It's a Paul Verhoeven movie. 'Nuff said. The Dutch director has made plenty of good (The Fourth Man, RoboCop, Basic Instinct) and bad (Showgirls, Hollow Man) films in his long career, but he's never made a boring picture, and Black Book is not only tons of fun, it's actually quite good. If you think of it as one of those lurid MGM World War II flicks (such as the deliciously insane The Cross of Lorraine), yet gussied up with Verhoeven staples like female nudity, lots of bloodletting and an obsession with all sorts of bodily fluids, you're bound to have one heck of a good time at the cineplex. I kid you not.
A Perils of Pauline on the Western Front, the film follows the story of Jewish stunner Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten, totally game and excellent), who falls in with a Dutch resistance group after her family has been murdered by the Nazis. She's asked to sleep with S.S. honcho Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch) in order to gain his trust, then actually falls for him after she accepts a job in his office. This is not as ludicrous as it sounds, since Muentze, no saint, is portrayed as a lonely man who, even after discovering Rachel's Jewish origins, still loves her and protects her.
That's just the opening hour or so of a two-and-a-half-hour film which unreels with the speed of an express train. The rest of Black Book is taken up with an overstuffed storyline that is filled with plots, counterplots, betrayals, and lots of juicy gun battles involving the Nazis and the Dutch heroes. It's not all that comprehensible, but who cares? It sure is fun to sit through.
Reportedly filmed on the largest budget ever for a Dutch production, Black Book's money is certainly up there on the screen, and in all the categories that matter--set and costume design, photography, etc. It's a world-class production. Verhoeven's opus is also graced with a slew of top-notch German and Dutch actors, many of whom have worked in international productions. Their professionalism and conviction only adds verisimilitude to the enterprise, even on the occasions when it's spinning off its wheels into bizarro-world.
Already referred to in some corners as "Saving Private Ryan meets Showgirls," the movie actually benefits from these seemingly incompatible reference points. Verhoeven's gift for sex and sleaze works to good effect in all the decadent Nazi sequences, yet his real-life background as a Dutch child who suffered through the German occupation gives the film a sense of righteousness and reality that is utterly refreshing. Black Book might not be the best World War II film ever made, but it certainly has to rank up there as one of the most entertaining.