With his creativity curtailed by Hollywood’s dream factory since 2000’s underwhelming Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven has gone home to Holland, where he’s also made a return to form with this pacy, provocative wartime thriller. It’s a companion piece to his 1977 World War II adventure Soldier of Orange, the film with which he achieved international recognition, though Black Book focuses less on the heroics of the Netherlands’ resistance fighters than the thornier issue of the country’s Nazi collaborators who shopped Jews to the Germans. The Diary of Anne Frank this ain’t.
At the centre of the action - and it barely lets up over the film’s lengthy running time - is a young Jewish girl named Rachel Steinn (played with real gusto by Carice van Houten), who joins the resistance movement, goes undercover as the lover of a senior German officer and discovers the existence of the titular tome, a volume of murderous intent.
Black Book is an old fashioned boy’s own romp and an intelligent investigation of a largely unaddressed period of the Netherlands’ history. But despite dovetailing thematically with his pre-Hollywood films, Black Book is infused with the racy style Verhoeven perfected during his 20 years working in America. From the scene in which the film’s heroine dies her pubic hair blonde to conceal her Jewish origins from her German lover to the climax in which she’s stripped naked and bathed in human excrement you know you’re watching a Verhoeven film. And that can only be a good thing.