Black Book (Zwartboek)

Black Book
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay: Gerard Soeteman & Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Carice van Houten (Rachel Stein, aka Ellis de Vries), Sebastian Koch (Ludwig Müntze), Thom Hoffman (Hans Akkermans), Halina Reijn (Ronnie), Waldemar Kobus (Günther Franken), Derek de Lint (Gerben Kuipers), Christian Berkel (General Käutner), Dolf de Vries (Notary Smaal), Peter Blok (Van Gein), Michiel Huisman (Rob), Ronald Armbrust (Tim Kuipers), Frank Lammers (Kees), Matthias Schoenaerts (Joop), Johnny de Mol (Theo)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2006 (Europe) / 2007 (U.S.)
Country: Netherlands / Belgium / U.K. / Germany
Black Book
Black BookHaving been a child during the Nazi occupation of Holland during World War II, it is not surprising that many of director Paul Verhoeven's early films, including Soldier of Orange (1977) and All Things Pass (1979), dealt with the war and the Dutch resistance. The idea of war itself has also persisted into many of his films, particularly his American sci-fi spectacles like RoboCop (1987), Total Recall (1990), and Starship Troopers (1997), all of which are satires on one level, but are also deeply infused with Verhoeven's continual obsession with the nature of human violence.

Black Book (Zwartboek), which chronicles the exploits of a Jewish woman who joins the Dutch Resistance and infiltrates the ranks of the Nazi occupiers, marks Verhoeven's return to both the war genre and his native Holland. One can understand why he went back to his homeland to make this film, which he has been working on for close to two decades. After all, just about everything he has done in Hollywood has been perpetually misunderstood or needlessly vilified (including the self-aware campiness of 1995's Showgirls). Whatever Verhoeven does, he does it with gusto, whether it's a sci-fi action extravaganza or a trash epic about Las Vegas strippers, and Black Book is no different. While it certainly deals with serious historical issues, it is first and foremost an engaging thriller that commands your attention from the opening frames.

The main character is a young Jewish woman named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), who is hiding at a rural farm in Nazi-occupied Holland. Early on she is depicted as willful and headstrong, in addition to be beautiful and intelligent--not the kind of woman who can be easily pushed around. When her opportunity to escape into Belgium is decimated in a brutal Nazi ambush that kills everyone trying to escape with her (including her entire family), she falls in with the Dutch Resistance, which is led by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). When Kuipers' son, Tim (Ronald Armbrust), is taken prisoner by the Nazis, he asks Rachel, who is now going by the name of Ellis de Vries, to infiltrate the Nazi headquarters through the bed of its commander, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch).

That is, in essence, the setup, although Verhoeven and his longtime collaborator Gerard Soeteman have plenty of narrative tricks and turns up their sleeve (some might say a few too many in the final half hour). Rachel/Ellis is clearly in dangerous territory, as she must convince the Nazis to trust her with sensitive material while she is planting microphones in offices and trying to find out anything and everything she can that might help the Resistance. This leads to a number of classically composed suspense sequences, as well as a general air of tension emanating from Rachel's having to turn her body over to the very enemy responsible for killing her family. Carice van Houten does an amazing job portraying a strong woman asked to sacrifice everything, and she beautifully conveys Rachel's emotional turmoil even as she maintains a perfectly unruffled façade (when Müntze discovers she is Jewish, she hardly flinches).

Verhoeven, who has spent decades doing his historical homework, does not paint a simple portrait of good and evil, however. War invariably muddies moral distinctions, and even those who are on the “right” side don't always do right, and those who are on the “wrong” side are not always unproblematically evil. Thus, Verhoeven's depiction of the Dutch Resistance doesn't differ terribly from his depiction of the Nazis (which has caused some consternation among his countrymen, some of whom protested the film). When Resistance members are misled to believe that Rachel has betrayed them, they explode in precisely the kind of virulent anti-Semitism that allowed the Nazis to invade Holland and deport some 100,000 Jews, the highest percentage of any European country. At the same time, Müntze is depicted as a man who, despite wearing a Nazi uniform, has not lost his humanity entirely. Müntze's second-in-command, Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), fills the cardboard role of thoroughly despicable Nazi, but his real sin is not his affiliation with Adolf Hitler, but rather this abuse of his position of power to enrich himself.

Working with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub (City by the Sea), Verhoeven gives Black Book the visual panache of a great war-time epic (the David Lean influence is writ large). He balances the gritty realism of his historical subject matter with a slightly heightened aura of deeply saturated colors that at times border on the look of old three-strip Technicolor films. Reds are garish and contrasts are extreme, but he dials back the visual intensity in the film's uglier scenes. Verhoeven has never been known for his restraint, and Black Book has plenty of salacious and wince-inducing moments. Where most directors would be happy to depict Rachel's humiliation simply by showing her in a postwar internment camp, Verhoeven piles it on literally by having revelers dump an entire cauldron of human waste over her half-naked and beaten body. Yet, by that point, the film itself has generated such a head of narrative steam that anything less would be anticlimactic.

The film does suffer at times from some of Verhoeven's excesses, for example the pointless anti-clerical nature of the early sequence in which Ellis is hiding out in the farmhouse of a devoutly Christian family whose patriarch will only allow her to eat after she recites Bible verses and all but blames the Jews for their persecution. While there are certainly people like that, it robs the scene in which the farmhouse is accidentally firebombed--the film's first scene of violence--of any emotional devastation to match the visceral on-screen pyrotechnics. She's not particularly sad to see him killed, and neither are we.

As a whole, though, Black Book does not disappoint. Verhoeven's potent mixture of provocative melodrama and spy movie theatrics set against a carefully researched historical backdrop makes for a heady cinematic experience. Verhoeven swings vertiginously between intelligence and perversity, compassion and irony, but that's part of the rush (the already infamous scene in which Rachel bleaches her pubic hair to complete her look as a blonde is both a sly wink at Sharon Stone's most notorious moment in Basic Instinct and a genuinely telling portrait of the lengths to which she has to go to survive). And, while Black Book doesn't necessarily mark a “return to form” for the filmmaker as some have argued (I don't think he ever lost his form, so how could he return to it?), it is one of his most powerfully entertaining films.

Black Book DVD
Black Book is also available on Blu-Ray.
Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • Dutch Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Subtitles English, French
  • Audio commentary by director Paul Verhoeven
  • Black Book: The Special” featurette
  • DistributorSony Pictures Home Entertainment
    Release DateSeptember 25, 2007

    The anamorphic widescreen transfer of Black Book is first-rate in conveying the film's dynamic visual appeal. Colors are rich and deeply saturated, whether they be earth tones or the luminous red of Rachel's evening wear, and the night scenes feature solid blacks and robust shadow detail. Contrast throughout the film is extraordinarily strong, sometimes seemingly too strong. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is likewise excellent, with great dynamic range and use of the surrounds to envelop us in the action setpieces.
    Paul Verhoeven fails to disappoint in his screen-specific audio commentary, which displays his fierce intelligence and his absolute conviction about the choices he made. Always passionate and never boring, Verhoeven has a kind of machine-gun-fire way of speaking, and it's utterly compelling if you're on his wavelength, whether he's talking about the history of the Dutch resistance or his philosophy on how to integrate narrative information into sex scenes. The 25-minute featurette “Black Book: The Special” is a good, comprehensive behind-the-scenes doc that features plenty of footage from the production and interviews with Verhoeven, actors Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Derek de Lint, Sebastian Koch, Halina Reijn, and Waldemar Kobus, cowriter Gerard Soeteman, supervising art director Cornelia Ott, and producer San Fu Maltha, among others.

    Copyright ©2007 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (3.5)

    James Kendrick

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