Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven returns to his roots with a WWII drama that's easily the best thing he's made in years. A vulgar, vigorous and surprisingly old-fashioned ensemble piece about courage, opportunism and cowardice spiked with bitterly unsentimental observations about the situational ethics of collaboration and resistance in occupied nations, it's also a return to the subject he last tackled in 1989's extraordinary SOLDIER OF ORANGE, which he also cowrote with BLACK BOOK's Gerard Soeteman.
Israel, 1956: Dutch-born Ronnie (Halina Reijn), vacationing in Israel with her Canadian husband, is touring a kibbutz when she hears a familiar voice singing to a classroom full of students. Sure enough, the teacher is the woman she knew as Ellis de Vries during the last months of 1945 in Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Holland, September 1944: Former cabaret singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) has spent much of the war behind a false attic wall in a farmhouse far from the front lines; her parents and brother are in hiding elsewhere. Though grateful to the family who've risked their own lives to shelter her, she's tired of learning Bible verses and has to bite her tongue when her hosts remark that if the Jews had just listened to Jesus, they wouldn't be in the mess they're in now. Rachel is soon forced to flee and makes her way to Amsterdam with the help of resistance worker Van Gein (Peter Blok), who hides behind the facade of a Nazi-sympathizing police office. Rachel contacts lawyer Mr. Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who's safeguarded the assets of many Dutch Jews and arranges to ferry her, along with her family and other refugees, to safety in Belgium. But the boat is ambushed by Nazis: Rachel alone survives and real resistance fighters place her with underground leader Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), who renames her "Ellis de Vries" and is soon impressed by her nerve and devotion to the cause. "Ellis" agrees to seduce local Gestapo chief Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, of THE LIVES OF OTHERS), and worms her way into Gestapo headquarters in The Hague, where she befriends Ronnie. To her horror, Ellis also finds herself face-to-face with Ronnie's "benefactor," Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), whom she recognizes as one of the men who killed her family. As the liberation of Holland approaches, Ellis discovers that things — and people — are not always as they seem and that the devil hides behind a smiling face.
While Rachel's story is fiction, many of its incidents are rooted in historical events carefully researched by Soeteman, and the film's briskly staged action and stunning reversals of fortune ensure that its two and a half hours fly by. If not as rough-edged as Verhoeven's acclaimed early work, it's nonetheless consistently more complex and ambiguous than his Hollywood work, characterized by a refreshing European frankness that makes the naughty provocations of a film like SHOWGIRLS (1995) seem painfully juvenile. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh