And Ms van Houten does it all - bombed, shot, wooed, bedded, betrayed. And that’s just the first half hour. Van Houten is Rachel, a Jewish singer in hiding in Nazi occupied Holland. When her family is murdered she joins the Dutch resistance. Infiltrating Gestapo HQ as bleached-blonde chanteuse ‘Ellie’, she wins the attention of a high-ranking German-with-a-heart. And then falls for him. But someone’s sapping the Resistance from within and it’s Rachel’s life on the line.
Black Book steps where others have trod: Schindler’s List, Charlotte Gray... Lacking the cachet of the former, it’s deeper than the latter and is resolutely entertaining throughout. Verhoeven is a populist and crams the film with non-stop incident and plot twists. But it’s the characters that matter and Verhoeven takes care to flesh them out, neatly avoiding clichés and stereotypes. Even the stock-in-trade chloroform kidnapping is sent up – the drug being past its sell-by date and completely ineffective.
In deference to the integrity of the drama, Verhoeven tones down his trademark violence. There’s lots of it, but not in such splattery detail. The human reaction is uppermost. It’s the nudity that’s the giveaway. Sure, there’s a queasily dramatic intensity to Rachel’s seduction of her SS officer. But the painting-of-the-nethers scene, where van Houten dyes all of her hair is an unnecessarily titillating recall of Verhoeven’s money shot in Basic Instinct.
Credit where due, though, the sex scenes are few. And Verhoeven and van Houten use the nudity to create a sickening sense of the decadence of the Nazi high-command - and the genuinely unpleasant lengths some women had to go to stay alive or to wage their war. Throughout, it’s van Houten’s eyes which tell the story – fear, hope, hate, disgust. Dunked in muck one minute, she’s quaffing champagne and chocolate the next. It’s a cracking part, delivered with verve and appeal.
Impressively detailed, Black Book satisfyingly evokes its period. Controversially perhaps, it levels its criticism at the Resistance more than the Nazis - betrayers being worse than enemies. And the bookending scenes from a 1956 kibbutz tellingly make a bigger point about war. Verhoeven pulls off a neat trick – an adventure film with bags of human drama and a twist of a message.
And even if the dangers pile up with unlikely frequency – van Houten’s reactions give enough credibility to them all. And that’s got to be good by anyone’s book.