At his peak, Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven made the sort of R-rated blockbusters kids loved to sneak into: Robocop, Total Recall, and, omigod, Basic Instinct. (And, depending on your age, desperation, or nascent sense of camp, Showgirls.) Propulsive style and that darned Dutch liberal-mindedness pushed the sex-and-violence shocks to just the right level of risqué impunity and popcorn pleasure. But subjected to thought, his movies can suggest a borderline von Trierian effect of thrilling with their audacity and eliciting suspicion that you’ve just been duped by a misanthropic boor.
Which makes one a little wary of the director’s latest undertaking: a World War II Resistance thriller about a Jewish singer who fights the Nazis through spying and seduction. In Black Book Verhoeven’s flirtations with shamelessness ultimately fit the triage of loyalties among a population in wartime. For Rachel Stein (Carina van Houten), the stakes are always murderously different, and even the family hiding her requires Bible recitation before supper. After bombs and betrayals, she lands in the Resistance, tasked with seducing a German officer who collects stamps.
The strategy of Black Book is blitzkrieg, for better and for worse. Rachel hurtles through nail-biting spy-thriller hijinks, fraught romance with the ambivalent SS official, and tacky bonhomie with the Resistance team. Anchoring the dense plot, Van Houten pulls off a tough character (entailing not one but two scenes hammering home Christ imagery). Even within Verhoeven’s cripplingly cartoonish style, the feel-good distractions of a war adventure shudder in and out of a bracing feel-bad shame saga — a bold move for his first return to Dutch screens in over 20 years.