Sleeping With The Enemy

Film still for Sleeping  With The Enemy

Paul Verhoeven returned to his native Holland needing to rediscover his director's signature. The resistance thriller Black Book does this triumphantly, bringing Hollywood sex and thrills to a serious theme, says Linda Ruth Williams

After the glory and notoriety of Hollywood-produced films such as Robocop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), this month sees the UK release of Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's first European feature since 1985. Black Book addresses a subject Verhoeven knows well - the occupation of the Netherlands by Germany during World War II. Born in 1938, he found his childhood shadowed by the Nazi presence and the fallout that followed the liberation. He has visited this terrain at least twice in the past, most famously with Soldier of Orange (Soldaat van Oranje, 1977), an action-adventure epic celebrating the exploits of resistance hero Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema. And now, after a US career marked by extreme highs and lows, he has said that he needs to return to Holland, or at least to get away from Hollywood, to rediscover his directorial identity.

Verhoeven was already discussing his desire to scale down in order to regain artistic control when I interviewed him last in 2003. Hollow Man (2000), his most recent Hollywood project, was, he has said, "a hollow movie... I didn't see any signature any more." Hollywood emptiness, of course, comes at a price: Hollow Man cost an estimated $95 million. But if Black Book, as he acknowledges, is "expensive in Dutch terms", it has allowed him to work personally again: "I was losing my soul... In doing Black Book I got it back."

An energetic, in-your-face adventure, Black Book is nothing if not Verhoevenesque. It tells the story of a Jewish singer (Carice van Houten) who changes her identity from brunette Rachel to blonde Ellis in order to escape death, joining the Dutch resistance. Given a mission to infiltrate German headquarters in The Hague, she falls in love with sympathetic local Nazi chief Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who guesses her racial identity. The final act deals with the crossings and double-crossings of the resistance and Ellis' treatment at its members' hands when the war ends. In Soldier of Orange, the hero (Rutger Hauer) reflects that "a spot of war might be exciting", his altruism tempered by the gratification his dangerous escapades deliver. Revisiting the period with Black Book, Verhoeven fashions a picaresque tale of the pleasures of danger in morally questionable times, and puts a woman at the centre of the ride.

Verhoeven's return to Dutch cinema has been celebrated ("Finally someone is coming back to this little cheese country," van Houten said at the London Film Festival). Yet Black Book - shot in Holland and Germany and post-produced in the UK - also has a transatlantic quality. Verhoeven attributes his sense of the infusion of Dutch culture by Americanisms to his childhood: "Before 1945 we were not allowed to see American films. Then after the occupation ended we were overwhelmed by the Marshall Plan and also by American movies. I think that until I was 16 or 17 I didn't even realise that there were film industries in Europe."

The figure of the European dreaming of Hollywood haunts Black Book, and its Dutch characters are embedded in pre-war Americana. When in hiding, Rachel reads the Bible (indoctrination is the price she pays for protection by a Christian family) in a nook decorated with pictures of Hollywood stars. After peroxide has lent her a new identity, one character comments: "She looks like Jean Harlow now." As Ellis' exploits unfold, her heroism is given a singularly transnational tinge. "A real Mata Hari!" her friend calls her, referring to the exotic Dutch spy who was executed in World War I, continuing: "Greta Garbo in the flesh!" This, then, is Mata Hari transplanted to Hollywood and played by a Swedish émigré star.

It's my war

Black Book, Verhoeven tells me, has been a long time coming. His research into the Nazi occupation began with a documentary project in 1966 and continued through the preparation for Soldier of Orange. World War II, he says, is "my war", and his long-term obsession is shared by his regular screenwriter-collaborator: "[Gerald] Soeteman and I have been talking about all these elements for 20 years. If you read something in 1966 and it's still in your mind in 2000 then it must have some power."

So was he interested in revisiting these events primarily because they make good stories or because he feels this history ought to be brought to life for new, younger audiences? "That would be a very educationally nice and politically correct answer," he says, "but really I felt it's a great story - and terrible too. On the other hand, I did feel some obligation to bring in young audiences and that it was necessary to use some device - a thriller or detective element - to keep them there with the ‘lesson' and all the period stuff."

As a period romp, Black Book is certainly great fun, if that's not too frivolous a word for a World War II movie. The characteristically violent action sequences have that Boy's Own quality Verhoeven developed over 20 years in Hollywood, and Rachel/Ellis is a plucky lass, willing to change to survive into the next chapter of her story. At one point she is smuggled past the enemy made up as a corpse and lying in a coffin, suggesting that survival requires the relinquishment of all she was before. She moves from brunette to blonde, from Rachel to Ellis, and eventually from Dutch to Israeli (in the opening and concluding wraparound she has escaped into her Jewishness, on a kibbutz). This gives the film an episodic feel, but also drives the action forwards.

Yet Verhoeven and Soeteman initially struggled to get the screenplay right. In its original form, a male character (who is incidental in the released film) was the hero, while Rachel died. But having a male protagonist didn't work when it came to moving the action into infiltrating German headquarters. "The moment we used her sexuality then everything was fine," Verhoeven says. "It had been like having all these pearls without a chain. But going with the character of Ellis, we realised that we could get there. She could do the Mata Hari thing."

