April 26, 2007

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Black Book (R)
Paul Verhoeven (director of Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers) mixes tales of the Holocaust and the Dutch resistance with moderate sexploitation and comes up with a surprisingly guilty-pleasurable, mostly not-offensive action drama in Black Book.

In flashback, we meet Rachel (Carice van Houten), a Jewish girl in Holland who has managed to make it to 1944, in part by hiding with a Christian family in the countryside. Though they make her recite Bible passages and the husband is moderately anti-Semitic, the spot is livable ó that is until a plane mid-combat drops its payload (to help it climb) and blows up her hiding place. Tossed to the winds, Rachel meets a man claiming to be with the resistance. He offers to help Rachel and her family (parents and a brother) get to a liberated part of Holland. While crossing a river on a transport with other escaping Jews, Rachelís family and everyone else on the boat are killed by Nazis who apparently have been lying in wait for the transport. Rachel manages to dive off the boat and watches from a distance as the Nazis rob the bodies of the dead, including her parents. Swimming back to shore and somehow reconnecting with the resistance, Rachel dyes her brown hair blonde, changes her name to Ellis and works to speed the end of the war. During one mission to move radio parts to the city, Ellis takes a train and befriends SS officer Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), head of the Gestapo in the country. Though her flirting with Muntze is initially just a way of diverting the attention of SS officers searching passengersí luggage, Ellis is genuinely attracted to something in Muntzeís manner. Later, when another member of the resistance is captured, Ellis agrees to attempt to continue her friendship with Muntze and eventually becomes his secretary and his lover.

Though Muntze is revealed to be sort of a nice Nazi (itís a little hard to believe that somebody whoís all puppy-dog eyes would get as far as he did in the Gestapo but, you know, Paul Verhoeven), heís surrounded by plenty of brutes happy to be thieving monsters even though they know Germanyís already lost the war. Ellis is particularly interested in bringing down Franken (Waldemar Kobus), the officer who was in charge of the raid where her family was killed.

Though Ellis is going that extra mile (namely, sex with Muntze) for the resistance, her relationship with the group is surprisingly shaky. Plenty of the members display their own anti-Jewish tendencies and are mistrustful of her relationship with Muntze. Eventually, Ellis finds herself hiding not only from the Nazis but possibly from the resistance as well.

What really sticks out about Black Book is how often, between all the tense moments of spying and near capture and double-crosses, we see boobies. Black Book is awash in boobs. Yes, itís only two sets of boobs ó those of van Houten and those of Halina Reijn, who plays Frankenís girlfriend ó but we see them at a greater frequency than boobs appear in most World War II movies. The preponderance of boobs plus a few shocking scenes of Ellisí humiliation at the hands of various tormenters suggest that this isnít another Greatest Generation saga but an action movie with a sly sense of, er, maybe not humor but something darn close to it. Thereís a ďtoo muchĒ-ness to the film that make the serious a bit campy and the filmís sassiness (and Rachel/Ellis is plenty sassy) seem even more daring than it really is. Weirder still, I kind of like this often silly, occasionally suspenseful bit of melodrama, not just in spite of its pulpiness but because of it.

I canít completely decide whether or not Black Book is a good movie ó one of the central mysteries (who is the Nazi mole within the resistance?) is handled kind of clunkily and some of the scenes that should have the most punch are so overheated as to be borderline ridiculous. But it is an entertaining movie with engaging performances by van Houten and Koch (who also did some solid work in The Lives of Others). Itís the kind of movie that makes you think wildly inappropriate thoughts such as: who knew the horrors of war were so soap-operatic? and, what, no bra? B-

Rated R for some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language. Directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman, Black Book is two hours and 25 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Sony Pictures Classics. It is currently playing in the Boston area.