Beyond the Multiplex

Verhoeven's "Black Book" is an outrageous tale of vengeance, treachery and sexual desire. Plus: Duchovny and Weaver play for laffs.


Andrew O'Hehir
April 5, 2007 4:00PM (UTC)

Before Paul Verhoeven became an infamous Hollywood provocateur of the '80s and '90s with lurid, slippery spectacles like "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls" -- and before he became the apparently washed-up former provocateur of the 2000s -- he was just a Dutch film director. Mind you, his earlier films, like the Oscar-nominated "Turkish Delight," the motorcycle drama "Spetters" and the thriller "The Fourth Man," were just as sexual, nearly as violent and absolutely as weird as his later output. But because they were made on low budgets in a small European country, they were art films, virtually by definition.

Now, seven years after Verhoeven's American career hit its low point with "Hollow Man" -- the dullest and least personal of all his movies -- he's a Dutch film director again. "Black Book" is a convoluted yarn packed with intrigue, lust and betrayal, set against the last years of World War II and its aftermath. It simultaneously revisits the actual setting of Verhoeven's childhood (he was 2 years old when the Nazis invaded Holland, and 7 when they left) and the themes and archetypes that have possessed him ever since. It's a messy, colorful big-screen entertainment that veers from sober period piece to outrageous melodrama, which is to say it's a Verhoeven movie. If it's something less than the grand masterpiece his fans might have hoped for, let's remember whom we're talking about.

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I think Verhoeven is an underappreciated cinematic master, but the reasons for his lack of stature are partly of his own creation. Even his best pictures (I would nominate "Basic Instinct," "Starship Troopers" and probably "The Fourth Man") are always conflicted, at war with themselves, undermining their own integrity and coherence as they go along. "Black Book" is like that too. It begins as if it's going to be an ordinary, respectable World War II costume drama, with heroes and villains in the right places and wearing their familiar uniforms. (As one friend of mine put it, at first it appears to be sane.) But the veneer of normalcy falls away pretty quickly, and we've got a tale of bloody vengeance, despicable treachery, inescapable historical irony and, above all, inappropriate and uncontrollable sexual desire. Woo-hoo!

According to Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (also his collaborator on seven previous films), the events in "Black Book" have been rigorously researched and stick close to historical fact. They've been trying to bring this ambiguous portrait of the Dutch resistance, and its complicated back-channel relationship with the occupying German forces, to the screen for more than 30 years. In fact, "Black Book" is half-intended as a companion piece to Verhoeven's 1977 film "Soldier of Orange," which portrayed the student-led Dutch resistance in heroic primary colors. This film views the same period through a cloudier prism, one more consistent with Verhoeven's vision of the world (and also, we might say, closer to the murk of actual history).

Our heroine is another of Verhoeven's ice-blond bitch-goddesses, or at least she turns into one as the movie progresses. She certainly has her reasons, and you can almost feel the director battling manfully against the charges of misogyny that have followed him throughout his career. Rachel Stein (played by the diamond-bright Dutch actress Carice van Houten) is the daughter of an affluent Rotterdam Jewish family who are ambushed by a German gunboat as they try to escape across the marshes into Allied territory. Rachel alone escapes, and watches impassively from a hiding place in the reeds as her parents and siblings are killed and their bodies ransacked for money and valuables.

Verhoeven has always been a fine director of action scenes, but the horrific scene is presented almost matter-of-factly: The Germans are following orders and Rachel is trying to survive, that's all. The obvious emotional trauma is all but invisible. This may well be true to actual wartime experience (as in, say, Roman Polanski's "The Pianist"); most of us, thankfully, will never know. Verhoeven has often spoken of being forced to walk past the bodies of executed resistance fighters, as a small child in the Hague. What emotions could he possibly have felt, beyond the urge to look elsewhere and think about something else?

Orphaned and penniless, Rachel is taken in by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), a leader of the resistance. Dying her hair (both on her head and elsewhere) a luminous gold, Rachel assumes her new identity as Ellis de Vries, vengeful Mata Hari of the anti-Nazi underground. Rachel/Ellis has a fleeting encounter with Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a charismatic fellow resistance fighter who's clearly smitten with her, but she's got bigger game in view. During a train journey, she manages to snuggle herself into a compartment with Ludwig Müntze, the German officer who heads the Dutch SD, the occupation's internal security force.

