Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, May 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Paul Verhoeven (2006)

14. Black Book

Following his personal dissatisfaction with “Hollow Man,” Paul Verhoeven would return to the Netherlands. Twenty years had passed since Verhoeven had made a film in his home country. The director would re-team with Gerard Soeteman, who wrote many of his Dutch films. While the two had been writing “Soldiers of Orange,” they uncovered a number of interesting stories from World War II. Instead of putting them into an already long film, they decided to craft a stand alone film from this material. It took the duo fifteen years to finish up the script. Like many of the director's European films, “Black Book” would become the most expensive Dutch film made up to that point. Likewise, it would become a huge box office and critical hit in Holland. In many ways, “Black Book” belatedly wraps up thematic points Verhoeven had begun in his earliest films.

The year is 1944 and the Netherlands is under Nazi rule. Rachel Stein, a Jewish singer, is hiding out with a sympathetic but strict Christian family. After the farm is bombed by the Germans, she attempts to sneak out of the country with her family. The barge is ambushed by Nazi soldiers, who murder every Jew on the boat. Except for Rachel, who barely escapes. Dying her hair and changing her name to Ellis de Vries, she begins to work with the Dutch Resistance. After several underground fighters are captured, she is given the mission of seducing Ludwig Muntze, a Gestapo officer. As she grows closer to Muntze, the two develop real feelings for each other. Ellis' true alliances quickly come under scrutiny.

“Black Book's” status as a companion piece to “Soldier of Orange” is obvious. Aside from arising from the same project, both films are about the Dutch resistance during World War II. While widely beloved, “Soldier of Orange” struck me as slightly cold. “Black Book” doesn't have this problem. By explicitly making its main characters Jewish, “Black Book” gives a far more personal perspective on the conflict. Ellis is fighting against the extermination of her people. Yet we also see a Christian resistance fighter who has a mental breakdown after taking a life. Or a shot of starving children grabbing food from a crashed truck. Little details like this ground “Black Book” in history and reality, making its story feel more alive and vital.

That Verhoeven hadn't made a film in his home country in two decades is quite apparent in “Black Book.” Visually, the film looks like one of the director's Hollywood productions. The cinematography, provided by Karl Walter Lindenlaub, is sweeping and gorgeous. The musical score, by Anne Dudley, is highly theatrical. “Black Book” may look like one of the director's more expensive American production, Tonally, it feels like one of his original Dutch pictures. The film balances between an important historical story and free-wheeling pulp, resulting in an atmosphere that's polished but zips along at a speedy clip. Time had past but you can draw a direct line between “Spetters” or “The 4th Man” and this film.

Moral ambiguity is a topic Verhoeven has played with throughout his entire career. Even in his Hollywood films, most of his protagonists have been anti-heroes of some sort. This morally gray area emerges as the main point in “Black Book.” Ellis believes she's fighting the Nazis to get revenge for her dead family. Yet she winds up falling in love with a Nazi. That man turns out to be negotiating with the Dutch underground, keeping captive fighters alive. Another Nazi officer has been breaking his country's own laws, by keeping the gold and jewels taken off the dead Jews. As the story progresses, we discover that no one's alliances are easy to determine, that double agents and traitors are everywhere. The message seems to be that war changes everyone, no matter how upright they may appear.

Carice Van Houten stars as Rachel/Ellis. From her earliest scenes, Van Houten characterizes Rachel by a sense of rebellion. After her Christian land owner insist she read prayers from the Bible at the dinner table, she mockingly draws a cross in her oatmeal. She thinks on her feet. When German officers ask for tickets on a train ride, she finds clever ways around the problem. That same quick thinking keeps her alive through several scenarios. Inside, Ellis has a fiery need to stay alive. Outside, she often bottles up her emotions. Early on, she tells a friend that she still hasn't cried over the death of her family. Until a powerful sequence, where her grief, sadness, and anger overflows, leading to anguished tears. Van Houten's performance is extremely controlled, each movement and action well thought.

