Fasten the safety belts: After standing ovations on the festival circuit, cult director Paul Verhoeven’s eagerly awaited Black Book is finally here. The Dutch filmmaker’s dazzling and spectacular new cinematic triumph about World War II is his first movie in six years, and it marks his first return since the 1983 thriller The 4th Man to his native Netherlands, where it has broken all records. I have seen it three times—a fact in itself as overwhelming as the movie. I plan to see it again. Frankly, I don’t remember the last film that charged my adrenalin this way.
Brilliantly assembled, Black Book doesn’t waste your time for a single second. The action sequences are electrifying; the script by Mr. Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman grabs you by the throat and never lets go; the acting hypnotizes; the epic grandeur, lavish cinematography and emotional pathos of a country under siege all add up to the kind of high-octane entertainment you rarely see on the screen today. I can’t think of another Hollywood director capable of needlepointing a vast canvas of so much energy, content and complexity without ever repeating himself or boring his audience to death. Majestic war battles, glittering Nazi ballrooms, prison escapes, sex, firing squads, period costumes and cars, heroes and villains, big-band jazz, historic revelations about good Germans and bad underground freedom fighters in a combat of wills, a cast of thousands and a shock a minute … this movie has everything. You go away thrilled and shaking.
Opening and closing scenes set in Israel in 1956 form the emotional bookends of a wartime drama that plunders the senses. In a peaceful, pastoral lakefront setting far removed from the horrors of war, a pretty schoolteacher teaches Hebrew songs in a kibbutz. A tourist recognizes her as an old friend from 1944, during the Nazi occupation of Amsterdam. Memories illustrate the story of Rachel Stein (the sensational Carice van Houten), a Jewish band singer from Berlin hiding from the Germans after her family is betrayed and killed in a blast of machine-gun fire by Dutch collaborators who were supposed to guide them to safety. The farmhouse in which they have temporarily taken refuge is burned to the ground, but Rachel is rescued by the underground resistance and smuggled past border checkpoints in a coffin, posing as the corpse of a woman who has died of typhus. Rachel cooks for the underground cell and then, after five months, is elevated to the position of courier. She changes her name and identity to a glamour girl named Ellis de Vries, refines her looks, and uses her sexuality to invade the SS headquarters, where she becomes the mistress of Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), a high-ranking Gestapo officer. Planting hidden microphones to bug Nazi headquarters, singing at German parties, spying for the Dutch resistance, and searching for the fiends who killed her family, Ellis discovers a plot to betray rich Jews and rob them of their valuables—a collaboration that requires a liaison between the Gestapo and a “mole” among the freedom fighters, who might be one of her friends. Now she becomes a double agent, jeopardizing her own safety by falling in love with Müntze, freeing her lover when he is mistakenly arrested for treason, and getting a number of her own people killed in the bargain. Suddenly she is hunted by the resistance, which wrongly suspects her of betraying her comrades, and sentenced to death by the Nazis, too. But believe it or not, all of this is child’s play compared to what she endures after the war is over, when, in a carefully plotted series of twists, she is accused of being a Nazi collaborator and subjected to abuses and humiliations that would terrify the lady commandants at Bergen-Belsen. You’ll be locked in suspense to see what will happen next.
I won’t spoil the rapture of discovering what happens to Ellis/Rachel, how she is saved by a bar of Cadbury chocolate or how she gets to Israel, but the solutions to all of the mysteries are contained in the little “black book” of the title (which falls into her hands by accident and which she fails to read), the contents of which change Dutch history. Elements of the story—the dirty little secrets of how certain alleged Dutch “patriots” preyed on their own people during the war for financial gain—have caused controversy in the Netherlands, but everything in the movie is based on true cases and published factual records that are now on display in Amsterdam. Wags have called Black Book “Holocaust chic,” but there is so much more to it that it leaves you breathless. I love Mr. Verhoeven’s early films, like the 1977 masterpiece Soldier of Orange, before he was “discovered” and cheapened by Hollywood—but even his campy American classics like Basic Instinct and Showgirls failed to camouflage his daring, flamboyant style and unique artistic vision. Nothing in Black Book is black-and-white, nobody is who or what they seem, the intrigue and treachery are fused by the surrealism and paranoia that are staples in Mr. Verhoeven’s films, and the ironies persist. The director skillfully arranges the pieces of a massive and lethal puzzle where friends and enemies alike move into each other’s lives (and beds). The heroine is no angel, and the fabulous Ms. van Houten not only shows the emotional torture of a woman torn between two countries and opposing priorities, but even does her own singing. Do not leave before the end credits, or you’ll miss her swinging big-band vocal on the wartime classic “A Hundred Years from Today.” As the equally conflicted German officer who collects rare Queen Wilhelmina stamps, the charismatic Mr. Koch lives up to the promise of his role as the postwar German playwright in The Lives of Others, turning from the hunted to the hunter, but with a conscience. In Black Book, every performance, every white-knuckle detail registers like a powerful drug, and when it ends, you know you’ve been to the movies. It’s The Perils of Pauline with swastikas.
