Review: ‘Black Book’ has gritty content 

Toward the end of Paul Verhoeven’s "Black Book," the heroine, Rachel — a young Jewish-Dutch chanteuse whose entire family has been killed by the Nazis and who has herself experienced unbelievable horrors — discovers that her lover has been executed. "Will it never end?" she moans.

My sentiments exactly, but not because the movie, set in Holland, is almost 2½ hours long. Actually, I was never bored.

But Verhoeven’s action-packed thriller, mostly in German and Dutch with English subtitles, bombards you until you’re reeling, with a rapid succession of scenes of blood, gore, sadism, brutality and depraved and gratuitous eroticism, and a relentless, melodramatic musical score. It all quickly becomes ludicrous.

When Rachel’s hiding place is bombed, she tries to flee into Allied territory but is forced to escape from a Nazi attack by diving into a river. Then she changes her name to Ellis and dyes her hair blond to pass as Aryan; joins the Resistance; has sex with the lead Resistance fighter (Thom Hoffman); agrees to do her part by seducing the local SS officer (the appealing Sebastian Koch); dyes her pubic hair so the German lover won’t suspect she’s Jewish (shown in several crotch shots — after all, it was Verhoeven who directed "Basic Instinct" and "Showgirls").

And more: Ellis falls in love with the SS officer, is captured by the Nazis for spying while simultaneously framed as a Nazi collaborator, is subjected to humiliation by her own comrades and is cruelly betrayed before triumphing. It doesn’t help that Dutch actress Carice Van Houten fails to convey Ellis’ conflicted but repressed emotions.

Like other European filmmakers before him, Verhoeven, born in Holland in 1938, was inspired by images recalled from his own childhood. To his credit, he offers something new by exposing rampant duplicity among the ranks of Dutch rescuers and Resistance fighters. Nor does he pull any punches in showing the ugly side of the war’s aftermath, with partisans taking vicious revenge on both Nazi perpetrators and suspected collaborators.

But by trading character development for his habitual wham! bam! pow! action, by replacing true horror with amped-up effects, by shamelessly manipulating us, Verhoeven undermines his own best efforts. Theresult is a film that sensationalizes a chunk of history that hardly needs sensationalizing.

Black Book **

Starring Carice Van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Sebastian Koch

Written by Gerard Soeteman

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Rated R

Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes

Playing at The Lumiere

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