Pulpy Dutch resistance saga blurs moral borders

For years after World War II, movies portrayed resistance to the Nazis as the selfless sacrifice of brave heroes and doomed martyrs.

But Jewish filmmaker Marcel Ophul’s controversial and invaluable 1971 documentary “The Sorrow and the Pity” destroyed that myth by exposing French collaboration. This shot of reality, along with post-Watergate cynicism in the United States, spelled the end of comforting black-or-white war flicks and heralded a more complex cinematic view of the Occupation that still holds sway.

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven’s loopy and entertaining “Black Book,” based on events that occurred in 1944-45, draws from the well of moral ambiguity. Hidden loyalties, mercenary motives and unrepentant opportunism add layers of mystery to a basic scenario of survival and revenge.

The main appeal of “Black Book” is that it provides a rare glimpse of Dutch attitudes toward Jews, then and now.

The movie begins in October 1956 with a chance reunion at a dusty Israeli outpost. This meeting sends kibbutznik Rachel into a reverie that transports her to Holland in 1944, when she lived in hiding with a farm family. (It also tells us that Rachel survived the war, a curious storytelling decision because it deprives the film of a measure of tension when her life is imperiled.)

Rachel (a glamorous and occasionally bold performance by Carice van Houten) had once been a singer. That talent will come in handy, for she’s destined to become an unlikely spy after her family is murdered for its money while ostensibly being helped to freedom.

Somewhat implausibly, Rachel finds her way to a resistance cell and, after changing her name and meeting a Gestapo officer on a train, infiltrates the German headquarters. The film twists and turns, stacking intrigue on top of intrigue, through the liberation and the mad scramble to publicize, whitewash or conceal one’s wartime activities.

“Black Book” is a cleverly constructed and pulpy suspense yarn that expends a lot of brain power on nifty bits of misdirection but is less than profound in its overarching themes. A big-screen movie with first-rate production values and a running time of well over two hours, it nonetheless feels less like an epic than a chapter in a larger story.

Verhoeven, a Hollywood vet who directed “Total Recall” and “Basic Instinct,” returned to shoot a film in his native Holland for the first time in 20 years. “Black Book” combines his knack for propulsive mass entertainment with a strong point of view about a pivotal period in his country’s history.

Verhoeven and crafty screenwriter Gerard Soeteman like to repeat motifs for ironic effect. At the same time, they take perverse pleasure in playing with the audience’s sympathies. The Gestapo higher-up that Rachel hooks up with displays more gentleness than anyone else — the film defies you not to like him — while the resistance members don’t waste an instant denouncing Rachel with anti-Semitic insults when they’re led to believe she’s double-crossed them.

The film takes its title from a notebook that assumes great value after liberation.

“Black Book” returns to Kfar Stein for a closing shot of the Israelis racing to their posts to defend themselves from attack. It’s not subtle nor dramatically satisfying, but by this point we’re long past quibbling about contrivances.

“Black Book” opens Friday, April 13 at the Clay in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Film Critics Circle. He is the curator and host of the CinemaLit film series at the Mechanics’ Institute and teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.