Black Book

Black Book is director Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch film since 1977, when he left Holland for Hollywood and directed films ranging from the highly entertaining Robocop to the embarrassing Showgirls, which Janet Maslin of the New York Times memorably described as a “bare-butted bore”. Verhoeven hasn’t had a critically successful film since 1997.

Book takes place in wartime Holland. The year is 1944, the Allies have liberated part of the country, but Rachel Stein, a successful Jewish singer, remains in hiding with a Dutch family in German-occupied territory. The farmhouse she’s staying in is destroyed by a bomb jettisoned by a crippled British aircraft, and she’s rescued by a young man in a sailboat who helps her make contact with people who can help her escape. Sadly, Rachel and her family are betrayed. She gets away, joins the Resistance, and uses her intelligence and sexuality to insinuate herself into the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), the security arm of the SS, by seducing its local commander, Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch).

The Muntze character is totally unbelievable. If he were any nicer he’d be sticking flowers into rifle barrels, chanting, “Give Peace a Chance”. Muntze seems to be having doubts about Nazi policies as the Allies are closing in, and he wants to make a deal with the Dutch resistance. He has a tragic past, and performs a good Nazi/bad Nazi routine with his subordinate, the debauched, pig-faced and brutal Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus). Franken sings and plays the piano, badly, cops as many feels as he can, and seems to be the M.C. of the kind of desperate partying that preceded the Germans’ final defeat.

The plot is somewhat convoluted, with numerous betrayals and poorly-staged action scenes, the characters so stereotypic, ambiguous or unbelievable that I couldn’t bring myself to care about any of them. A scene where the dark-rooted heroine dyes her pubic hair blond, arousing her Nazi lover’s suspicion that she is Jewish, no doubt based on his belief that all people must be either blond or Jewish, is both gratuitous and silly. After all, her favorite Kraut isn’t some fanatical dolt, but a handsome, intelligent, compassionate, stamp-collecting guy who just seems to have followed the wrong career path. Muntze even has a sense of humor. Lying in bed watching her bleach the beaver, he hides a gun under the sheets, making it look as if he has a monstrous erection. ("Is that a Luger or are you just glad to see me?")

Verhoeven sets up a scene where wealthy Jews are being smuggled to safety on a boat, only to be massacred by a detachment of SS men whose vessel just happens to cross their path. The whole thing has such an obvious smell of betrayal and is so clumsily telegraphed that when the skullduggery is revealed, I could almost hear the audience mouthing a collective, “Duh!”.

The film has plenty of violence, and a scene involving large amounts of falling feces that almost had me hurling into my popcorn bag. The music by Anne Dudley is unobtrusive, and not in a good way.

In spite of its historical context, and competent performances by the cast, this is still a schlocky movie, though entertaining at times, largely due to the heroine’s coquettish beauty, charm, and intelligence. Verhoeven's return to his roots isn’t likely to resurrect his career or enhance his reputation. With its thin material and mediocre production values, Black Book would have made a passable TV movie, but that's about all.