Right around the time that the star actress of the Dutch WWII film Black Book -- in which she plays a Jewish woman cozying up to the Nazis as a pretend gentile in order to help the resistance -- takes a careful moment to put blonde hair dye on certain more private parts of her body, one suddenly remembers, ah yes, Paul Verhoeven is directing this, isn't he? It's a pity that as a director, Verhoeven's instincts trend so adamantly toward the punishingly crass, because he had in his hands the root of quite a good film here, a thoughtful thriller that can ultimately be seen only in occasional glimpses.
Quite the best thing Verhoeven has going for him is his fantastic Dutch cast, headed up by Carice van Houten in a relentlessly fearless performance as the singer Rachel Stein, who is forced into one morally compromising position after another. The film starts in 1944, when Stein has been in hiding for years, but is sent on the run after an errant Allied bomb destroys her hideout. As a former singer, she's able to take on new personas with great ease, but there's always a tough brightness about her, the statuesque ease of someone who's accustomed to being stared at and fought over. Article continues below
As such, it isn't much surprise to see how easily Stein is able to win the confidences of both the Dutch resistance and the local Nazi commanders, bedding an appropriate man from either camp along the way. The script that Verhoeven wrote (with Gerard Soeteman) is based on heavy research into the period, and touches on a good number of weighty topics, most especially the frying pan and fire situation that European Jews found themselves in during the war, being overtly hunted by Nazis on the one hand, and more covertly being despised and opportunistically taken advantage of by other, occupied Europeans.
In such desperate circumstances, especially in the film's time period (everyone knows the war is ending, and is starting to figure out how to politically position themselves best for the aftermath), it is not at all shocking that somebody like Stein would go so far as to romantically entangle herself with an officer like the Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). However, Verhoeven rather cynically and easily allows Müntze to play the handsome officer (it isn't quite clear if he's Nazi SS or a Dutch collaborator) with a conscience while having another Nazi, the thick-browed and thuggish Franken (Waldemar Kobus) be the heavy who helped massacre Stein's family. See, Müntze is the nice Nazi.
It's this desire to have it both ways that dooms Black Book. Verhoeven wants to make a WWII thriller, and to that end, he has performed amazingly. The film clips right along from one tense confrontation to the next, the screen fairly popping with the drama, all fedoras, train stations, and resistance fighters who can smoke jauntily while shooting Nazis. However, the film also wants to explore issues with some serious moral gravity. Thus its two impulses often work at cross purposes, the more base desire to entertain -- Verhoeven's perverse tendency to shove his unique blend of cartoonish violence and raw sexuality into the audience's face -- often cheapening its more serious material and practically wasting many of the great performances on show here.