The new Paul Verhoeven film, “Black Book,” is set almost entirely in Holland during the later stages of the Second World War. It charts the efforts of a young Jewish woman named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) to survive and prosper. She hides out with a farmer’s family, then teams up with her own relatives and tries to flee the country on a barge. They are betrayed and slaughtered; Rachel alone escapes, and joins the Dutch Resistance. Here she is allotted the task of seducing Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), the courteous, stamp-collecting head of the local Gestapo. How, one might ask, did he rise to his present position? Did he torture his suspects with a pair of philatelist’s tweezers?
From here, the film is entwined in double crosses, strokes of luck, and panicky exchanges of gunfire. Somebody within the Resistance is in league with the Germans; for more than two hours, Verhoeven keeps us on what he believes to be tenterhooks before revealing the villain. By this stage, the war is over, with Allied troops being fêted in the streets and the unfortunate Rachel accused of collaboration. Her fate should hang in the balance, but, since the opening scene of the film shows her teaching in a kibbutz in 1956, the scales are decisively tipped.
According to rumor, “Black Book” marks a purified moment in the career of Paul Verhoeven. It is the first film that he has made in his native Holland in more than twenty years; it is also said to prove that he has put away childish things—“RoboCop,” “Basic Instinct,” “Showgirls,” and the other baubles of his Hollywood years. The first inkling that this might not be so comes with the attack on the barge. Rachel, though shot in the head, swims to safety, with the wound diminishing swiftly to a nasty graze and, one scene later, to an unblemished brow. Such is the template to which Verhoeven cleaves: no suffering is so dire that it cannot be endured and then erased, to be replaced—in Rachel’s case—with an indomitable smile. After her first encounter with Müntze, on a train (he offers to carry her bags, unaware that they are stuffed with weapons), she strolls away down the platform with a puff of relief on her lips.
You could take this, I guess, as a convincing dramatization of courage. In Holland, as in other occupied countries, acts of resistance were carried out with exemplary coolness. A browse through Elsa Caspers’s “To Save a Life: Memoirs of a Dutch Resistance Courier,” published in 1995, confirms as much, and I suspect that Caspers was a useful source for Verhoeven and his co-screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman. “To Save a Life,” however, is rooted in moral stamina and the harshness of deprivation; the winter of 1944 and the succeeding months (the time frame of “Black Book”) saw the Netherlands besieged by famine, with people grating tulip bulbs to make soup. None of that desperation pinches Verhoeven’s film. Resisters and collaborators alike are elegantly dressed, with plenty of flesh on the bones, and some of Rachel’s escapades have the casual air of a spree.
This is not to diminish the brassy performance of Carice van Houten, whose cheeriness is tinged with a mania that recalls other Verhoeven blondes. To avoid detection, she bleaches not only her locks but her pubic hair, finely focussed groin-baring being the price of admission to the Verhoeven pantheon. The trouble with “Black Book” is that, in urging us to admire the resourcefulness of a character—a Jewish woman pretending to serve the Nazis—it hopes to cover up its own deceit. This is trash pretending to serve the cause of history: a “Dirty Dozen” knockoff with one eye on “Schindler’s List.” Everything about it, from the earnest strivings of the musical score to the beery gropings of the Germans, has the whiff of soap opera. At one point, the sanitization is literal: Rachel, arrested as a traitor, is stripped to the waist and drenched in human excrement. There may be grounds for showing such maltreatment, but there are none for what happens next—a shot of our heroine, scrubbed and untraumatized, leaving the scene with her rescuer, a Resistance friend, and walking out into the sunshine. Is that how Verhoeven thinks that individuals, let alone countries, emerge from humiliation? Far from turning serious, the director of “Basic Instinct” has proved that, when it comes to grappling with good and evil, his instincts aren’t basic enough.
On a related subject, can you swallow a Jewish Richard Gere? The question spills naturally from Lasse Hallström’s film “The Hoax,” which delves with such gusto into the mechanics (not to mention the ethics) of gullibility that by the end we are forced to ask: Who can tell the guller from the gulled? Clifford Irving—a true figure, still alive today—was an author of minor repute who in 1971 conceived a scam that, in its formal beauty, would surpass anything else to which he put his name. “I’m working on the most important book of the twentieth century,” he declares, bursting into the offices of McGraw-Hill, in New York, to the annoyance of his editor, Andrea Tate (Hope Davis). Irving claims that he has been asked to research and prepare—in short, to write—the autobiography of Howard Hughes, a man whose public appearances are slightly less frequent, and less reliable, than Bigfoot’s.
A likely story. So likely, in fact, that Andrea and her superiors, including the president of the company (Stanley Tucci), lunge at it with their tongues hanging out. As Irving says, “I handed them three yellow letters, they gave me half a million dollars. Is that plausible?” It was he, of course, who faked those letters, which purported to come from Hughes himself and suggested Irving as the right man for the job. The whole thing is a fix, dreamed up by Irving and his best friend, Dick Suskind (Alfred Molina), and the comic glee that enlivens the first half of “The Hoax” springs from their astonished realization that they might, by a whisker, get away with it. So sure is Hallström’s pacing that you barely notice the withering moral of the tale: when the money is big enough, everyone is a mug.
“The Hoax” is a much smarter and more diverting picture than “The Aviator,” which, for all its pizzazz, did the one dull and hollow thing that you can do with Howard Hughes: it bought his story, straight. It was a McGraw-Hill kind of movie, with a fancy cover. Hallström’s effort, shot by Oliver Stapleton, is no less fun to ogle—check out the sofa covers, the textured wallpapers, and the resplendent pertness of Hope Davis in her kneecap-grazing dresses of 1971—but its writhing narrative, scripted by William Wheeler, pulls it away from Scorsese and closer to the tall, doubt-haunted stories of Jonathan Demme, whose “Melvin and Howard” (1980) offered Hughes as a mad old motorcyclist in the desert, and of Orson Welles, who took one look at Clifford Irving and pulled him out of the hat in “F for Fake” (1974). There, in interviews, we encountered the real Irving: sly, sociable, and dangerously sane. As Welles asked, going straight to the heart of the matter, “Does it say something for this age of ours that he could only make it big by fakery?”Gere is a slippery customer, no question, and I heartily applaud his wig, but does he glow with the grandeur of the born charlatan? Tucci, say, might have done a more rambunctious job. As for Alfred Molina, he could have played almost any role in the movie; we first see him, for no good reason, in a wetsuit, and from then on he delivers a matchless portrayal of a rubber soul. As portly and hangdog as Charles Laughton, Molina’s Suskind is breathlessly out of his depth, forever imagining extra hiccups and glitches to go with the real ones. “What if I’m a Russian?” he asks, approaching a security cordon at the Department of Defense. (Irving, shying from the dirty work, gets Suskind to steal a Hughes-related document.) Their kinship—wholly unsexual yet lit, like that of Martin and Lewis, with an exasperated love—is the beacon of the movie, and it just about survives the lengthening shadows of the later scenes. Hughes, sensing an opportunity, really does make contact with our bewildered hero, trying to use his book as a tool with which to jab at President Nixon. Suddenly, we are plunged into talk of Watergate and airline-industry deals, and the joy starts to drip from the movie, which cannot quite bear so much reality. Irving himself grows deluded and paranoid, like the John Nash of “A Beautiful Mind,” but who wants another frowning film about conspiracy theories? Isn’t it enough to make sport of the suckers who believe them?