Paul Verhoeven

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By Frankie Dees Sep 27, 2007, 21:33 GMT

The premier Hollywood provocateur of the 80s and 90s with films such as ‘Robocop’, ‘Basic Instinct’ and ‘Showgirls’, Paul Verhoeven returns to his Dutch roots for the first time in 20 years with ‘Black Book’ - a WWII resistance spy thriller that is an effective culmination of his Dutch and Hollywood work up to this point.

Fans of Verhoeven’s early Dutch work - most of which starred Rutger Hauer, films such as ‘Turkish Delight’ and ‘Katie Tippel’ - expecting this film to be a return to that raw, grittiness might be disappointed. Particularly when considering that Verhoeven reunited with his old scripter Gerard Soeteman who penned ‘Spetters’, ‘The Fourth Man’ and the aforementioned ‘Turkish Delight’.

No this technically polished film definitely plays like his more American work, but with a little of that old Netherland cheekiness slipped in for good measure. Better than his earlier WWII flick ‘Soldier of Orange’, ‘Black Book’ is an unabashed spy melodrama with a fair amount of old-fashioned adventure scenes that recall serial pulp.

Densely plotted and quick paced, the film generally flies by in it’s close to two and a half hour running time. A somewhat superfluous framing device has Rachel Stein (award-winning Dutch actress Carice van Houten) running into her former wartime acquaintance Ronnie (Halina Reign) on an Israeli kibbutz in 1956 which prompts the film-length flashback.

Holland, 1944 – The film starts on a sprint as Rachel is in hiding with a strict Christian family where memorized verses seem to be the exchange for food. Quickly moving on after a narrowly missed explosion, she’s meets a young man who she joins up with only to later be reunited with her family through an escape arranged by a resistance worker Van Gein (Peter Blok) who might have questionable motives.

The escape, a boat loaded with Jews, is ambushed by the SS and Rachel narrowly escapes yet again where she finds herself under a new name, Ellis de Vries and doing manual labor in a food plant run by the communist resistance party led by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). Five months later, she is given an opportunity to take part in resistance missions.

On one such mission, a chance encounter on a train leads her to get acquainted with Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), the local Gestapo chief who seems a bit more even-headed than his Nazi brethren. When a mission goes awry and some resistance members get taken by the Nazis, including Kuipers son, Gerben calls upon Ellis to seduce her way into Muntze’s life and therefore headquarters of the German forces.

Bedding Muntze on resistance instructions, she finds herself falling for this almost sensitive Nazi and in the same office that Muntze is stationed, she recognizes Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) as the leader of the SS that mowed down her family and friends on the boat and whom becomes the real villain of the piece. His sexual desires are met by a happy go-lucky survivor named Ronnie whom Rachel befriends.

And were only through hour one, whew. The story progresses at this breakneck pace that sees villains turn into protagonists and protagonists turn into villains. Loyalties are stressed, double crosses common, and suspicion lurks in every grungy corner. Even when the war is over, the film is far from it.

Most of the credit must go to the sizable and well-placed cast, most notably van Houten, who easily carries the whole film on her frail and believably attractive shoulders. The best role for a young woman in years, van Houten, who is on-screen almost every minute of the pic, must run the gamut of emotions – love, fear, sorrow, defiance – at any given time.

Sebastien Koch also does great work as the sympathetic Gestapo officer Muntze, who might qualify as the tragic hero of the story. Also great in ‘The Lives of Others’, Koch takes a very hard role and hits it out of the park. Waldemar Kobus is the appropriately sleazy villain of the pic for those of you who like your Nazi’s despicable and boo-worthy.

The lensing by Karl Walter Lindenlaub, a Hollywood pro, is technically solid throughout if not dazzling but I have to call into question the overly bombastic and generic score of Anne Dudley which particularly pierces during the action scenes. Swelling up as to recall an adventure serial, the score kicks in as if it was unused material from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. Indeed, some of the adventure/action aspects of the film do feel straight out of ‘The Rocketeer’ or the IJ and the Last Crusade which wouldn’t be a bad thing necessarily if the tone was kept constant.

It’s a rousing picture, nonetheless, with the disparate tones handled well enough to not prove overly bothersome. The film is presented in a 2.35:1 widescreen ratio and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The main point of interest from the special features is the audio commentary by Paul Verhoeven, who always proves to be affable and entertaining with his commentary tracks (check out his track on ‘Starship Troopers’ for an entertaining defense of that pic) and who is no different here.

Staying away from the bores of production, Verhoeven wastes nary a breath telling many a story from his childhood when the Netherlands were occupied. A lot of interesting anecdotes, this one is definitely worth a listen although he sometimes falls into the trap of describing what we see on screen. A standard making-of and some previews round out the extras.

‘Black Book’ is a messy slice of epic film-making that veers from erotic period piece to outrageous melodrama to somber contemplation to old-fashioned adventure/spy thrills on a turn of a dime – yet, Verhoeven manages to spin all of these plates with a surprisingly deft hand.

If it’s not quite the return to form that his fans were wishing for, let’s all remember that this is Verhoeven were talking about….a man who puts more eroticism into a motocross movie (see: ‘Spetters’) than most directors would put in a full-fledged erotic thriller.