Dutch treat 

More brilliant excess from Paul Verhoeven

The Golden Raspberry Awards are the yin to Oscar’s yang, a mocking tribute to hubris and flatulence over false piety and lofty aspirations. The Oscars are what Hollywood thinks of itself; the Razzies are more apt to capture the cynical spirit of the times. Historians more interested in Zeitgeist than canonical bests are well advised to turn to these listings in their film almanacs instead.

Showgirls, with 14 nominations and eight wins, is still the most Razzed movie in the 26-year history of the awards, and when director Paul Verhoeven accepted his award in person he became the first Razzie winner to do so. There is a school of thought seriously contending that Showgirls is as bad as it is on purpose; Verhoeven’s in-person acceptance certainly suggests he thought so himself.

As a director, Verhoeven’s commitment to excess is matched only by his sneering view of humanity, and Showgirls displays both attributes to marvelous advantage. That the film all but destroyed the careers of its actors is a testament to Verhoeven’s grim materialism: former “Saved by the Bell” star Elizabeth Berkley was the perfect cannon-fodder for this mission—shot to bits before she even got out of the trench. The director could hardly have expected otherwise. Like John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone, incidentally, is the most decorated actor in Razzie history), he sent her on a mission and set her up to fail. Diabolical genius!

Starship Troopers is marked by similar gory excess, similarly disposable acting carbon: Casper Van Dien and Denise Richards, herself no less a plastic space alien than the critters her cadet is sent to exterminate. Robocop is heavier on a particular gritty urban nihilism, but the sadistic excess is there in the torture scenes and the brutal pairing of carbon-alloy killing machine against soft, flabby executive in the scene where the prototype enforcer goes berserk at a board meeting. The Sharon Stone interrogation scene in Basic Instinct, the Kuato puppet and eyeball-bulging Mars atmosphere of Total Recall, practically everything about Hollow Man—all savagely, often brilliantly excessive.

But there’s more to Verhoeven than cartoonish excess. He can be economical when he wants to, even when working with the biggest film budgets in Dutch filmmaking history, which he’s done twice now: first with Soldier of Orange in 1977, and again with Black Book.

Black Book is quite a spread, a lavish Resistance melodrama that puts a hell of a lot of its 16 million euros onscreen: no shoestring production crammed onto a studio backlot here, but a big garish period action picture with a distinct European sensibility in its outlook and complex characterizations. It’s not quite the prestige picture his financial backers might have been hoping for, but neither has Verhoeven concocted the Nazi sexploitation picture his detractors were evidently anticipating. It’s got his trademark action and violence, a good deal of nudity and a bible-black cynicism that doesn’t leave anyone off the hook.

Despite its chastening moral relativism, however, Black Book is less modishly embittered than most recent war movies. Leave it to Verhoeven to make the Dutch resistance fighters look like selfish jerks and a Gestapo boss look like Prince Charming—exactly the kind of sand-in-the-eye irritants he’s right at home with. And for all its brutality, Verhoeven also treats the war with a sort of little-kid excitement that audiences haven’t seen for a long time.

After a brief 1956 framing device, the film opens in the last days of the Third Reich (sorry to give away the end of the war), with the Nazis still going through the motions of empire in occupied Holland even as the Red Army is overrunning Berlin. We see a young Jewish woman named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) lying in bed practicing a new Bible verse to earn her board with the stern Dutch farm family hiding her from the Gestapo. A cruel twist soon deprives Rachel of this sober shelter, setting the stage for her flight from the Nazis and a precedent for Black Book’s many hairpin plot turns. After a series of double-crosses and near escapes, Rachel falls in with a partisan group with designs on exploiting her acquaintance with a Nazi officer (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others) she’s met on a train.

Black Book is hugely entertaining, but still a queasy mixture. Verhoeven treats war violence with awed admiration because it’s a relic of his own Occupation childhood. In interviews he’s compared himself to a character in Hope and Glory, recalling dead bodies and burning houses as part of his boyhood adventures. Perhaps most revealingly, he has described his war experience as a big special-effects show.

Most will agree that this duality comes across loud and clear in Black Book. For better or worse, the scene involving our topless heroine and a hogshead of human feces is Verhoeven in a nutshell.
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