April 9, 2007

Defending Verhoeven

This week in the New Yorker, Anthony Lane ripped Paul Verhoeven's Black Book a new one and Cinecultist finds ourselves in the unenviable position of feeling the need to defend Verhoeven. If you feel that chilly breeze wafting out of Hades don't be alarmed, that is indeed the feeling of Hell being frozen over with CC standing up for the Dutch schlockmeister auteur but frankly, it must be done. Black Book doesn't deserve the Lane treatment.

Here's the bullet point version of what problems Lane finds in Verhoeven's movie about a Dutch Jewish girl working for the Resistance in occupied Holland.

  • The villainous Gestapo head Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) isn't that menacing.

  • The double-crosser within the Resistance plot is lame.

  • Verhoeven's continuity skills (in one scene Rachel, our Jewish girl spy, is injured, in the next she's miraculously recovered) aren't so hot.

  • Life under Nazi occupation doesn't look so hard, everyone has plenty to eat and suitably slutty clothes (if you're a girl) to wear.

All in all, here's Lane's major beef: "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."

However, this is where CC has to depart from Lane's caustic, but otherwise accurate, observations of Verhoeven's prettified version of Nazi Holland. Verhoeven's main purpose is to create melodrama. Even when he uses the tropes of a thriller, like in Basic Instinct, he wants to draw larger than life characters existing in the realm of grand scale storytelling. Except that his favorite kinds of characters also have a whiff of crass humanism to them--they like sex a little dirty or their drinks extra strong. There must be bawdiness in Verhoeven's movies, but it's all for the sake of fun, entertainment and hyperbole (see Showgirls's exuberant pole dancing or Starship Troopers's shower scenes as examples).

The totally brilliant thing about Black Book in Cinecultist's mind is that Verhoeven actually had the balls to bring his brand of melodrama to a Holocaust story, the ultimate sacred cow in Hollywood. Of course he had to publicly leave Hollywood behind to make that kind of movie, but as the production still above shows, Verhoeven isn't afraid to put some tasty gams on a Jewish girl and let her use them to taunt a few Third Reich soldiers. It's so salacious it can't help but make us think differently about this great tragedy. There were real people involved, who had sex drives and double crossed each other. The Resistance fighters could be as despicable as the Gestapo middle men were noble. Revolutionary, right?

Anthony Lane get off of your fucking snarky high horse. Black Book is an entertaining, sexy thriller that giggles as it snubs its nose in the face of taboo. Now, with that out of the way, Cinecultist is going to go put on a sweater. It's cold here in the Hell of our own making.

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