- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2007

Paul Verhoeven, after 20 years of making big-budget blockbusters in America, has returned to his native Netherlands. He took everything he learned with him.

His new movie is an example of what can happen when Old and New World sensibilities join forces. “Black Book” (“Zwartboek”) combines a European morality tale with a sleek American thriller, resulting in a deeply entertaining film that’s also a serious exploration of rules during wartime.

It’s World War II and Holland is occupied by the Germans. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) was a popular singer before the war. Now she’s in hiding with a country family, whose good deed is a little marred by the way they treat her: She must recite a Bible verse to receive breakfast.

“If you Jews had listened to Jesus, you wouldn’t be in the trouble you’re in,” the patriarch admonishes her.

Rachel doesn’t have to listen to this for long. The farm is destroyed by bombing, and she’s back on the run. Her father’s solicitor passes along money and information about a boat heading to safe territory. During the nighttime voyage, she’s reunited with her family — only to see them gunned down. Rachel is the sole survivor of the carnage. Seeking safety and revenge, she returns to the Hague and is soon drafted into the Dutch Resistance.

Someone as beautiful and charming as Rachel is wasted as a mere lookout or courier. Helping to transport supplies on a train, her quick thinking lands her in a compartment with Ludwig Muentze (“The Lives of Others’ ” Sebastian Koch), who turns out to be the Hague’s Gestapo chief. He’s the ultimate source of information to the Resistance — and would be the ultimate conquest for Rachel.

The freedom fighters are all too amenable to using Rachel in this way. “At least I get you first,” says Hans (Thom Hoffman), a doctor to whom Rachel is close.

Rachel and Muentze begin an affair — after he discovers she’s Jewish. Muentze, like every other character in this film with the possible exception of Rachel, is neither black nor white. He’s a Nazi, but one who negotiates with the Resistance and declines to execute traitors.

Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a Dutch woman with a German lover of her own, marvels at Rachel’s work. “A real Mata Hari,” she marvels. “Greta Garbo in the flesh. But Garbo got it in the end.”

One of the flaws of the thriller is that we know what Rachel doesn’t — she’s shown in a prologue at an Israeli kibbutz. There are also a few plot problems — it’s unclear why a Nazi would have a position of authority after the Allies liberated Holland.

But this is one of those big, beautiful movies that remains in your mind weeks later, regardless of its flaws. “Black Book” looks, feels and sounds like a film from the golden age of Hollywood, but with a more shaded — or, depending on your point of view, jaded — Old World take on morals.

The Resistance debates whose lives are worth more, Jews or Dutchmen. “I never thought I’d dread liberation day,” one of the women declares. But as Mr. Verhoeven (“Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct”) shows, the “heroes” of the Resistance could be just as nasty as the Nazis. War is hell, but so is the cleanup.

“Black Book” might have degenerated into camp at times if not for the talents of star Carice van Houten. She’s a marvel: beautiful, charismatic and an excellent singer to boot. Watching her and Mr. Koch — a real-life couple — in action, one wonders if all the best actors are hiding in Europe.

Luckily, Mr. Verhoeven has found them — and perhaps a revitalized purpose. Some critics will savage him for the sex and violence which has become something of a trademark. But it’s all part of his accomplishment. “Black Book” is a marriage of American style and European morals, and Mr. Verhoeven’s triumphant return to both.

***1/2

TITLE: “Black Book” (“Zwartboek”)

RATING: R (some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Gerard Soeteman and Mr. Verhoeven.

RUNNING TIME: 145 minutes

WEB SITE: www.blackbookfilm.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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