Paul Verhoeven’s return to his own homeland after the years he had spent in Hollywood churning out satirical classics have only proven all the more rewarding after he brings out Black Book. Being his first film to have been made in the Netherlands since The Fourth Man, Black Book brings back that touch he had made for himself during said years as he now brings said touch with eroticism and satire to the setting of WWII. In his own homeland, Black Book also holds the honour of being voted as the best Dutch film ever by the public and while that may be a stretch because I’m not so sure this would be amongst my favourite Verhoeven works, but I’ve grown up a proud apologist for his work and naturally it would mean a lesser film (minus two particularly bad films) is more impressive for many other directors’ best. With Black Book, Verhoeven satisfyingly retains this consistency.
Set during WWII, Verhoeven finds himself playing with gender roles once again in a Basic Instinct-esque manner, telling the story of a Dutch-Jewish singer Rachel Stein, as she hides from the Nazi regime during the occupation of the Netherlands. Tragedy comes her way and she soon becomes a spy under the alias of Ellis de Vries. Verhoeven’s most well-known efforts (especially those during his Hollywood years) are known for their satirical touches no matter what the subject matter is, but it there was another era of his work that feels like a more fitting descriptor of what it is that Black Book presents. Prior to his own Hollywood years, Paul Verhoeven didn’t play around with satire but another great joy that he had only been slowly building up to would be the sleazy nature of his more erotic feature films and for his own purists they have nothing less than satisfying. Teaming up once again with The Fourth Man screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven’s own return to his homeland is in part the fantasy fans can expect and results are nothing less than exciting.
With Black Book, Paul Verhoeven doesn’t retain that distinctive satirical touch but he still manages to provide something equally wonderful in the sleaze he presents with the historical context. If Basic Instinct or The Fourth Man had ever managed to prove anything about what more can Verhoeven accomplish, it would be his own skills at Alfred Hitchcock replication. There’s a great influence coming from the ends of Hitchcock’s Notorious that can be felt in Black Book which exerts another one of Verhoeven’s characterizing traits, the explicitness to his portraits of sex and violence. But to see how they all find themselves characterized within this WWII-set thriller which supposedly is based on a true story, it makes what seems to be a tired background carry a sense of excitement once again, for in the typical Verhoeven fashion it feels comfortable playing around with obsessions and ethics – and the results are delightful.
There’s a degree to which it can be said Black Book finds itself entering an exploitative territory especially when we look upon how Verhoeven closes in on what comes in the way of his protagonist as played by Carice van Houten, but at the same time her presence alone makes for something all the more alluring. In this performance what comes along is a character that rings oneself as a manipulative, domineering, and always ready. We recognize men are drawn to her in a more sexual manner as her clothes come undone to be exposed, but the strength to how Verhoeven portrays her character is where he allows Carice van Houten only to show the best of her ability because there’s a great strength to which she retains as she plays the character with a sense of assertion on her end. The way she fits into Verhoeven’s demand for sexual contact as a domineering force in this atmosphere is absolutely astounding, because there’s a great impact left behind from the emotions she carries, even driving some of the best without a need to cry.
Yet in the typical Verhoeven sense, the most joy comes from how he carries a great sensibility towards morality while he still finds a perfect means of fine-tuning the suspense and set pieces as they come into play. The most recognizable joy out of a Paul Verhoeven effort is the fact that he stages such sequences very well, but there’s a neat play upon morals as presented from the commander Ludwig Müntze, for he’s a man who still recognizes his crimes to be paid because of whom he is associated with. Yet from Rachel’s association through him as she becomes a spy for the resistance, he soon finds himself turning on those who he is affiliated with and it’s this recognizable morality that characterizes Black Book as a Paul Verhoeven work in the sense a purist would love as a great sense of desire is always felt. The fact that Paul Verhoeven finds a sense of humanity even under a label shows a side to war films that has been lacking for long periods of time.
Black Book may not be as satirical as the Paul Verhoeven that many of us have already come to know and love but as a welcome back to his own homeland, it is nothing more than satisfying. While some sequences suffer with a feeling of being exploitative or some characters feel underdeveloped, it still feels laced with what would be most recognizable out of Paul Verhoeven and in the best sense especially for his purists. It’s easy to see why this would be voted as the best Dutch film ever by the public upon its release but I wouldn’t even have it listed as one of my favourite Paul Verhoeven features. Then again, his weakest minus Flesh + Blood and Hollow Man already carries much more merit than some directors at their very best. Verhoeven’s obsessions find themselves adapting so perfectly to new settings and always make for fascinating works all throughout.
Watch the trailer right here.
All images via Sony Pictures Classics.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman
Produced by Jeroen Beker, San Fu Maltha, Frans van Gestel, Jos van der Linden, Teun Hilte
Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn
Release Year: 2006
Running Time: 145 minutes