Good and evil in Dutch WW2 thriller

2008-10-02 08:05

Director Paul Verhoeven has been in the movie wilderness since his much-maligned flop, Showgirls. His reputation was built, however, on blockbusters such as Basic Instinct and Total Recall, and his return with Black Book is a welcome and satisfying one.

Subtitled from the Dutch, it is likely to be relegated to the art-house circuit, which is a pity because it's a good thriller, with a romantic twist of sorts, set in The Hague in the final stages of World War 2. The Russians are closing in on Germany from the East, the Allies from the West, and liberation for the occupied territories is imminent. Yet even so, the Nazis maintain a regime of oppression, revenge and, of course, rounding up Jews.

Verhoeven says he has not intended the film to be labelled in the Holocaust category. His focus is on the conduct of the Dutch people during the war, but rather than setting out to pillory them, he keeps a philosophical equanimity about both their crimes and heroism. Indeed, they sold out the Jews. At the start of the war there were 140 000 in Holland. By the end there were 30 000. Many of the “disappeared” were betrayed, some literally sold to the Nazis, by Dutch citizens.

Black Book tells the story of one such Jew, Rachel Stein, a cabaret chanteuse who manages to escape and join the Resistance, and who is given a spying assignment that entails having an affair with a high-ranking Nazi officer. He, it turns out, is both good-looking and humane, and she, unexpectedly, falls for him. As if things aren't perverse enough, the head of the local Resistance falls for her too. But that's not the half of it; this is not just a strange love story, and the twists one requires of a thriller keep what is quite a long film anyway exciting to the end.

The good Nazi is more than balanced by very nasty ones, but of more subtle relevance is that the good Dutchmen and women are offset by the vicious post-Liberation retribution taken out on collaborators. The unsettling question that Verhoeven throws out is how different was this conduct, in the final analysis, from that of the Nazis. Not at all, one might conclude. A decade or two ago, this would have been an unpalatable notion in Europe, but as history softens moral judgment, conquered and oppressed people are more easily able to face the fact that there are always collaborators, and that there are always tales of courage and evil to be told on both sides of any conflict.

Verhoeven's portrait of human nature is not the most nuanced, and he is still partial to nudity and the crotch shot that made Basic Instinct a talking point. But there's enough food for thought in this engrossing story to upgrade it from being mere entertainment.

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