The best film of 2007 so far, Paul Verhoeven's elegant and unsentimental Black Book is a sweeping war epic heavily colored by the director's keen eye for cruelty and his shoulder-shrug attitude over the depths to which human beings can sink, but also steeped in influences as far flung as Garbo's Mata Hari and the breezy, fraternal war movies of John Sturges. Following a Jewish girl on the run in Nazi-occupied Holland, the film bounds with relentless verve from one set piece to the next, as Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten, find of the decade) loses her family in one terrible flash and turns to the only people who will shelter her -- grizzled resistance fighters playing kill-for-kill games with the Nazis. Offered Aryan papers and a modicum of security, Steinn rejects them in favor of a more brazen kind of double-life, becoming a covert resistance fighter herself, putting her life on the wire on the slim chance that she may be able to throw a wrinkle into the plans of the piggish German high command.
While living life on the hoof and relying heavily on her striking looks to get the benefit of the doubt when its needed, events and quick thinking conspire to lead Steinn into the bed of a high-ranking Nazi, Muntze (Sebastian Koch) where the two play 'are you really friend or foe?' at night, while continuing about their separate missions during the day. Untypical for Verhoeven is the degree of tenderness and unclouded emotion that seep through during some of the scenes between van Houten and Koch, as their respective secret identities -- she as a fighting Jew, he as being possibly sympathetic to fighting Jews -- begin to melt away. Much hay will be made over a few shots devoted to van Houten's character deracinating her Jewish identity by painting her pubic hair blonde to match a bottled Harlow coiffure, but with all the attention Verhoeven lavishes on the actress's visage throughout the film and the justice he does her character and her story, I'm in the camp that says we should probably just allow an aging master his directorial Viagra.
Like all Verhoeven movies, Black Book walks a fine line between serious consideration of issues and the inclination of the director to deliver a high old time to the audience. On that score, the film is no more a serious examination of Nazi-Dutch relations during the war than Starship Troopers is a treatise on fascism. Still, both are wildly successful films and Black Book's signature moments, such as its heroine belting out a clearly practiced rendition of 'Naughty Lola' to a bunch of debauched Nazi functionaries is one of the more entertaining scenes in recent films, if only for its unexpectedness. Also unexpected is the degree to which Verhoeven has been able to bring Hollywood production values to a foreign shore -- the film was shot on location in The Netherlands and Germany, with a Dutch crew undoubtedly mounting the effort of a lifetime. If you're really looking, you can sometimes spot the budget limitations of the film, but Verhoeven is a master of directing your attention elsewhere and coiling you up in his own manic energy.
There are crosses and double-crosses aplenty as Steinn and Muntze attempt to correctly gauge the intentions of each other and their own compatriots, and as with Melville's much-revived Army of Shadows, a good deal of the film's action revolves around the resistance staging suicide raids to break their own out of scary basement prisons before they can be trotted out before a courtyard firing squad. These clockwork action set-ups are are taut and merciless, but Verhoeven saves most of his famed directorial energy (and excess) for the scenes that occur after the main action has been resolved, when Dutch resistance has proved victorious and a fever of score-settling sets in among the local populace. Based partly on his own memories of growing up amongst these horrors, Verhoeven shows us suspected collaborators being sheared and slaughtered in the streets while a vengeful mob screams for more bloodshed. The message, unsubtle but unmistakable, is that it's just not in the nature of people to get 'weary' of violence, no matter how much of it we've been exposed to.
What we have here is, at the least, a bravura encore performance by a veteran filmmaker and a picture that can be added to RoboCop, Starship Troopers, Soldier of Orange and the others that belong at the top of Verhoeven's unique and colorful resume. At best, it's a sign that Verhoeven is still very much on top of his game and should be re-embraced in a meaningful way by Hollywood and not relegated to helming any more 'hollow' projects, cough-cough. A director that can fire on all cylinders even with a limited budget and a crew presumably green to epic filmmaking is a rare thing indeed. Black Book is an absorbing mix of fact, romantic fiction, personal memory and the memory of a thousand movies, all rolled up into one bruising, pulse-pounding adventure. It also heralds the arrival of an actress with head-spinning star quality and finishes with one of the more meaningful and resonant movie endings in many a moon. What more do you want for your ten bucks?