Monday, March 26, 2007

Black Book

Black Book
dir. Paul Verhoeven

Carice, starlet (not to be confused with Clarice Starling)

February 27, 2007 - 35mm/Walter Reade Theater

The sexiest holocaust movie ever made, Black Book tackles the European World War II narrative through the lens of a different variety of heroism from your typical liberation saga. It has its share of benchmark or stock moments of World War II cinema, such as the young soldier struggling with his first “murder,” but thankfully moments like this are presented without the annoying “oh so tragic, oh so important” air that detracts from such scenes in the Flags of Our Fathers and Saving Private Ryans of the world. There is no droning music, washed-out old-timey muted color palette or even a moment to reflect. Most of all there is little to no catharsis or self-congratulatory back-slapping. Instead, you get layer upon layer of enjoyable thrills blending in successfully with horrifying scenes of inhumanity garnering heroically human reactions.

Carice Van Houten stars as Rachel Stein, a Dutch Jewish girl who, upon the execution of her family, joins an underground resistance against the Nazi occupation. There in lies one of the many fascinating grey areas this movie addresses. Is our heroine fighting for revenge or some political cause, and more importantly, does any of that even matter as long as she’s fighting/fucking? Fucking? In order to infiltrate a German base and liberate a fellow resistance fighter, Rachel Stein becomes Ellis de Vries and seduces the handsome Ludwig Muntze, head of the Nazi Intelligence (the Sicherheitsdienst or “SD”). In the typical and always refreshing style of director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven, our heroine is presented in a way that breaks down the term “sex-symbol” giving us a character of immense sexiness borne not only from statuesque beauty, but of human, earthy strength and frailty. A great deal has already been written about the transitional Rachel to Ellis scene where she dyes her hair blonde, including (gasp!) her pubic hair. Paul Verhoeven, never one to shirk the details, presents this scene with a frank matter-of-factness that only enhances the sexiness of his lead. Mr. Verhoeven’s inclusion of not just that scene, but scenes such as one where Ellis and another Nazi mistress swap dialogue over peeing lends profundity and a sense of human realism that lacks from not just World War II movies but historical movies of all kinds.

The sexual and physical realism brought to the table by Mr. Verhoeven and his brave actors gives the "War thriller" narrative a sense of urgency as the plot careens forward through double-crosses and side-swapping. At times it seems the Nazis may as well be gangsters who have taken a hostage and a sexy police officer goes undercover to get to the bottom of it (see The Departed). Yet, the stakes are greater, and more often than gangsters the Nazis appear to be the American military complex colonizing nations with a presence of boastful cocksure instability.

For the Verhoeven aficionados and obsessives out there (I know I’m not alone! Top five living directors!) the authorial trademarks are ever present. His attitude toward WWII and war in general has wavered little since Soldier of Orange, though his rollercoaster ride through Hollywood has made him a slicker narrative beast, with Black Book his most cohesive (only in the narrative sense) picture since Basic Instinct. His anger toward his native Holland’s role in The War is reiterated, and Black Book is an excellent companion to Soldier of Orange, maybe its big sister (Katie Tippel would be its cousin). While Black Book will be toted as Paul Verhoeven’s “return to form,” he did not go anywhere. He made one, and only one, self-described bad movie in Hollow Man after a string of consistently brilliant efforts. Black Book is another great one, consistently brilliant throughout, thrilling, sexy, bold, smart, brash… all of that good shit, but mostly, most of all, human, and human in the face of the craziest big picture moviemaking around.

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