Joyous vulgarity

"What's my role in this boys' club?" Ellis asks at her first resistance meeting, a question answered partly by her derring-do exploits, but also partly by sex. Verhoeven, of course, is no stranger to screen sex: he has even joked that he "signed for the sex scenes", and while Black Book is more chaste than some of his previous fare (no lapdancing or beaver shots), it's good to see that he hasn't lost his feel for joyous vulgarity. In a scene that looks like a homage to Basic Instinct, Ellis peroxides her pubic hair in front of a mirror. Later Müntze guesses her racial identity from the black roots on her near-blonde head, but when he undresses her he compliments her on her thoroughness: "Also blonde - you are a perfectionist."

It is around the issue of sex that the film's ambivalence about taking sides opens up. Ellis seems to have few scruples when it comes to intimate liaison with the enemy, flashing her legs early on at a group of German soldiers as she hitches a ride on a bicycle. When asked by her comrades, "How far are you prepared to go?", she answers as far as necessary, "for Queen and Country!" Ironic as this may be, it's hard to know whether her willingness is purely altruistic. "Ellis goes there at the request of the resistance - she is asked if she will sacrifice herself and sleep with him," Verhoeven says. "That she falls in love is another question." Ultimately, then, sexual response is beyond the authority of morality.

Indeed, sex is only one of what Verhoeven calls "the grey areas of what happened in Holland" during World War II. Ambiguity about who is on which side is intrinsic to thriller adventures, but here Verhoeven takes more of a ‘world turned upside down' approach to his heroes and villains. At one point a man who promises a safe passage for Rachel and her fellow Jews refers to the organisation he represents as "us". Guessing what he's part of, Rachel declares: "‘Us' is the resistance - you're one of them." This slippage between ‘us' and ‘them' runs throughout the film: within both the resistance and the Nazi party allegiances are blurred. Verhoeven claims that this isn't just his characteristic desire to provoke - though he does confirm "I try to abuse morals as much as possible" - but says that presenting Nazis positively and the resistance negatively reflects a truth: "That's life. I don't believe in this separation - the Nazis are all villains and the Dutch all heroes. The whole story is revisionism. So I had to revise the revisionism and tell people what the reality was."

Ambivalent values

Having seen Verhoeven's morally ambiguous sci-fi thriller Starship Troopers (1997), I know that he doesn't deal in polarities, even reversed ones. There are, of course, some despicable Germans here - in particular Gestapo officer Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) - but the handsome Müntze becomes a moral centre for the film as well as Ellis' love interest. "Müntze is based on a real character," says Verhoeven. "He was a good German who was arrested and tried, but they couldn't find any war crimes so they let him go." Is it easier for audiences to accept flawed resistance workers than heroic Nazis? "Not for the Dutch," says Verhoeven. "They accept the movie as it is and have gone to see it in enormous numbers. There have been enough books about the war in Holland for people to realise that what the resistance did was not all great and what the Nazis did was not all bad."

The most shocking scenes show the brutality of the resistance-turned-victors. When Ellis is set up by Franken as a resistance traitor, her former comrades waste no time in calling her a "greedy pig Jew" and a "goddam fucking Nazi whore". After liberation by the Canadian allies she is rounded up as a collaborator and subject to the full force of resistance retribution, while the Canadians allow the surviving German command to shoot Müntze. These details are also historically accurate, says Verhoeven. The final images of the film in the Israel-set wraparound show soldiers protecting the kibbutz's perimeter fence with guns pointed at the outside world, suggesting the story is not over. And Verhoeven doesn't pass up the opportunity to make connections between the resistance's bad behaviour and the US torture of Iraqis in Abu Ghraib, though with the proviso that: "It's not a message, it's human behaviour."

Particularly resonant is the Nazi use of the word ‘terrorist' to describe the resistance. "The Dutch resistance fighters were called terrorists by the Germans in official announcements," says Verhoeven. "I thought that was interesting because it might make people think about what we mean when we call people we don't like terrorists." So was the director trying to situate the action in a long history? "No," he replies, "but I did realise that using the word would be ambiguous. The terrorist of then is the politician of now, which is also true for a lot of people in the Israeli military. State terrorism seems to be completely accepted and individual terrorism completely unacceptable. But state terrorism is even worse, isn't it? What the United States is doing in Iraq is state terrorism."

Starship Troopers, Verhoeven told me in 2003, presents patriotism as "foolish and fascist... The heroes are idiots. The slogan of the movie should be, ‘Let's go there and die'." So what view of Dutch patriotism and the motivations of the underground does Black Book present? Again Soldier of Orange is a reference point: "Erik Hazelhoff was not anti-fascist: he was still going to Germany to pick up nice German girls. He was not politically motivated - it was more a case of, 'What the fuck are you doing here? Get back to your country. Get out!' Others in the resistance were very strong communists - indeed the strongest people were fundamentalist Christians or communists. The people motivated by religion felt that Nazism was the devil." But do these devil-fighters become the devils themselves, asks Black Book.

Finally, I wondered how Verhoeven thinks his film will play in the land that has employed him these last 20 years. Will America embrace Black Book's ambivalent monsters and values? So far, "reviewers see it as a high-paced adventure with a little undermining of heroism," he says. "The audience might be upset or they might think it's so distant, that's fine. It's like the way they've been for a long time about Iraq: 'Ah, it's so far away. I mean, what about my taxes?'"

Last Updated: 10 Feb 2012