At the center of “Black Book” is the most unlikely of love stories. A romance between a Nazi officer and an undercover Jewish spy sounds like the stuff of exploitation picture. Despite this, there's an understated quality to “Black Book's” romance. Muntze and Ellis' earliest scenes have an unspoken chemistry to them, when the two bond over an interest in stamps. This, naturally, leads the two into bed together. Muntze quickly deduces that she is Jewish. Even after he figures out that she's a spy, Ellis remains attracted to him, asking for a kiss while a gun is pointed at her head. In return, he takes extra measures to protect her. Their honest affection for each other is displayed in a moment right after the end of the war is announced, where they dream about their future. It seems the Verhoeven woman – who uses her sex appeal to survive – has finally grown up into someone capable of genuine love.

Even in a prestige film like “Black Book,” Paul Verhoeven finds room for his favorite subjects. The violence in “Black Book” is brutal and intense. When people are executed, the resulting gunshots wounds are massive, weeping, and bloody. Two especially vivid deaths involve a spurting jugular vein and splattering brain matter. The film often features extended sequences of crowds being gunned down. We see victims collapse in gory piles. There's a graphic torture scene too, a man being drown in a sink and kicked in the balls. Yet there's an extra sense of gravity to these deaths. When we're shown Nazis executing unsuspecting Jews, it's impossible not to feel the seriousness of these actions. Verhoeven's love of excessive violence ends up making the film's gruesome content more powerful, the impact of the deaths being fully felt by the viewer.

The director doesn't skimp on the sex and nudity either. Van Houten is frequently nude. A lengthy scene is devoted to her dying her pubic hair blonde. Later, a different woman distracts some soldiers by pouring wine over her naked chest. Verhoeven's return to the Netherlands also means a return of the male frontal nudity that was commonplace in his earliest films. Even the unseemly interest in bodily functions seen in “Turkish Delight” makes a come back, as feces and urine both play a role in two scenes. This isn't just exploitation for exploitation's sake. It adds a natural, earthy reality that was sometimes absent in Verhoeven's American movies.

Van Houten's performance isn't the only impressive one. Sebastian Koch is surprisingly sensitive as Ludwig, gifting the part with a great deal of complexity. His eye seem to speak to the character's hidden depths. At the opposite end is Waldemar Kobus as Franken. A monstrous Nazi officer, Franken is characterized by a vulgar thirst for sex and power who is utterly ruthless with his enemies. Thom Hoffman appears as Hans, a member of the Resistance who isn't all he appears to be. Hoffman is very good at appearing benevolent one minute and devious the next. Lastly, Dolf De Vries has a notable part as Rachel's lawyer, a man who speaks matter-of-factly. De Vries previously had small roles in “Turkish Delight,” “Solider of Orange,” and “The 4th Man,”  making him something of a Verhoeven regular.

Like “Soldier of Orange,” “Black Book” has an epic run time. Instead of adding on an extended epilogue like that film, “Black Book's” story propels itself after the end of the war. Continuing the film's theme of moral uncertainty, Verhoeven does not portray the Netherland's post-war actions as right. German soldiers are marched through the streets, holding signs identifying them as traitors. Women associated with Nazis have their heads shaved and are called whores. Ellis is striped nude in a warehouse and has a barrel of excrement poured on her. Even in victory, war remains ugly and unfair.

It's very obvious that Verhoeven and Soeteman spent twenty years writing “Black Book.” The script is brilliantly constructed. Throughout the film, small details pay off in big ways. A bag of diamonds given to Ellis become important later, once we learn where they came from. An opening detail concerning people hiding in caskets later becomes an important way for Ellis to defeat an enemy. A factoid about insulin and chocolate, mentioned in passing during an early scene, ends up saving her life later on. This makes “Black Book” a really satisfying viewing experience, as the viewer never expects what details will become important later.

Raw sentiment is not something you usually expect from Paul Verhoeven. He often cloaks his emotions in a sarcastic sense of humor or satirical detachment. Yet this is the same director who made “Turkish Delight,” a heartbreaking romance. “Black Book” shows that Verhoeven could make an important film without sacrificing the quirks and obsessions that made him a cult favorite. Despite the success of “Black Book,” the director wouldn't make another proper film for quite some time. I'm glad this wasn't his last feature but, if it had been, “Black Book” would have been an impressive send-off. [Grade: A]

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