Before watching Black Book, the Verhoeven film that I’d watched most recently was Showgirls—and I spent the two hours and eleven minutes that movie lasted wriggling around scandalized. Showgirls is an outrageous camp-fest with polystyrene characters, breasts all over the place, and possibly some of the worst dialogue in movie history.
With Black Book, a Dutch-language film about the Second World War featuring the persecution of Jews and the Nazi occupation, I was expecting Verhoeven to come up with something sensitive and morally responsible… Schindler’s List meets The Diary of Anne Frank, perhaps, with a twist, as there was supposed to be a sympathetic Nazi and some dirty-dealing Resistance “heroes”. But there is more of the camp-fest in Black Book than you’d ever imagine from the premise or the sober title.
Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) is a Jewish cabaret singer-turned resistance fighter, and the film’s central character. In an eventful few months before and just after the liberation of Holland from the Nazis in 1944, her family is gunned down in front of her by the Nazis, she escapes the massacre, flees to the capital, and joins the Dutch Resistance. Pledged to uncover the traitor who turned her family over to the Nazis, she is set up to seduce the chief of the occupying SS, Muntze, played by Sebastian Koch. But what starts out as a calculating seduction rapidly turns into true love.
The plot moves at breakneck speed: the Resistance makes numerous half-assed plots and the Nazis scheme and make reprisals, while, outside of Amsterdam, the German war effort is collapsing. Van Houten’s Rachel carries the story with style and energy—she escapes sewage vats, racial hate, insulin-wielding nutcases, bomb-raids and treachery from all directions—yet she leaps back from each near-death experience with a look of determination in her wide blue eyes and another saucy number from the Berlin Cabaret. She is awe-inspiring to watch.
While much of the film is pretty over the top, the relationship between Rachel and her sensitive, stamp-collecting SS captain lover, Muntze, is sterling and genuine. This was the heart of the film, providing it with an emotional power which gave it a whole extra dimension. Sebastian Koch is possibly one of the sweetest men on film. Apparently van Houten and Koch are together in real life, and certainly the on-screen chemistry was instantly believable. Sebastian Koch has single-handedly changed my opinion of stamp-collecting (if not of Nazis): the man was damaged, adorable and heroic.
Verhoeven loves all the Nazi kitsch—the flags in flowerpots and Führer busts—and clearly enjoys a champagne-lubricated orgy. He doesn’t exactly treat atrocities lightly—you feel the pain, horror and fear—but he jumbles them in with Hitler’s birthday party, coffins, vegetable chopping factories, suspenders and girly bathroom scenes. The black book of the title eventually unlocks the whodunit mystery unveiling the true traitor (after about fifteen false leads).
There are as many political messages as there as there are topless scenes. The film starts and ends in a post-war Kibbutz, raising the specter of Israel’s troubled history. The word “terrorist” gets used all the time to describe the Resistance fighters, while Nazis turn out to be humane and war “heroes” are vicious greedy backstabbers. In one scene the Allies are saviors; in the next they are bungling idiots. Christianity doesn’t come out too well, but Kibbutz life looks like a come-down next to the sex and violence romp that was Black Book’s version of World War Two.
The film takes on the traditional, worthy, war film that we’ve grown to expect. It flips all the clichés on their heads: goodies become baddies, horror becomes farce, and what I expected to be a war film works out as big-scale entertainment.