19 April 2007

AT LONG LAST

(I think you will not find that it has been worth the wait).

Like many Americans, my exposure to the films of Paul Verhoeven has been...limited. And like most Americans, I've been woefully underimpressed by the likes of Total Recall and Hollow Man. But I am not afraid to admit that I can make terrible mistakes, and it seems I've made one in underestimating the good Mr. Verhoeven, who as it turns out can direct a film that's not just good, but great. As long as it's not in English.

The film that brought me to this realization: Black Book, a fact-based story of the Dutch resistance in World War II, and a right rip-snorting old-fashioned one at that. Of course, no old-fashioned WWII film would have quite this much female nudity, including a fantastically Verhoevian shot of a woman bleaching her pubic hair with peroxide, but that is the nature of progress.

The film centers on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman living in hiding in Holland during the waning days of the Nazi regime. Without giving away too many notes of the deliciously melodramatic screenplay, she ends up joining the Resistance in the capital, where she is set up as the personal secretary to the head of the local Gestapo, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). This being a Verhoeven film, that is, the work of a dyed-in-the-wool satirist, we find out in due course that Müntze is just about the least anti-Semitic person in Holland, that given the chance, members of the Resistance are just thrilled with the chance to do some Fascist dictating of their own, and that the 20th Century was really an unpleasant time to be Jewish.

It's understandable that people want to fixate on the edgier aspects of the film, the "hey, that Nazi's a swell guy. I really hope she ends up with that Nazi" aspects. The "Jesus Christ, the newly freed Dutch are celebrating by pouring buckets of human shit all over their POWs" aspects, and let me tell you, nothing reminds you that you're watching a film by Paul Verhoeven quicker than the bucket of shit.

But that's not what we're here to talk about right now. I'd instead like to focus on how perfectly Black Book works as a potboiler. We don't much go for setting thrillers in World War II anymore in this country; thanks to Brokaw, Spielberg and the rest of the Greatest Generation pimps, any film set between 1941 and 1945 absolutely must be dour and joyless, so as not to interfere with the deeply serious contemplation of What Men Lose In War. When was the last WWII film that could honestly be called "fun"?

Happily, Black Book is a great deal of fun. It follows a noble tradition of thrillers for grown-up people (another subgenre that's long been out of fashion in this country), freely mixing genuine sexiness with real-world tension with exceptionally twisty cloak-and-dagger intrigue with an exceptionally well-detailed view of the Resistance. The best part is that it does all of this without ever flagging: the first scene opens to noise and chaos, and there will never be a moment when the film's energy drops, when it takes a break from constantly moving forward. The two and a half hour running time flies by, as even the tiniest scenes are wracked with suspense.

I suppose I've always known that Verhoeven is a strong filmmaker. The monstrous screenplay failures of nearly all of his American films - I will cheerfully except RoboCop, and grudgingly do the same for Starship Troopers - distorts the reality that the director is a truly gifted pop-trash artist, wallowing in gore and sex and bad taste not because he is exploitative, but because of the vitality of those things. It's easy to find Black Book distasteful for its melodrama, and its shocking contrarianism, and the generally shoddy way the director treats his lead actress, but to me the film positively vibrates with life because of those very elements. Good taste leads to airless artifacts to be studied and contemplated, but bad taste spills off the screen into the theater; it engages us and confronts us with an ugly humanity that is nevertheless unnervingly human.

By using the Holocaust as the setting for a "mere thriller," Verhoeven and his co-writer Gerard Soeteman are breaking a significant taboo just as much as Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas did in the '90s, only with considerably more finesse and less gaudy trappings. A significant part of the "thrill" in the thriller is because we know how fucked up it is to watch a Nazi and a Jew fall in love.

I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't note that the final half-hour goes some rather different places. It grows naturally and inevitably out of what precedes it; but after the war is over, the tone switches and the moral element of the story is brought to the fore. The subtle hints that the Dutch are not particularly good people become outright plot points, and the film boils itself down to one cold theme: everybody sucks. Amazingly, it manages to do this without become draggy or unpleasant. Indeed, it does this without sacrificing the melodramatic thriller elements that have previously characterized the film; and the fact that we're laughing at the venality of the post-occupation society, rather than crying at it is simply another way in which the filmmakers draw meaning out of our own "inappropriate" reaction to their movie.

Spoilers are bad, so I can't describe the final scene. But it is important, because it is the first time that the thriller tone and the general excitement are stripped away. Without getting into particulars, I will say only that it is a black joke unto itself, reminding us that the rollicking good time we've just had was rooted in the slaughter of innocents, and that slaughter still goes on. When wars end, violence doesn't stop; it just becomes that much harder to recognize your enemies.

9/10

3 comments:

Cameron said...

how is it possible to write a review about a Verhoeven movie and not bring up Showgirls?

Malte Ringer said...

An incredibly nitpicky point: Müntze is the leader of the local SD (Sicherheitsdienst, a part of the SS), not the Gestapo. Great review, though, and it describes exactly how I felt: 'is it okay that I'm finding this really fun?'

Unknown said...

Just watched this and found it full of energy, not as much bad taste as a usual Verhoeven film, with a intriguing plot but definitely lacking any reflective, nuanced dialogue.

But afterward, I kept thinking about it in terms of Inglorious Basterds made at least two years later.

Where would you start to compare these "fun" movies based on WWII?