As played by Sebastian Koch (who also played Dreyman, the compromised East German playwright in "The Lives of Others") Müntze is an apparent contradiction, a cultured, gentlemanly and thoroughly congenial fellow who has signed on to the Führer's campaign of conquest and genocide. As history has made clear, there's no contradiction whatever: The German officer corps was full of erudite and well-educated guys like him, and they all had their reasons.

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One of Verhoeven's distinctive qualities is the way he eroticizes male and female flesh almost without prejudice: We might see more of Koch's beefy, muscular bod in "Black Book" than we do of van Houten's lissome form. By now you can guess where this is going. As Ellis, Rachel goes into Müntze's bed with vengeance in her heart. Once there, she finds herself falling in love with him. The Nazi with the Mick Jagger lips and bedroom eyes is no dummy and suspects her true motivations the whole time, but can't help himself.

Of course it's outrageous: The Jewish girl who's watched her whole family killed by Nazis falls for the hot guy with the swastika on his chest and that sultry way of saying "Heil Hitler!" But it wouldn't be a Verhoeven film without outrageous and offensive material, and his ultimate defense is that stranger things have happened when it comes to human beings and sex. OK, not a lot stranger, and not often, but still. And we haven't even gotten to the part of the film when both the Nazis and the resistance view Ellis as a spy and traitor, or when she has a huge tub of human excrement poured over her head.

If anything at all becomes clear in the morally compromised world of "Black Book," it's that virtually everyone in the story is playing a double game, hedging his bets, actually or potentially betraying his friends and colleagues. Everyone except Ellis, whose ambivalence is entirely genuine: She hates Nazis, but loves one Nazi. On one hand, someone in the resistance is systematically undermining the operation and betraying escaping Jewish families (like Rachel's) to the Germans. At the same time, Müntze and other German officers can feel the Allied armies closing in and are eager to forge a separate peace with the resistance fighters who may soon become the Dutch government.

Some of the film's riddles may be answered inside the "black book," a leather-bound notebook kept by a pro-resistance lawyer named Smaal (Dolf de Vries), an ambiguous figure who has served as a conduit between Nazi authorities and the underground. (In a wide-ranging interview coming Friday to Salon Conversations, Verhoeven says that the black book really existed.) But not all. As is customary, the real secrets are those of human psychology and sexuality, and those are never easy to dig out or understand.

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One of the knocks on Verhoeven has been that his disposition is so ironical and he's so pathologically addicted to ambiguity that his films have no moral bottom line. It's not an inherently stupid reading of his work, but it's also not quite fair. Even amid all the double crosses, double double crosses and historical paradoxes of "Black Book" -- Rachel begins and ends the film in Israel, where she has moved to find peace -- there are fixed objects to hang onto in the swamp.

Müntze and Ellis love each other, and yearn to escape from the conflict that defines them, but that isn't enough. Müntze's individual conscience, charm and courage cannot erase who he is and what he has done; Rachel can never escape the terrible acts that made her become Ellis in the first place. Verhoeven's portrait of the Dutch resistance as flawed, corrupt and internally divided never suggests it was morally equivalent to the Nazi regime.

Verhoeven has said that the first films he ever saw were the Nazi propaganda films shown to Dutch children (consider his use of the genre in "RoboCop" and "Starship Troopers"), and that the experience of occupation -- first by the Germans and then by the Allies -- shaped his sensibility. What that boy absorbed from that experience, it seems, is that evil exists and lies exist, that they are seductive and persistent, and that we must try to resist them. The moment we congratulate ourselves on our own virtue and honesty, the moment we are certain of the purity of our cause, is the moment we've completely gone over to the dark side.

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"Black Book" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, with a wider national rollout to follow.

Fast forward: Is Canadian teen angst a "Whole New Thing"? Backstage drama on "The TV Set"; into the jungle with the powerful "Los Muertos"
There's considerable subtlety and grace to "Whole New Thing," a study of an eccentric teenager's coming-of-age set in the snowy climes of Nova Scotia. Despite its appealing, half-wistful portrayal of a post-hippie, home-schooling family and a memorable lead performance from Aaron Webber as the precocious and androgynous Emerson, what the film doesn't offer is much originality. There's a dash of "The Squid and the Whale," a soupçon of "Ice Storm," a general flavoring of John Irving-style rural whimsy, and a salty crust of every growing-up-possibly-gay film of the last 20 years.

