Psssst, want to see a dirty picture about good Nazis, bad Resistance fighters, and a fast-thinking, quick-stripping Jewish woman happy to dye her pubic hair blond and sleep with the enemy in the name of freedom? Have I got a lulu for you: Black Book may be the looniest use of the Holocaust as a playground since Roberto Benigni served up his infernal clown act in Life Is Beautiful. The difference is, Benigni turned cartwheels for laughs, while Paul Verhoeven — yes, that Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker whose Hollywood résumé includes Basic Instinct, Showgirls, and Starship Troopers — approaches his historical soap opera with cold-eyed seriousness.
The result isn’t without its queasy fascinations. By the time she has joined the Dutch Resistance, changed her name, dyed her nethers, and accepted the assignment of seducing a Nazi bigwig (The Lives of Others‘ magnetic Sebastian Koch) in order to spy on his headquarters, young Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten, comely and abundantly naked) has already survived more than her share of perils, including the murder of her family. Then, once Ellis is on the inside, Verhoeven and his screenplay collaborator Gerard Soeteman indulge their basic instincts for sexual and political power games: Who’s dominant, who’s submissive, and who’s due for a reversal of fortune. Yet for all the moral rug-pulling — the Nazi who turns out to have a conscience, the partisans who betray one another — there’s little collective value to the assembled transgressions. Relentless plot twists only guarantee that nearly every character experiences some sort of triumph, as well as some sort of shame or humiliation. (Only one, however, is punished with a torrential shower of human excrement, the kind of baroque Verhoevenian invention that keeps audiences murmuring, ”How European!”)
Black Book is the first picture the director has made in his native country in two decades, and the furlough from Hollywood has reinvigorated him. He’s now energized to declare — with devilish skill — that Life Is Ugly.