The real value of Paul Verhoeven‘s career, above the lubricity of his craftsmanship, comes in the director’s total committal to bug-up-the-ass ambivalence. In moving from Holland to Hollywood in the Eighties, and subsequently commanding massive budgets, he retained a distinctly “art-house” reticence to inject moral clarity into his work. Unkind reviews revealed a none-too-subtle elitism from writers who might have no trouble endorsing similar opacity safely fenced off in the subtitle ghetto, but who didn’t trust the multiplex patron to navigate ambiguity. As such, he’s never enjoyed the unanimous praise that’s greeted far lesser artists – on either end of the highbrow-lowbrow spectrum – whose themes have overlapped his work (the Wachowskis, Michael Haneke), though I can’t imagine Verhoeven crying much over it.
Black Book,” Verhoeven’s first film shot in his native Netherlands since 1984, follows covert Jew Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) through the meat grinder of Nazi-occupied Holland. A tenacious survivor, after escaping an ambush of wealthy Jews lured out of hiding, Rachel falls in with Resistance fighters. Her new compatriots peroxide her into passing for Aryan, Christen her “Ellis,” and send her to seduce the Dutch Sicherheitsdienst head (Sebastian Koch); from here to the last reel, perception and loyalties stay in constant flux.
Though essentially a “ripping good yarn,” this is far from the Verhoeven’s most dexterous filmmaking; his rapport with new DP Karl Lindenlaub lacks the synergy established with mainstays Jost Vacano and Jan de Bont, and as the movie devolves into a flurry of triple-and-quadruple crosses, only a miracle of balance keeps it from tripping over its reeled-in narrative threads. As an act of good faith I’ll assume the story’s logic totals up satisfactorily upon sober reconsideration; Verhoeven’s films tend to expand under repeated viewings.
That marvelous ambivalence remains intact, though: this survey of occupied Holland includes a Nazi official who, if not heroic, is at least wearily humane, and a resistance fighter that’s equally duplicitous. The European war’s downhill latter years – the film begins in 1944 – are viewed here as a time of pragmatically hedged bets, everyone elbowing to assure themselves a place in the up-in-the-air new world order by currying favor with all sides (Verhoeven’s previous WWII film, “Soldier of Orange,” also understood of how careerism underpins even the most extreme circumstances). Jacques Rivette‘s appraisal of Verhoeven’s “Showgirls” applies perfectly: “It’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes.” Rachel / Ellis, seeing a pretty former collaborationist waving from a jeep at a liberation day parade, asks her how she got there: “By standing in front and shoving.” This is about as much as Verhoeven ever belabors his point.
Verhoeven’s ability to thrive in the blockbuster economy has made critics wary; during the flush years of his American work, he showed an uncanny understanding of how to tickle the imagination of 14-year-old boys. But if his sensibility is adolescent, it is in the best sense: his anarchic entertainments exist somewhere between Alfred Jarry and “Terry and the Pirates.” There is something of the schoolboy stuck to him: the giggly, self-congratulatory perversity; the obsession with bodily function and dysfunction (including a fetish for vomiting women); the bullying sadism uncomfortably chafing against a more sensitive boy’s discomfort at the pack’s callous hazing rituals. Where “Soldier of Orange” drew an associative leap between the dormitory and the concentration camp, “Black Book” extends this to the liberated Dutch’s communal purging of guilt by the abuse of collaborators who didn’t distance themselves from the other side before liberation (Celine’s rabid “Castle to Castle” makes a good companion text). All of this climaxes in a spectacularly disgusting scene summarizing Verhoeven’s outlook: sometimes life just seems to rain shit.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer and editor and frequent contributor to Stop Smiling.]