There’s no question Verhoeven’s a breast-man. I had him pegged long before Showgirls was a gleam in his randy eye, back when I was slavering over anything that featured a young Rutger Hauer. Before Verhoeven went Hollywood in the mid-80s, he made a whack of films in Holland that starred Hauer and a series of lush, wide-eyed women with wobbly, cream-filled breasts. Most of these movies were shot through a soft-core gauze, combining seediness with a sort of German New Wave wannabe feel that won Verhoeven a few awards. I found them absorbing and imperfect, and they made the director who gave us Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct that much more intriguing. They also guaranteed my never being able — ever — to take Verhoeven at face value and accord him the serious regard he may or may not have been seeking with Turkish Delight and Spetters; God knows he was being arch with his Hollywood output.
With Black Book (now on DVD in North America, and still touring the art houses in some cities), Verhoeven attempts to bring that archness (honed to a fine point by Starship Troopers and Showgirls) back to his native Holland. Verhoeven going Dutch again was an exciting prospect, and it resulted in exactly what those familiar with both styles of Verhoeven production would expect: a little bit from column A (minor nods at old-school Northern European filmmaking, and that gauzy breastiness) and a little bit from column B (shiny ass-kicking fantasy action). Verhoeven still makes films aimed to satisfy what he thinks a male audience craves, and he still hasn’t sloughed off his rough edges as a director. He’s also provided more BPF (Boobs Per Frame) than we’ve seen since Nomi Malone strutted through her Vegas shenanigans. Carice van Houten delivers a solid performance as Rachel Stein, aka Ellis, a Jewish woman taken in by the Dutch Resistance in Nazi-occupied Holland, but her Mata Hari exploits are overshadowed by her utterly breathtaking mammary appendages. They’re perfect, and they’re on camera in all their naked glory about as often as they’re clothed. The grappling male hands that engulf them stand in not just for the audience’s gaze but also the director’s — you get the sense that Verhoeven just can’t get enough of them.
Yes, absolutely — I deserve to have several Film Reviewer demerit points taken off my tally for focusing on skin. But I plead incapacity; Black Book isn’t as mammarcentric as Showgirls (apart from Russ Meyer’s body of work, what is?), but Verhoeven has constructed a film fixed around a set of hooters — not the war, so much, or the Dutch Resistance, but van Houten’s brightly-lit ivory mounds. Time really only stops and yet events really only evolve when tits are on parade. I’m still seeing them a day later, interspersed with slick Lugers and polished Hugo Boss jackboots. They’re the eye-candy that caps the excessive, somewhat hack-ish movie Verhoeven’s given us after his long absence from his filmmaking roots.
Kinder reviewers are calling Black Book a successful throwback to the 1950s WWII melodrama form, but I’m just seeing a bundle of misfires held together by van Houten’s electric performance and that of her equally electric co-star, Sebastian Koch. Koch plays Ludwig Müntze, the Nazi VIP Ellis falls for while spying on his cadre for the Resistance. The fact that Ellis can feel genuine affection for an SS commander soon after seeing his second-in-command gun down her family and fellow-refugees, their bodies rudely looted for coin and jewels in a benighted swamp, is one I’m willing to let slide by. Black Book, after all, intentionally explores the mechanics of wartime betrayal and the ways the us/them boundaries dissolve over time. Loyalties between Resistance fighters, between fighters and Jews, between SS officers, between Nazis and Dutch collaborators, are fluid and ephemeral. Characters give up the principles of the group they identify with in order to advance their individual interests. Us vs. Them ceases to be a reliable barometer for establishing safe alliances, and the movie’s story and gunfire spring off this matrix when they’re not springing off a rosy field of nipples.
In this climate, a love-affair between an overgruppenführer and a traumatized Jewish woman becomes somewhat less unlikely — it’s the star-crossed lovers motif cranked to 99 for Verhoeven’s soapy purposes, borrowing heavily from the psychology of the Stockholm Syndrome. It’s too bad that the love Ellis and Müntze purportedly feel for one another never really comes across onscreen (especially on her part); it’s a weak spot in their otherwise aquifer-clear acting, and one that might be blamed more on script or direction, because these characters are — however well-acted — just lacquered veneer on a bedrock of eggshell.
The film boils down to a series of ambushes intercut with the background scenes that set the ambush scenarios up. Despite all these ambushes and double-crosses, nothing comes as a surprise. It’s paint-by-numbers action made all the more painful because, back in the day, Verhoeven once helped rewrite the book on action films. Additionally, certain characters and situations just bomb, to irritating effect. Theo, for instance, a Resistance fighter with religious sensibilities who argues for non-violent solutions, explodes into a trigger-happy rage when someone curses. O the paradox! Did you get that paradox? Theo’s cute little character construction ends up being nothing more than a cute little character construction — something I’d expect from a director much greener than Verhoeven, or at least much better pulled off.
View Verhoeven’s latest as a matinee melodrama, and you might have better luck with it than I did, but even as someone familiar with the filmmaker’s style and body of work, I couldn’t get comfortably situated in all this poorly managed irony. When Verhoeven really cares, as he apparently did with this Resistance tale years in the scripting (incorporating his own childhood memories of wartime), he can’t seem to lay down either a solid tone or a consistent satire; we’re left with the impression that his signature burlesquing was in reality, all this time, a merciful veil for failed intentions. Black Book is the film that finally convinced me that, for all the fun he’s given me over the years, Verhoeven’s always been, at bottom, a silly director whose success depends as much on accident as it does on chops. – Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on November 1, 2007.)