Black Book is Paul Verhoeven’s first Dutch film for over two decades. The half dozen films he made before he went stateside in the late 80s to shock the international bourgeoisie with Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man were the work of a consummate vulgarian. He was, like Miike Takashi, a director whose vulgarities I prefer, utterly unafraid to show sex and violence in graphic detail. He reveled in and relished it. The best film of his earlier Dutch career Spetters, a film about unadorned teenage sex and casual violence, was, I thought, gut wrenching. After one more film, the carefully choreographed The Fourth Man Hollywood beckoned and he gave a lot of oomph to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career with Total Recall and Sharon Stone’s reputation with Basic Instinct. Showgirls, a film much derided in its day, and probably the most consummate of his consummate vulgarities, still has its admirers, most notably, here anyway, Adrian Martin and David of ‘Margaret and David At the Movies’.
I suspect that Verhoeven had lofty ambitions for Black Book but first let me digress into a little biography. An Australian soldier taken prisoner of war in Crete once confessed to me his dislike of the Dutch. ‘They would not fight the Germans” he said, and as well “They only organized a Resistance when it was clear Hitler was going to lose”. Verhoeven’s view of the Dutch Resistance has the same sour outlook. It was, he proposes, venal, self-serving, anti-Semitic and duplicitous. It’s key organizers walked both sides of the street and had an unhealthy interest in getting a share of Nazi treasure. The heroine of Black Book is a Jewish woman whose principles are put to the test and whose bravery is never questioned. She is asked to ingratiate herself into the affection of the head of the Gestapo, starts sleeping with him and falls in love. Nevertheless she never betrays those principles, even those exercised in the bedroom with her handsome Nzi lover, has a higher purpose. She is one of the few lead characters about whom this can be said. While for a long stretch you think this is a Boys Own adventure about outsmarting the Nazis in fact the Dutch 'Resistance' gets a right going over and the film ends with much bitterness and a very sour taste.
In Verhoeven’s usual fashion the violence is fairly explicit and there’s much female flesh on show. I wish I could remember the phrase someone recently told me about Verhoeven’s interests in displaying female breasts but I cant so I content myself simply with noting the frequency with which the female lead Carice Van Houten is required to take off her top is probably a record for a mainstream feature made in the prim years of the first decade of the 21st century.
But, notwithstanding the interesting subject and the sex and the violence, the film still plays too much like one of those derring –do Brit movies of the fifties rather than something has been made just last year. Maybe my taste now means that it needs a Ken Loach and Paul Laverty or a Paul Greengrass to give it gravitas and depth. It seemed to me just that bit mechanical and that everything was being done by the numbers. Maybe if Verhoeven had sought recapture the full frontal attack mode he used for Spetters or Turkish Delight it would have gripped me more.