Yesterday, I just had one of those experiences that stayed with me all through the day. I was lucky enough to take the 5 minute walk to the Garden Cinemas and catch what may be the best new film that I will see all year. Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is such a wonderful over the top melodramatic film, made about such a serious subject that it's only hours after leaving the theater in awe of what I saw that I was even able to attempt to delve into what I loved so much about the film. Not even my bedroom ceiling falling down last night under the weight of water, in my first weekend in a new apartment in a new state, 2 days before I start a new job (perhaps more on that later), can temper my enthusiasm about this film.
Black Book starts off by telling the story of Rachel (soon to be Ellis) a Jewish girl living in Nazi occupied Holland. Soon enough, after her hiding place is bombed by the Nazis Rachel through rapid succession of circumstances finds herself working as part of the Dutch resistance to the Nazi occupation. Having recently been lucky enough to have seen Melville's Army of Shadows in the theater last year parts of the resistance story seemed familiar, even if set in a different country. Verhoeven had numerous tight and tense scenes of resistance fighters attempting to make their way in and out of various Nazi posts on what seemed mostly like suicide missions. And their were more than enough of these action or suspense sequences to keep virtually any viewer entertained I would guess.
However, what stuck with me throughout the film, and what is sticking with me afterwards is the overwhelming moral ambiguity of the characters and their motives throughout the film. The resistance fighters are flawed. A Nazi has a kind heart. Their were so many twists and turns throughout the film that in the end, it was not out of the question to be wondering who exactly am I supposed to be rooting for here? One way Verhoeven achieved this was bringing his characters sometimes unwillingly, sometimes unknowingly into acts of violence. A devout Christian member of the resistance struggles to even pull the trigger as he sees his fellow member of the resistance getting beat near the point of death, that is until he hears the assailaint take the Lords name in vain. Then the bullets come flying. Do members of the resistance sacrifice Jews for their own fellow non Jewish Dutch countrymen? Questions like that arise against such a fast paced kinetic background, that if you stop for a moment to think about it as you are viewing you may miss the next twist, and there are several!
But, what's more? It's only after the Dutch resistance has proven "successful" and Holland is liberated that Verhoeven brings more problems to the core. As, Dutch flags wave in the street and soldiers come down in a parade on side streets women are having their blonde hair shaven, stipped to their underwear holding up signs "Nazi Whore." Is Verhoeven suggesting that the Dutch treatment of their own citizens after the war was no better than the Nazis? One character says as much. But, again, as the viewer, where do we look in the film for definitive answers. More often than not their isn't a definitive answer. The moral ambiguity throughout, and the questions one is left with is the very genius of the film. In a story about the indisputable good cause of the Dutch resistance against Nazi Germany we see the darkest side of human nature in our heroes as well as our villains.
It's been years since I have seen Basic Instinct or Showgirls, two of Verhoeven's more recent efforts. But like in those films sex does play a huge role in this film. Rachel/Ellis is stripped bare often in aid of the resistance, and humiliated often as well. Candice von Houten bravely plays her role. It's the first film I have seen her in, and after seeing this film their is nobody else I could picture in this role. She was wonderful. The rest of the supporting cast at the very least held their own and at times were even magnificent, Thom Hoffman as the resistance fighter Hans especially stood out, as did Sebastian Kock as Muntze, head of the Nazi SS.
More even than wanting to recommend this film to all of my friends I now find myself also wanting to check out earlier Verhoeven as well. I am among many that snickered at Starship Troopers and Showgirls, but after an effort like this, I think its time for me to give his other films another look as well.