Ambiguously Evil

Paul Verhoeven has again created a hard-to-classify film with sly intelligence

Director Paul Verhoeven is an interesting guy. He was the first nominee ever to attend the Razzie Awards, where he personally picked up the Worst Director and Worst Picture awards for Showgirls. His Starship Troopers was an experiment in seeing how much Nazi imagery he could put on screen before he alienated his audience. (In America, the answer is "infinity.") He has a Ph.D. in mathematics; he's a Bible scholar, a survivor of World War II and the only person ever to film Sharon Stone's no-fly zone and live to tell about it.

And now, after years of working in the United States (a large country known for its "hot dogs" and "international debt"), he has returned to his native Denmark to make Black Book, a film about a Dutch woman who, while resisting the Nazis, found at least one of them irresistible in a naked way.

Carice van Houten (no relation to Milhouse) plays Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman who must find a way out of Holland when her secret hiding place gets all blown up with fire and bombs.

Aided by Notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries), her father's lawyer, she boards a boat to safety. Unfortunately, leering, ugly Nazis kill almost everyone on board and then steal their money. This establishes something that other films have glossed over: The Nazis weren't just evil; they were also bad.

Somehow, Rachel survives and joins a band of resistance fighters, and then winds up sleeping with an SS officer and also singing lots of German cabaret songs. In the end, she learns a lesson about love, and death, and war, and Nazis (Nazis=bad, except the really handsome ones, who are OK and also fun to kiss on).

Sebastian Koch plays her lover, Captain Ludwig Müntze, who, in spite of the umlaut in his name, is a pretty decent fellow, considering that he's a Nazi. Koch was recently in The Lives of Others, the Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film. He was amazing in that role, and he does a very similar job in Black Book of presenting a mix of confidence and sorrow.

In many ways, though, his acting is oddly out of place in Black Book, which mostly goes for an old-fashioned, almost kitschy appeal to 1940s filmmaking. The music swells ominously at dramatic moments; the camera jump-cuts to close-ups of shocked faces; rapid-cut montage scenes indicate danger and intrigue; and the women turn to the camera and smile and wink and raise their skirts like Dick Cheney plans to do on VI day.

It's tremendously distancing, and occasionally comic. And yet, this is a complex film which, unlike the classic war films it imitates, portrays morality in shades of gray. Verhoeven has a deep sense of the difference between fighting for a good cause and being a good person. His resistance fighters are casually anti-Semitic; some of his Nazis are humble and decent; and Canadian soldiers are portrayed as both heroic and very, very horny.

As a result, it's almost impossible to place this film in a strict genre, in spite of its many nods to genre. Especially unusual is the performance of van Houten. She has a cuteness that's comparable to a zipper or clasp or some sort of clothes-fastening device, and at times, her simple, shocked expressions are frozen in a stagey imitation of emotion. At other times, she has a fleshy depth that's heartbreaking. It's as though Verhoeven wanted to push his audience into laughing at his film so he could turn around and devastate them with horror of the story, bringing up questions of what, exactly, the point is of turning a tragedy into entertainment.

Verhoeven's sense of moral ambiguity is especially apt in a few terribly resonant scenes. The Nazis always refer to the resistance fighters as terrorists, and, indeed, one could define their actions as terrorism. But when the Nazis capture and waterboard one of them, it becomes apparent that labels can't capture the motives behind their actions.

But those motives are also impure: Sometimes, the resistance fighters kill simply for revenge. They're not above making a profit on their actions. They go on missions that jeopardize their position just for the thrill of killing. And then they turn around and nobly sacrifice themselves so that others might live.

This degree of ambiguity is generally considered intolerable in the kind of glossy, big-budget production that Black Book either is or is making fun of. Verhoeven's trick is that you can't always tell which tack he's taking, and in the end, questions pile up in spite of the very neat resolution of the complex plot.

So it's hard to say if this is a good film, but, like most of Verhoeven's work, it's a slyly intelligent one. Just as he did in Starship Troopers, Showgirls and RoboCop, he uses the conventions of genre to both draw in and attack his audience. That he can do this while still creating a riveting drama is a testament to his Hollywood-honed craft and his art-film roots.