War Is Hell, and So Is 'Black Book'

Carice van Houten in Paul Verhoeven's WWII potboiler.
Carice van Houten in Paul Verhoeven's WWII potboiler. (By Jaap Vrenegoor -- Sony Pictures Classics)

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By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 20, 2007

Possibly it's no surprise that the Dutch are renowned for their dairy products, as the new Dutch film "Black Book" manages to turn World War II into a large piece of cheese.

A lurid, pulpy, slightly perverse potboiler, "Black Book" suffers mainly from its utter lack of seriousness. War, genocide, oppression, exploitation, the essence of evil: These are not subjects to be taken lightly, and the time for melodrama is long since past. But then the filmmaker, Paul Verhoeven, has never been known for his judgment. After all, in the American stage of his career, he made two of the most notorious films of all time, "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls." He also made a near-great film -- "Robocop" -- and a lot of mediocrity, as in "Total Recall," after which I concluded: "Consider dat a divorce!"

Verhoeven tells us the story of Rachel Stein, a Jewish cabaret singer trying to survive the Third Reich in the Netherlands of 1944. An errant bomb -- blown by the winds of war -- turns the farm where she's been hiding into a funeral pyre, and Rachel is on the run. Shortly enough she reunites with her family, contracts with a middleman to move themselves and other wealthy Jews through some marshes toward Allied lines, and becomes the only survivor of an S.S. massacre.

Indeed, massacres come fast and furious in "Black Book" as does a plot that shunts through developments faster than a dealer can shuffle a deck of cards, although nobody ever seems terribly upset about events, as if the cast knows it's only a movie. Two or three massacres in and Rachel takes up with a Resistance cell and is given the job of seducing the Gestapo chief. All's fair in love and war, but isn't this going a little too far in both love and war? Particularly when she really does fall in love with him.

The movie's morality is as dicey as its plot. It makes sure we understand that the handsome secret police colonel, Muentze (Sebastian Koch), is a "good" German, as opposed to his loutish if musically inclined henchman Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus, who plays a mean ragtime piano in his black, lightning-flashed uniform!). Presumably Muentze has been sending Jews off to the camps for the whole war, though the movie fails to note it; meanwhile Franken becomes villain-in-chief because the Jews he's killed include Rachel's family.

But that's only a tiny part of the big -- 145 minutes long! -- story; most of the rest of the film examines the internecine struggles of the Resistance cell itself, that is when it's not contriving to get Rachel, played by Carice van Houten, into her sensational '40s lingerie -- or out of it. At any rate, the central issue of the Resistance is rescuing the chief's son from Gestapo captivity before he can be executed, a task made yet more difficult by the fact that one of the fighters has made a kind of unholy alliance with one of the secret policemen.

Well, on and on it goes, with hardly a dull moment, but far too many lively ones (lots of machine guns) and, more disturbingly, quite a few repulsive ones. The massacre of surrendered Jews aboard a barge is unpleasant to watch, as is a grotesque moment when Rachel, in prison under mistaken circumstances, is taken for a collaborator and subjected to a degradation too repulsive to be described.

Verhoeven was once so promising. "Robocop" was smart, tough, funny, extremely entertaining and extremely provocative. Even "Basic Instinct" had its moments . . . I mean, other than its moment. But this whole enterprise feels like Danielle Steel on steroids, not a pleasant picture.

Black Book (145 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, nudity, sexuality, torture and degradation.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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