World War II ended more than 60 years ago, with plenty of dramatic global altercations and bellicose psychodramas in between, yet it still seizes our attentions and collective memory banks-as any trip to Europe will attest-and thus also the minds of artists. With director Paul Verhoeven’s gripping, dark film Black Book, we’re drawn into the story of yet another relatively untold aspect of the war, that of the role of the Dutch resistance movement.
In Verhoeven’s vivid account, the rescue of a Jewish woman (the compelling Carice van Houten) is just the beginning of a rabbit-hole journey through successive double-crossings, sleeping with enemies, and other examples of the banality of sadism. The moral of the story may be that morality becomes nasty and fluid during wartime.
Yes, Verhoeven is the director responsible for Showgirls, that trashy classic from the so-bad-it’s-fun cinema subculture. But an artist shouldn’t be judged by the bottom end of his oeuvre: Verhoeven also made two of the smarter sci-fi “action” films in recent years, Total Recall and the masterful Starship Troopers. Both films foretell a tense future in which many of the quandaries and corruptions of today prevail.
Verhoeven’s first film in his native Holland-and in Dutch-in many years revisits that grim chapter in recent European history, while also folding in timeless socio-ethical puzzles. In this outpost of occupation circa 1944, the Nazis are still evil and decadent, even in the waning moments of the war, as Russia is busy taking Berlin. And yet some embers of humanity glow in an SS commander (Sebastian Koch) whom our heroine has fallen in with, while parties in the presumably heroic Dutch resistance are much darker than they appear.
Within this atmosphere of deceit and taut nerves, Verhoeven shows again that, when he’s on, he knows how to tell a story in cinematic terms. Black Book dazzles with visual and narrative style without falling prey to excess, amounting to a crack thriller with meticulous period-piece detailing and a suitably gripping suspense feel. But its series of twists and false resolutions amounts to more than just shallow audience trickery, rather making a statement about the moral compromises and opportunism of war, and the ceaseless threat of more to come (as the chilling denouement implies). All that dark stuff aside, it’s also fun to watch.