Paul Verhoeven has made a brilliant study of the origins and consequences of Fascism. That film, of course, is Starship Troopers (1997). Black Book, a tale of espionage and resistance during the last days of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, is something else entirely. It’s a bit of a romantic comedy, with the traditional mistaken identity and pairing of opposites of that genre. It’s a hyper-emotional melodrama sparked with treacheries, illusions, revenge, and obsessive love. It’s a Hitchcockian suspense thriller without suspense. It’s a trash heap of enjoyable but absurd contrivances and mismatched conventions with glimmers of political and psychological insight. In short, it’s a Paul Verhoeven film, of the kind that’s been missed for a decade.
Verhoeven’s filmmaking return to his native Netherlands, two decades after his Hollywood debut with the outstanding RoboCop (1987) and seven years after the dismal failure of Hollow Man (2000), includes many of the juicy bits left out of Soldier of Orange (1977), his occasionally flaky and off-color but generally by-the-book adaptation of the war memoir of heroic Dutch resistance leader Erik Hazelhoff Roelfsema. It seems that while researching that film he and co-screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (who also co-scripted Book) came up with some material that did not fit into their mostly respectful homage. Whether that research culled up such nuggets as female Jewish spies dying their carpets to match the drapes (the detail that has most enamored critics of the movie) or buckets of shit dumped on collaborators by newly liberated drunken Dutch mobs (shades of Abu Ghraib) or the incessant phallic usage of handguns is unclear. I’m pretty sure, though, that they made up most of the plot twists in the wacky, implausible story.
It starts in 1956, with Rachel (saucy Carice Van Houten), a/k/a Ellis, teaching a primary-school class in a ramshackle Israeli kibbutz. (So much for suspense as to whether the heroine survives.) A chance encounter sends her to a quiet moment by the shore of a lake, the Sea of Galilee. Her shimmering reflection, that old warning sign of a pending flashback, just one of many corny devices Verhoeven indulges in, takes us back to “Holland 1944,” where Rachel, Anne Frank–style, holes up in an attic. When an Allied bomb puts the kibosh on that hiding place, Rachel must take her chances with the Resistance — which is a lot more dangerous but a lot more fun than eating grim meals and reciting New Testament passages for a pious Dutch family.
Her first contact leads her into a trap in which her family are massacred and she barely escapes. Disguised as a dead typhus victim, she’s smuggled to safety in a coffin and is thus truly initiated into the Underground. It’s a labyrinthine, shadowy, dysfunctional realm headed by patriarchal Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), who’s joined by his son Tim (Ronald Armbrust) and the dashing Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). Moved perhaps more by boredom than by vengeance (her job up to then has been boiling roots into soup), Rachel takes part in a mission with the sexy Akkermans that leads through various unlikely scenarios to her shacking up, freshly dyed and renamed Ellis, with Gestapo colonel Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch).