Black Book: Paul Verhoeven’s Anti-Nazi Resistance Tale in Holland at End of World War II

In “Black Book,” working with writer Gerald Soeteman, the collaborator on many of his key Dutch works, Paul Verhoeven imagines a wide and expressive canvas to track the personal, sexual and moral difficulties impinging on the anti-Nazi resistance in Holland at the end of World War II.

The movie runs two and a half hours, but it moves quickly, decisively, deftly balancing the political and the personal in critical circumstances like war. Exploring daring and even cowardice in behavior and action, Verhoeven show how WWII erased most distinctions on the simplistic differences and labels of good and evil.

This movie is a complex work, brilliantly told. Inspired by real events, Verhoeven and Soeteman worked on the script for more than two decades. Framed by a sorrowful reunion between two women living in Israel in 1956, Black Book unfolds almost entirely in flashback. Van Houten plays Rachel Stein, the beautiful, independent, racy Jewish woman living in hiding in 1944 with a strict Christian family in the Dutch countryside.

After the house is destroyed during a bombing campaign, Rachel undertakes a perilous quest of gaining sanctuary in the liberated Belgium. Reunited with her parents and brother, Rachel is overjoyed at the prospect of freedom. Her excitement proves illusory in the devastating, eerie dawn surprise attack staged by German soldiers, who intercept the boat and massacre everybody aboard. Rachel becomes the only survivor when she leaps into the water.

Drafted into the anti-Nazi resistance, Rachel is sent to work as a food processor at a factory. Proving her mettle, she is recruited into highly skilled operational cell organized by the socialist Kuipers (Derek de Lint). She assumes the alias Ellis de Vries, dyes her hair blonde and attracts the avid notice of Hans (Thomas Hoffman), the medical doctor and best operative.

A operation ends disastrously, with three members of the group, including Kuipers son, detained by the Nazis. Ellis is ordered to deepen her relationship with Gestapo officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch) to gain intelligence on the mens condition.

Kuipers makes explicit that Ellis must do anything possible to gain power and authority over Muntze. You want me to screw him she asks. He does. At this point, the movie shifts from an action influenced war drama to a suggestive, provocative, highly complex examination of sex and power, a recurrent motif in Verhoeven’s oeuvre (see below). The shift is signaled by the movies most outr image, a close up of Ellis dying her pubic hair in order to authenticate her Aryan disguise.

In Verhoeven’s work, sexuality features prominently as a form of power (often illusory), but also a form of annihilation. It’s a force of betrayal that underlines the way that men and women disguise their feelings and actions in pursuit of personal sensation. Ellis becomes almost sexually turned on by her activities as a spy, planting a recording device in the office of her new Nazi lover.

As sexuality becomes part of the shifting moral equation, where suspicion and authenticity permeate every action, Black Book turns into a different kind of inquisition, one that separates friendship, loyalty and responsibility to a punitive form of survival and self-satisfaction. Verhoeven skillfully blurs the line between performing and experience, and Ellis becomes increasingly confused, even made guilty, over her part as duplicitous warrior.

The films third part is an exquisitely designed puzzle, where identities, personalities and private agendas forcefully collide. Ellis must negotiate private and public space, ferreting out the identity of the traitor who played a role in the massacre of her own family, and also try to intervene and save the life of the suddenly cashiered Muntze. Verhoeven brilliantly keeps us off balance, guessing, wondering, about role playing, showing the terrible human cost of war and suffering, and how it perverts moral purpose and authority.

The final part is awash in plot movements, the tone turning increasingly feverish and baroque after an ambitious resistance effort to free a group of prisoners end with most of them crippled in an ambush. The detective thriller turns into a complex study of morality.

Verhoeven is brilliant at the depth of his characterizations; constantly outlining the shallow division between opportunism and honor, best embodied by the part of a lawyer who helps Ellis though also negotiates on the behalf of imprisoned resistance with the Nazis.

Verhoeven’s Hollywood films (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers) are seductively made studies of power, ambition and sexual longing marked by acid satirical underpinning. A more resonant film, “Black Book” is both similar to and different from the helmer’s previous efforts.

Like Starship Troopers, “Black Book” is a meditation on the allure of fascism, on the (sexual) power of authority. At the conclusion of the War, with the Nazis defeated and humiliated, Ellis comes under suspicion for her alleged betrayal in the attempted prison break. This leads to the movie’s most frightening moment, an act of public humiliation and pain visited on Ellis, after the oppressed and beaten effectively reverse roles and play out their own brand of justice.

Verhoeven is above all an ironist who uncovers the constant confusion and pain of sex, power and institutional hierarchies. Hamlet famously observed, There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so. Verhoeven understands that, and by cataloguing all shapes of human behavior, studying emotional transactions, cut-across class, nationality and sexuality, his world is not about dividing heroes from villains. Instead, he’s concerned with showing how moral disruption and breakdown carry horrifying personal repercussions.

Van Houten is astoundingly beautiful and sexually daring, a woman alert to action and feeling and capable of thinking beyond her own private situation. Like all great actors, she personalizes the clash of the mind and body. Black Book should make her a star. Van Houten’s supple, exquisite body becomes a stylized battleground that men fight, lust and fantasize over. Verhoeven strips away words and meaning (notably, the Nazis refer to the resistance as terrorists).

Every survivor is guilty in some way, she says. Pulverizing our own narrow and limited conceptions of honor, sacrifice, and salvation. “Black Book” is a major movie about guilt, memory, and desire.

Oscar Alert

“Black Book” is the official Netherlands nominee for the 2006 Best Foreign-Language Oscar Award.

Written by Patrick McGavin