Paul Verhoeven's signature blend of irony and hyper-sincerity confuses some viewers, who aren't sure whether to laugh with him, laugh at him, or just drink in his heady brew of sex, violence, and bad behavior. And by the time Verhoeven wrapped a 15-year Hollywood sojourn with the muddled Hollow Man, even he didn't seem to know what he was aiming for. So when Verhoeven announced that he was going to try to get his head straight by returning to his native Holland for a movie about a Jewish woman dodging Nazis, a lot of Verhoeven fans feared that he was taking the dry prestige-picture route, while his detractors imagined something garish and tasteless, one step removed from Ilsa, She Wolf Of The SS.
As it happens, the Verhoeven skeptics were closer to the truth, though not in the way they suspected. Working again with longtime screenwriting collaborator Gerard Soeteman, Verhoeven makes Black Book into a rollicking wartime movie-movie, replacing awards-bait clichés with a strong dose of two-fisted action, frank sexuality, and coal-black cynicism. Carice van Houten plays a Jew in hiding who survives a double-cross and winds up in the seemingly safe arms of the Dutch resistance, where she immediately draws a dangerous assignment, working as a secretary for the Nazis. When she's ordered to distract her boss, Sebastian Koch, with as many feminine wiles as she can muster, van Houten soon learns that Koch may be more sympathetic to her cause than her fellow rebels are. Before long, she isn't sure who she's pretending to be, or why.
Van Houten gives a daring performance, and while "daring" is often critic-code for "gets naked a lot"—which indeed she does—sex appeal isn't all she's selling. Black Book establishes its tone the first time van Houten cracks a joke in the face of impossible terror, and Verhoeven continues to let the character's wit, sensitivity, and resolve define the movie, even as he's sadistically heaping on humiliation after humiliation. (Brace yourself for the bucket-of-shit scene.) With all its clay-footed heroes and brilliantly conceived plans that don't quite come off, Black Book can be a little exhausting, especially in the final half-hour, which tidies up the plot via an overload of Hitchcockian suspense sequences. But everything builds to a gutsy final shot, which re-emphasizes Verhoeven's persistent hopelessness. In the end, Black Book may be one of the most fun movies ever made about how people basically suck.