Heir to Network
Ruthless cruelty, false encouragement and creative insincerity are the feng shui crystals of television network programming: Instead of harmony and balance, you get never-ending stupidity and bottomless bad taste. The TV Set, about the Hollywood cultural miasma called “pilot season,” is a combination of Network and The Player, and the kind of sharp, satirical picture of show business as no business that so badly missed the mark in For Your Consideration, Christopher Guest’s myopic send-up of Oscar season. Movies about Hollywood always give Hollywood another black eye. This black eye has funnier and clearer vision than most.
Freshly written and directed by Jake Kasdan with vicious wit and even some vulnerability, The TV Set follows the ego-deflating trials and ulcer-inducing tribulations of a writer named Mike Klein (David Duchovny, looser than usual), whose idea for a new series attracts enough network interest to reach the pilot stage, despite the fact that it includes a suicide. Mike doesn’t need the aggravation, but with mounting debts, a pregnant wife and a second baby on the way, he does need the work. In the madness of prime-time scheduling, Mike is run through a gauntlet of obstacles, including two competitive and moronic co-stars, a committee of programming executives, and a bitchy network president named Lenny (Sigourney Weaver) with a sadistic streak who changes her mind every 10 minutes, trusts nobody, and bases all of her creative decisions on the opinions of her 14-year-old daughter. Spouting hilarious stuff like “Could we get Lucy Lawless? Xena the Warrior Princess! I’ve always believed she’s got a half-hour comedy series in her!”, Lenny pretends to crave and respect a script as original as Mike’s, then green-lights shows called Infidelity 101, Slut Wars and The World’s Grossest Meals. Like so many talents who have tried vainly to raise the quality of television, only to watch their work trashed by insensitive network executives, Mike’s fear of making the world more mediocre is palpable. He bravely tries to defend the integrity of his original script, to no avail—and you’ve gotta see the look on Lenny’s analytical but vacant face after she cuts out the suicide, restructures the arc, changes every character and tells Mike, “Frankly, ‘original’ scares me a little. Let’s shoot it both ways—the bummer version and my version.” Beautiful, tough, manicured, brittle and brash, Ms. Weaver gives a great performance, fulsome and crushing, that makes Tomás de Torquemada look like Judge Judy.
Mike ends up flat on his back in a hospital with stress-related disc surgery, and the audience ends up with the facts: The people who decide what we see on TV are robots with low ideals and big bank accounts, profiting from the dumbing-down of America, their talismans words like “demographics,” “shares” and “overnights.” Out of hundreds of yearly pilots, only a few ever land on the air in the fall program schedules, and anything that raises the standards is a miracle. Television is not about quality; it’s about humiliating compromises. Writer-director Kasdan, who created several upscale TV series that fell victim to marketing whims, knows the territory. He says The TV Set is about fictional people making a fictional pilot: “Everything they say and do is made up. The rest, I’m afraid, is all real.” Even Mike’s one ally, a brainy BBC expatriate lured in to “class up the network,” is powerless against bosses who worship at the trough of dumb reality shows. He’s real, too. There’s one at every network taking up desk space. Puzzle: Life is short, and the history of television is littered with the corpses of intelligent people who tried to make things better, yet they keep coming back for more. Mr. Kasdan is one of the lucky ones. The style of his film is comedy, but even when it’s laugh-out-loud funny, it’s believable. If it wasn’t so hilarious, it would be heartbreaking.