Americans might be shocked to learn that the latest World War II epic was made by the same guy who brought them "RoboCop" and "Showgirls." We are used to Hollywood treating World War II as hallowed ground, which is why Clint Eastwood could waft not one but two old-fashioned eulogies over it and be credited as a genius. Paul Verhoeven, who in his 20 years in Hollywood also made "Total Recall," "Basic Instinct" and "Starship Troopers," returned to his native Netherlands to make "Black Book," an action-packed war thriller that has had astounding success there.
That's not to say he couldn't have made it here. Verhoeven is a great artist, living proof that you shouldn't judge a director by his titles. "Black Book" is an intelligent, subversive version of a crowd-pleasing action movie, the kind of thing Verhoeven has made his reputation on. He simply may have run into too many people while looking for funding who saw him only as a shock artist. "Black Book" is at times shocking, but like most of Verhoeven's work, it is much more than the mere surface story would suggest.
Like most of Verhoeven's movies, "Black Book" can be taken as straight entertainment, or commentary, or both. As an action thriller, it plays with conventions by giving the Cary Grant/Harrison Ford role to a woman. Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) is the movie's heroine. A young Dutch woman of Jewish ethnicity, she joins the resistance against the Nazi occupation after watching her family brutally murdered. In many ways, she is a hero, the one we breathlessly watch risk her neck to plant hidden microphones, divert attention and steal important documents. At the same time the movie tries to undercut our hope for heroes, or at least dampen it.
The fact that there is no Green Zone in the world is humorously if grimly conveyed during a lake scene in which Rachel, sunning herself on a dock, watches in horror as her safe house is destroyed by a fleeing American bomber. An attempted escape from Holland with her family and other Jews ends up being a ruse perpetrated by Nazis and collaborators to round up the wealthy and get their valuables. Rachel joins the resistance under the nom de guerre Ellis De Vries. Her first duty is to seduce German high officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), with whom she quickly falls in love. Müntze, a stamp collector, is as sympathetic as a Nazi can be. Commissioned with quashing the resistance, he makes back deals to avoid bloodshed, while leaving the dirty work to an eager underling, Franken (Waldemar Kobus).
"Black Book" contains multitudes between Müntze and Franken. Rewards as well as punishments, the movie reveals by the end, are dealt very unfairly. The "Book" in the title refers to a small notebook, a careful diary of bad dealings and back-stabbings, carried around by one of the few hero/villains we can't quite be sure of.
It's never easy to say what Verhoeven intends, either. Some subversive directors use the obvious action as a cover for something else. For Verhoeven, the action is the something else, right there on the surface, and you can take it plain or see the message. Just as "Showgirls" lampooned Hollywood rags-to-riches fare like "Flashdance," "Hollow Man" was about a man who gradually grew invisible to his ex-girlfriend. Jilted guys everywhere, with or without special serums, can sympathize. "Black Book" may not be as easy to pick apart, but the surface is still the best place to look. Near the end, Rachel and the only other reasonably good character to survive sit on the bank of a lake, echoing the film's beginning. The scene is the movie's great sigh of relief, but the feeling is that soon the world will be back to its usual savagery. It would give too much away to say what happens next, but it looks a lot like what's happening today. As in our world, "Black Book" ends with more walls, more barbed wire, more former victims building more prisonlike enclaves to keep themselves safe. (R) 145 min. ***** S