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Shades of Grey: Black Book

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Trailer for "Black Book"

Over the desk of the Nazi officer who oversees her district in occupied Holland, a young woman with hair dyed blonde spreads out her stamp collection. When she looks him in the eye and says, “If you see anything you want, just take it,” her real intention couldn’t be any clearer. It’s about as subtle as the sexual challenge issued by Sharon stone to that roomful of cops in Basic Instinct.

And that may just have something to do with the fact that Black Book is a new film by Paul Verhoeven. Over the years, his movies have been accused of being many things, but “dull” is never one of them. That most certainly applies to this, the first film he has made in his native Holland since leaving for Hollywood in the 1980s.

Verhoeven is second only to Joel Silver in his influence on the adrenializing of mass-market movies in the 1980s and 1990s. Films like RoboCop and Basic Instinct mixed big-budget productions with European attitudes toward violence and sex to arrive at films that caught American audiences off-guard. Even when Verhoeven went over the top in movies like Total Recall and Showgirls, it was always his own vision that he was indulging rather than an attempt to pander to the box office.

What fans of those films may not know is that Verhoeven was an internatonally regarded filmmaker before coming to the US. His Dutch films Soldier of Orange, Keetje Tippel and Turkish Delight are among the most highly regarded movies ever to come out of Holland, and later his Spetters and the luridly black-humored The Fourth Man were arthouse hits.

Black Book in fact grew out of the scripting of Soldier of Orange, which concerned the experiences of a half dozen characters as they lived through World War II. Doing research on the era, Verhoeven and his regular collaborator Gerard Soeteman came across elements that didn’t quite fit into a heroic story of the war. War being the chaotic endeavor it is, there are good people who do bad things, and bad people who do good things. Over 20 years Verhoeven and Soeteman keep working on a story to show this greyer side of the war, but couldn’t tie it all together until they hit on the idea of using a woman as its central character.

That character is Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten). The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, she was a popular singer before the war. She is hardly a candidate to join the Dutch resistance, but revenge over the death of her family leads her to join the cause. And when some of collaborators are captured by the Nazis, she realizes that the only way she can save them is to infiltrate their offices, which she can best do by seducing Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, of The Taste of Others), a task that proves less unpalatable than she had feared.

A short description like this sounds awfully lurid, and anyone with a memory of Verhoeven’s later American films can’t be expecting much from it. Ninety minutes into watching it, I found myself wondering what all the rave reviews were about: To that point it was certainly lively, but not nearly as salacious as I’d heard (well, not for my debased taste, anyway).

But the 90-minute mark is just about when this sucker kicks into high gear. It runs for nearly two and one half hours, and the last hour is as gripping as any war film I’ve seen in years. Spinning out an increasingly complex story of deceptions and double-crosses, Verhoeven and Soeteman use historical revelations to question every assumption we’ve made about the nature of every side of this conflict. Painting on a broad, cinematic canvas, with suitably outsized music and performances, Black Book is a big, engrossing film for audiences who demand more depth out of a blockbuster than the comic book heroics the major studios have scheduled over the next three months.