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Black Book

Verhoeven Goes Home Again, With Memorable Results

Black Book marks director Paul Verhoeven’s return to his native Netherlands after an absence of more than two decades, during which time he enjoyed a successful run in Hollywood with high-splatter blockbusters including Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. Black Book is more high-minded than those films -- it’s a World War II drama that chronicles one woman’s tireless struggle to survive the Holocaust -- but it is, in its own way, no less lurid. Filled with unrestrained eroticism and sensationalized violence, it is deliciously trashy entertainment, the kind that Verhoeven does best.

His heroine, the young Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), is so fiercely determined to avoid the Nazi death camps that she’s willing to use anything -- not excepting her body -- as a bargaining chip. After a reunion with her family is tragically cut short when SS soldiers gun down her brother and parents, she hooks up with the Dutch resistance and disguises herself as an Aryan bombshell, dyeing her hair blonde and, at the behest of her rescuers, seducing a high-ranking Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch, of The Lives of Others) to learn the Gestapo’s secrets. Before long, he discovers her own secret, but is so smitten with her, and her near-flawless body, that he risks his own life to save her.

Although van Houten has yet to make her mark in America, having worked exclusively in Dutch productions for the past ten years, her work in Black Book is aggressive and captivating. As Stein, who endures unthinkable tragedies but remains implacable in her quest to survive, she is an arresting force, and it is her performance that pushes Verhoeven’s story forward through a series of salacious trysts, betrayals and gruesome killings.

Black Book is anything but a typical World War II drama, with Verhoeven depicting Stein’s Nazi beau in a somewhat sympathetic light and focusing as much on her bedroom conquests as the hardships she must overcome. But it works. True to form, Verhoeven’s script, written with occasional collaborator Gerard Soeteman, is crass and more than happy to exploit the steamy spectacle at the heart of his drama. It’s far from perfect, but beneath its outlandish and sometimes messy exterior, it is an engrossing thriller constructed by a master showman.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars