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MOVIE REVIEW

'Black Book' may be vulgar, but that's why it works

Maybe it's because the Nazis literally invaded his childhood, but Paul Verhoeven sees fascism everywhere. Especially where he's not supposed to: in a heroic police detective (Michael Douglas in "Basic Instinct "), tomorrow's bright young freedom fighters ("Starship Troopers "), even a rising young stripper ("Showgirls "). He sees the power struggle in love, and he sees it in democracy. He's the Elvis Costello of filmmakers.

The above titles get no respect -- to put it mildly -- but Verhoeven doesn't care. Either you come out of his movies wondering who you were rooting for (or, even better, why), or you recoil from the whole exercise. These are not films for delicate constitutions, or for people certain they know what's good for culture, history, or the cinema.

And so "Black Book ," a World War II Resistance movie turned upside down and shaken until its brains rattle. The New York Times calls it "supremely vulgar "; I suggest that's the movie's strength. It's the director's first work in his native Holland since 1983's "The Fourth Man " delivered him to an international audience, and while Verhoeven has learned many things in 24 years, how to behave isn't one of them.

The heroine is a Dutch Jew named Rachel (Carice van Houten ), a singer and an opportunist whose toughness has helped her survive where friends and family members have perished. Flushed out of her hiding place in the film's opening scenes, Rachel eventually joins the Dutch Resistance. Renamed "Ellis ," she goes to work as a secretarial spy in the local SS headquarters, planting microphones and flirting with the storm troopers until she makes the dreadful mistake of falling for one.

This is the sensitive, handsome Hauptsturmfuhrer Muntze , and it helps that he's played by Sebastian Koch , that nice playwright from "The Lives of Others. " How much of a pussycat is Muntze? He'd rather negotiate with Resistance members than shoot them. He collects stamps.

If it makes you feel better, there's at least one purely evil Nazi (Waldemar Kobus as a drooling pig of an officer) and legions of jackbooted minions, but the Resistance fighters on the other side don't have very clean laundry, either. It's 1944, late in the war, and Germany is clearly losing; the postures of heroism and valor fall away as everyone jockeys for a piece of the postwar action.

The dashing doctor-turned-freedom fighter (Thom Hoffman ), a kindly Dutch cop (Peter Blok ), the helpful family lawyer (Dolf de Vries ) -- all may be more or less than they seem. Jean Renoir once said everybody has their reasons; Verhoeven, by contrast, says that everyone has an agenda -- a far less comforting message to hear.

"Black Book" takes the conventions of the WWII epic -- the prison breaks, the interrogation scenes -- and undermines them with craft and muscle and the ripe lack of restraint we've come to expect from this director. Blood runs on the floor and rises in the characters' loins; when Verhoeven wants to dump a load on his put-upon heroine, he literally does so, in the film's most unforgivably noxious scene. In every way, "Black Book" is the polar opposite of "Army of Shadows ," the 1969 Jean-Pierre Melville Resistance drama that was re-released to great acclaim last year. Where Melville sanctified his doomed freedom fighters, Verhoeven rubs our faces in their fallibility.

All that keeps the movie from collapsing into soap opera is the exuberant drive of the filmmaking. And the central performance. Van Houten is pretty without being beautiful; in another movie, Rachel would be the fast, catty girl you don't trust. In "Black Book," she's all we've got -- war can be like that -- and we progress with her through despair, nihilism, manipulativeness, infatuation, betrayal , and the rebirth of a newly hardened sense of purpose.

Does she -- or the man who created her -- believe in anything? Family . . . maybe. In the eerie calm that descends toward the end of this remarkable piece of popcorn subversion, Rachel finds an ally in the one character whose only agenda has been another person. And in the framing sequences that open and close "Black Book," Rachel is seen at an Israeli kibbutz, teaching a group of children and embracing her own.

Don't think for a minute she has found peace. The year is 1956 and in the film's very final frames Verhoeven lets us know that wars don't end but merely take on different names and players. If that seems unnecessarily cruel, you haven't been paying attention.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/movies/blog.

'Related'

Black Book

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven

Written by: Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman

Starring: Carice van Houten , Sebastian Koch , Thom Hoffman

At: Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square, Embassy Cinema

Running time: 144 minutes

Rated: R (strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, language)

In Dutch and German, with subtitles

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