Jet-black swastikas on blood-red banners; graphic violence and frontal nudity; characters as serious as a sermon. It must be a Paul Verhoeven film.
Verhoeven’s “good” movies – Robocop, Starship Troopers – are skilful critiques of his adopted America. In the guise of pulpy sci-fi, these are some of Hollywood’s cleverest critiques of Western capitalist excess and Imperialist foreign policy – revealing, in both, the worrying fascist undertones and gleefully pointing out how much we get off on them.
But across the good and not-so-good, constant across Paul Verhoeven’s career is an (often graphic) exploration of the human will to power. And the danger is that peering into such an abyss is a two-way thing: the monster at the bottom is liable to peer back. (The question looms often in Black Book: Is Paul Verhoeven an explorer of fascism and misogyny, or is he just a fascistic misogynist?)
And the thing of this is, you can be obsessed with Nietzschean principles, and you can be subject to Nietzschean foibles, but it don’t make you Nietzche. Paul Verhoeven may have some very deep concerns, but he’s hampered in his pursuit of them because he’s a fucking clod.
So in making a movie set in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, the problem becomes obvious: if your stock-in-trade is subversively revealing the power-crazed undercurrent of an era, you don’t really have much to do if your movie is about the Third Reich. Subverting American values, yes, fine - but is there really much of a market for eloquent condemnations of the politics of the Nazis? These were bad guys: we’re aware of that, Paul, you’re going to have to give us something more.
And he does: toward the end of Black Book’s 2.5 hour running time, we’re treated to something of a violent reversal that goes some way toward musing on some tricky truths about power. It’s just a shame it takes about 90 minutes to get there. And that’s 90 minutes of clever but pedestrian plot, laden with violence that’s more than token but less than wrenching, and sexuality that veers from refreshingly frank to screen-breakingly stupid.
Which is to say, Verhoeven’s back in town.
[appears edited at Flicks]