at an early age, no doubt, informed Verhoeven’s career, with his irreverent and satirical approach to violence. Whilst Black Book seems like a departure from his 80s/90s Hollywood career, it still bears some classic Verhoeven hallmarks. However, it is a densely-plotted and well-written thriller featuring some fantastic performances.
The whole film hangs on the central performance of Carice van Houten as the protagonist Rachel (known for most of the film by her alias Ellis). She speaks four languages here; Dutch, German, English, and Hebrew and carries the film, appearing in pretty much every scene of a two-and-a-half hour runtime. It’s an astonishing performance by a young actress – the duplicitous nature of the character means there are many layers, as the character is playing a role as well. Other notable actors are an excellent Sebastian Koch (who starred in The Lives of Others in the same year as Black Book!) and there are smaller, early roles for two actors who went on to appear in American film and TV – Michiel Huisman and Matthias Schoenaerts.
There is no way I can describe the incredibly dense, intricate plot in less than about ten thousand words. It is very much of its genre in that there are twists and turns around every corner and the rug is constantly being pulled out from under you. Rachel is a Jew in hiding during the war and she puts her trust in someone to help her cross the border into Belgium. She is briefly reunited with her parents and brother before they are gunned down in front of her. She then seeks refuge with a resistance group led by Gerben and his son Tim, using a soup kitchen as a front. She starts to work for them and after meeting Gestapo officer Muntze (Koch) on a train, she agrees to sleep with him to help further their cause. Houten is skilled at portraying the guilty enjoyment she gets from drinking champagne and eating chocolate with the Nazis at their lavish parties, whilst simultaneously conveying the tension of trying to gain their secrets. There is also the moment where she must confront the one who killed her family before her eyes. However, the film plays with the audience’s expectations of who is good and evil. Many of the ‘good’ Dutch who are ostensibly helping the Jews turn out to actually be betraying them and the Nazi officer actually has a soft heart.
The heroism of the ordinary Dutch people, in trying to hide and save the Jews, is one of the central themes for the first half of the film. One of the members of the resistance, Theo, is particularly sensitive to violence and murder; he says “we just killed five people, how can we live with that?” The harder Hans has a “it’s them or us” attitude. Even at the start, however, it is shown that the support of the gentiles comes with caveats – the family that Rachel hides with at the beginning make her recite Bible verses in exchange for food. Later, when it appears that she has betrayed the resistance, many of the members say “we should have known, you can’t trust them [Jews].” Verhoeven exposes the hypocrisy and anti-semitism at the heart of even the supposedly heroic characters.
The Gestapo officer Muntze is controversially portrayed as a ‘Good German.’ Like Rachel, he has had his family killed too, implying ‘they’re not that different to us.’ He is also working with Jewish lawyer Smaal to negotiate a kind of cease-fire with the resistance, to minimise death on both sides. Muntze also discovers that Franken (another high-ranking Nazi, who killed Rachel’s family) has been stealing from the bodies of rich Jews and keeping the spoils for himself. He tries to expose him, but it backfires badly. Again, in a controversial move by Verhoeven, Rachel falls in love with Muntze and, when (spoilers) he is eventually gunned down by a firing squad, she is much more affected by his death than she was by her family being murdered. Houten's performance when she learns he is dead is devastating and sharply contrasts the stoicism she displays when recounting her family's assassination. I think this is quite brave and dovetails nicely with Verhoeven’s satire of fascism in Starship Troopers - where the heroes are not all they cracked up to be.
Despite this being a departure from Verhoeven’s Hollywood films, Black Book still contains many trademarks of his style. There is a campy, stylised scene where Rachel is transported in a coffin and this is brought back humorously at the end when she gets revenge on the resistance fighter who has been betraying the Jews all along. There is a lot of sex and nudity; including a scene where Rachel dyes her pubic hair blonde and there is male full-frontal as well (something Verhoeven couldn’t get away with in Hollywood). When the lawyer Smaal and his wife are gunned down at the end, this is depicted in an almost comically graphically, bloody way – Verhoeven is not one known for his restraint. There is a traumatic scene after the war has ended, where Rachel has been rounded up as a Nazi sympathiser, stripped naked and literally showered in shit. Houten communicates through facial and body language that she believes she deserves this treatment, despite working for the resistance the whole time she was sleeping with a Nazi.
Despite Black Book occasionally spilling over into Verhoeven’s high-camp style, this is an effective war drama, told from the point-of-view of a Dutch director with first-hand experience. The performances, especially that by Carice van Houten are what carries the audience through and make this a gripping World War Two spy thriller.