You can't accuse director Amnon Buchbinder of cranking out work thoughtlessly. He's an American who teaches film in Toronto, and this is only his third movie in a 24-year career. "Whole New Thing" is made with evident craft and a profound respect for its characters, with the possible exception of Emerson's dad, Rog (Robert Joy), a burned-out environmental leader who's become as ineffectual at home as he is at work. He can't keep his wife, Kaya (Rebecca Jenkins, agreeably feline and slinky), out of a surly, monosyllabic younger dude's bed, and he has no idea what's up with Emerson.

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Sent to public school for the first time after many years of home schooling, Emerson is finding the transition difficult. Boys beat him up but girls like him; he's academically way ahead of his classmates and gravitates ever closer to his teacher, a middle-aged, semi-closeted gay man named Don Grant (Daniel MacIvor, who co-wrote the screenplay with Buchbinder). Webber captures the passionate uncertainty of sexual awakening wonderfully, and the film never editorializes. Maybe Emerson is really gay and is discovering that, and maybe he's just being drawn toward the only adult he wants to talk to. As he observes, to Don's bemusement, "Gay and straight don't mean anything. They're just labels!"

"Whole New Thing" is too delicate a film to allow Don to become seduced by this remarkable sprite, and while that certainly makes Don an upright guy, it lowers the dramatic stakes -- and turns Emerson into something approaching a stalker. After a precisely crafted first hour with nary a detail out of place, "Whole New Thing" comes unglued toward the end, spiraling into melodrama without ever escaping its whiny, indie-rock soundtrack. (Opens April 6 at the Quad Cinema in New York and April 20 at the Laemmle Sunset in Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.)

Playwright George Kaufman supposedly once said that satire is what closes on Saturday night. Makes you wonder how a blunt-edged satire like Jake Kasdan's "The TV Set" makes it to Friday in the first place. I wrote about Kasdan's film last year at Tribeca, where it was highly anticipated and left a packed house deflated, and I haven't got much to add now. As a one-time producer and director on "Freaks and Geeks," "Grosse Pointe" and other prime-time shows, Kasdan should have the expertise to write a backstage exposé of the TV industry. This one simply isn't funny.

I suppose "The TV Set" is being released on the name recognition of its stars, but they're all miscast and imprisoned by a hackneyed script. David Duchovny plays the long-suffering writer forced to compromise his art by the evil network, and I simply never want to see him as another honest guy in a pickle as long as I live. Play a foot fetishist, Dave! Play the Unabomber! Play the young Dick Nixon! Anything, anything with some bite.

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Then there's Sigourney Weaver, trying to revive her "Working Girl" villainess as a network exec who is -- hang on, I'll let you guess -- a stupid, conniving workaholic. Ioan Gruffudd has a nothing role as the imported BBC exec who sorrows at the boobery of his new surroundings. All of these people would be better suited to play other roles in the same film, but it still might not be so great. Most of the jokes are mind-bendingly obvious, and the heart-rendingly serious family drama Duchovny's character is crafting never seems worth producing in the first place. It really could use some hot babes in bikinis and a Maui background. (Opens April 4 in New York and Los Angeles; April 20 in Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington; and May 4 in Cleveland, Denver, Detroit, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Kansas City, Milwaukee, Phoenix, St. Louis, San Diego and Columbus, Ohio, with more cities to follow.)

Last but definitely not least comes "Los Muertos," an extraordinary film from the young Argentine director Lisandro Alonso, which premiered at Cannes and Toronto in 2004 and has yet to find North American distribution. It's a gorgeous, troubling odyssey through the South American jungle with a recently released convict (Argentino Vargas), who has completed a long sentence for -- as we learn almost accidentally -- killing his two younger brothers.

There's not much action and even less talking. Vargas (it's the character's name too) gets his long hair cut off on his last day in prison. He borrows a boat, kills a goat, raids a beehive for honey. He buys a blouse for his daughter, not knowing what colors she likes or whether it will fit her. And off he goes, by river and overland, in search of the remote jungle camp where she lives. Alonso doesn't want us to know what to make of Vargas or his crime. (The title, literally "the dead," may refer to Vargas' brothers or to something else.)

Vargas isn't a professional actor, and although he radiates a kind of weatherbeaten, mild-mannered ruthlessness, the character is as unreadable as the jungle he travels through. Possibly that's the point, or one of them, but I don't actually think Alonso has some philosophical agenda about murder or human evil. He wants you to take this mysterious journey with a mysterious man through a mysterious landscape, and each of us will experience it literally or allegorically or however we may. It's a tremendous experience, whatever it is; the kind of thing supposed art-movie audiences used to tolerate and pretty much don't anymore. (Opens April 6 at Anthology Film Archives in New York. Other engagements may follow.)

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Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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