WHEN I admit that I’m an admirer of the Paul Verhoeven films Showgirls ( 1995) and Starship Troopers ( 1997), I tend to get rather pitying looks. It’s common knowledge, isn’t it, that these films, especially the former, are gross, facile entertainment that panders to the lowest common denominator?
I’ve always thought they constitute a scathing critique of contemporary American society. RoboCop ( 1987) and Basic Instinct ( 1992) also use genre thrillers ( sci- fi, sexy police procedural) to probe American values. In fact, since he started making films in his native Netherlands in 1971, Verhoeven has been a subversive, cheerfully attacking respectable society and demolishing perceived myths.
One of his most interesting films was Soldier of Orange ( 1977), in which he took a disenchanted look at the resistance movement in The Netherlands during World War II. He returns to the theme in an even feistier mood with Black Book , his first Dutch film since 1983.
Verhoeven was born in 1938, so he was a young child during the war, but the experience of German occupation must have been vivid. He has said that, at the age of six, he was made to walk past bodies of hostages shot in the street by German soldiers.
As he did in Soldier of Orange , in his new film Verhoeven explores the plight of Dutch Jews, especially women, during this bitter, contested period, and also the extent to which the resistance movement was infiltrated by traitors.
His central character is Rachel Stein ( played by the magnificent Carice van Houten), who is first seen in 1956 at a kibbutz in Israel where she is reunited with Ronnie ( Halina Reijn), an old friend. An extended flashback returns us to September 1944, when Rachel, who formerly had a career as a singer, is hiding out at a farm, under the reluctant protection of a family of devout Christians. Following the first of several narrow escapes from death, Rachel is briefly reunited with her parents as the family attempts to escape into Allied territory; they are betrayed, but once again Rachel survives.
She changes her name to Ellis de Vries and joins the resistance, eventually infiltrating Gestapo headquarters and becoming the mistress of Gestapo chief Ludwig Muntze ( Sebastian Koch). From here on the film, scripted by the director and his regular writing partner, Gerard Soeteman, delves into the activities of the resistance, its different factions, the men who betrayed it and the chaos and confusion that characterised the immediate post- war period.
Verhoeven describes Black Book as ‘‘ a thriller inspired by true events’’. He claims most of the characters are based on real people and that the black book of the title, which allegedly contained the names of traitors and collaborators, was the property of a lawyer based in The Hague. But he also insists the film is entertainment, and that’s why it makes some people so uncomfortable.
Reportedly the most expensive Dutch film made, it has lavishly staged action and a sweep and scope more common to Hollywood epics than to European art films. Indeed, the film is a cross between the two, the work of a director who is as much at home making Hollywood epics as he is making more intimate dramas.
Should we be entertained by a story about wartime betrayal, about the struggle of Jews to survive in the occupied Netherlands? It’s worth remembering that films made during the war — Casablanca , for example — succeeded in being both diverting and inviting serious consideration of wartime themes of justice and betrayal. So to accuse Verhoeven of being too entertaining is surely to miss the point.
More problematic, for many, is the idea that a Jewish woman would fall in love with a German officer, albeit one who, as described in the film, is having belated misgivings about the wholesale destruction his country is causing.
Despite the controversy, Black Book was outstandingly successful in The Netherlands, suggesting audiences were willing to re- examine the painful events of the past as presented so persuasively by the country’s arguably most accomplished director.
* * * UNFORTUNATELY, there’s nothing very entertaining about West , a lugubrious look at wasted lives in Sydney’s western suburbs from writerdirector Daniel Krige. That’s not to say it’s not a film of quality, or that it’s inaccurate in its dismal depiction of young people dealing in drugs or mechanically going through the motions of joyless sex. And the performances of the young actors are uniformly excellent.
First among them is Khan Chittenden, so good in Clubland and very fine here as Pete, a loser who lives with his more charismatic cousin, Jerry ( Nathan Phillips). Jerry is hanging out with the seriously sexy Cheryl ( Gillian Alexy), and Pete fancies her, too.
Cheryl is getting bored with Jerry because his job in a fast- food restaurant prevents him from spending the evenings with her, and loyalty seems to be a word missing from her vocabulary. Meanwhile, Pete, who has been robbed of the proceeds of his drug sales by Kenwood ( Anthony Hayes), takes a particularly brutal revenge, egged on by Cheryl.
The dialogue is relentless in its four- letter words, and the depiction of these bored, listless, violent characters, while quite possibly true to life, is so nasty that interest flags. Despite the talent that’s gone into this doubtless wellintentioned expose of Australia’s youth, the end result is deeply depressing.
Love and war: Sebastian Koch and Carice van Houten in a scene from Black Book , a thriller based on true events and betrayal in Dutch resistance forces during World War II
Seriously sexy: Gillian Alexy is appealing, but West is depressing