Vigorous stirring is Paul Verhoeven’s stock-in-trade. As the Netherlands’ most successful filmmaker of the ’70s and ’80s, he alienated critics and funders with his frank treatment of aggression, libido and ethical equivocacy. Following his move to America, his use of sex and violence in the likes of ‘Robocop’, ‘Basic Instinct’ and ‘Showgirls’ prompted further consternation, now compounded by his willingness to play as fast and loose with expectations of genre as he always had with character and narrative; ‘Starship Troopers’, for instance, was accused of promoting the very fascistic tendencies it satirised. Uniquely, Verhoeven makes populist films that challenge audiences to keep their distance – to acknowledge that the character with the most lines might not be a nice person, that plot can be a conspiracy against reason, that violent or sexual behaviour can be both more and less consequential than Hollywood convention insists.
In short, his pictures thrive on irony, and the superb, gripping ‘Black Book’ is a double-faced affair. His first Dutch production in two decades uses Rachel’s experiences to hold a glass to the little-examined period of Dutch history around the end of WW2. Her family lost, the former singer falls in with a Resistance cell, is given a new identity and infiltrates the local SS HQ via a liaison with senior officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). As the Nazis crumble and Rachel begins to glean the contents of the titular logbook, however, she realises she may have less to fear from the disarmingly decent Müntze than the ‘heroes’ of the underground or a vengeful public.
For Verhoeven, the ostensibly heroic and dutiful are rarely distinguishable from the venal and inane; even ‘Soldier of Orange’ (1977), adapted from the memoirs of one of the Netherlands’ most celebrated WW2 fighter pilots, presented the war more as gratifying adventure than noble struggle. That film’s Hague liberation sequence was blithely jubilant; its counterpart here is a nightmare ordeal, in keeping with the plot’s other reversals of historical expectation. Such reversals divorce the global from the personal and focus attention on Rachel’s bizarrely ambivalent position as the Jew singing at the Nazi soirée.
Like ‘Katie Tippel’ (1975) and ‘Showgirls’, ‘Black Book’ charts the progress of a woman set on survival and independence and willing to use sex. Rachel is more sympathetic, but just as canny, and she takes to her role-playing life with aplomb. Van Houten’s barnstorming performance, accentuated by a bold, saturated palette, makes comparisons to Garbo and Jean Harlow plausible, but Rachel is far from the only character well-versed in the uses of glamour. A noble visage or political assumption might distort as much as a small black book reveals. Best not judge by covers.