Friday, December 28, 2007


Alfred Hitchcock and Paul Verhoeven. Wow, I don't think I'd ever see those two names together. To be honest, I'd never seen a Paul Verhoeven film before Black Book, and I think that was to my benefit. I was able to approach this film with a clear mind, a blank slate. Well, maybe not totally blank. His reputation preceded him. I knew him as the smutmaster general of such films as Showgirls, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Before this, I think Showgirls has been his biggest claim to fame, even if it was more infamy than fame. But, I've heard people I really admire defend Showgirls like you wouldn't believe, so maybe there's something there. Who knows? All I know is that Jessie Spano takes her clothes off in it.

Before Black Book, I think it's safe to say that Verhoeven was a guilty pleasure director, an auteur even (hey, no one says you have to necessarily be good to be called an auteur). To be frank, he's associated with crappy films. But Black Book is something else altogether. I find it really hard to believe that the same guy who made Showgirls and all those other movies made this film. I LOVED Black Book. The obvious difference is that this is in his native language, Dutch. To summarize briefly, since the plot is really complicated, it's about Ellis, a Dutch Jew who goes into hiding during World War II and aids the Dutch Resistance against the Nazis. She's a sexy spy, basically.

This is a very powerful film. Films are made about the Nazis and World War II all the time, but I have never seen one quite like this. It's not ultra-serious like Downfall (which is brilliant, by the way). It's not as touching as Life is Beautiful. It's not a laugh-out-loud satire like The Producers. I think it kind of combines the best of all three types, which is not to say that I think it's the best, but that it is an interesting melting pot of styles. It's definitely flashier than most Nazi films. Or maybe glossy is the right word. And I think that's just Verhoeven's tendency. But I don't think it's flashy at the expense of emotion or substance.

I have heard about how much fun this film is and that it even borders on camp (while not crossing over). I didn't get that impression at all. I don't think Verhoeven compromises the integrity of the material. He treats this really tragic story with so much compassion and respect. I never got any sense of camp. It actually makes me really want to watch it again and even listen to Verhoeven's commentary to hear his intentions. I do agree somewhat with the fun part. I didn't have fun in the sense that I was watching with glee or giggling or something. It was fun in the visceral sense of great storytelling. It was suspenseful and exciting. I was constantly shocked by the plot twists and always on the edge of my figurative seat waiting anxiously for what would happen next. I was really invested in this story and, most importantly, the characters.

It might be a more spectacle-based approach to Nazis and fascism, but why not? Isn't war a spectacle? Yet there are so many quiet, devastating moments. It's not all action. It is definitely a thriller, but there's more than that. This film is anchored by Carice van Houten, the actress who plays Ellis. This is an amazing performance that I think has been overlooked. She is pitch perfect for the role. She gives the film its heart. But the rest of the characters are complex and interesting, as well. The Nazis aren't all just one-dimensional, beard-stroking, finger-steepling, cackling evil-doers. Munzte, played by Sebastian Koch (great in this as well as in The Lives of Others), is a Nazi working with the Resistance and wavering in his beliefs. There is good and evil in people on both sides, which rings so true.

Sure, there's nudity and violence here, but it's not exploitative. It's all totally justified. And I don't think it's glorified. Some of the nudity is downright horrific in its context. I never got anything other than a serious vibe from this film. There's dark comedy, and there's definitely a lot of action (sexual and otherwise). There's also a lot of depth and feeling, and the subject matter is always treated seriously. Verhoeven does it justice, and that's hard to do with such heavy material. Yes, it is fun in the sense that it's a blast to watch. It's wonderful to witness great cinema. To me, it's flawless. The characters are engaging, and the story is so suspenseful, hence my initial reference to Hitchcock. I think Hitchcock would adore Black Blook. It warrants one my favorite adjectives to give a film: delicious.

So, I'm not sure if this makes me want to watch every other Paul Verhoeven movie. I am intrigued, though. Maybe he is some sort of genius. But I think if I never see another Verhoeven film besides Black Book, that'll be enough for me. I don't think he can make anything better. This is his masterpiece. He's 70 years old now, so that's not bad at all. Maybe it's better to quit while you're ahead.

Rating: ***** (out of 5)

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