Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is an ambitious thriller about Holland during the Nazi occupation. The director's 1978 Soldier of Orange was based on a non-fiction book about a group of Leiden college boys that get involved with anti-Nazi activities. This much more fanciful saga examines espionage and corruption during the occupation through the story of a Jewish girl working with a resistance cell. It's far too compressed and eventful to be real, but director Verhoeven assures us that most everything that occurs in the film actually happened. The story of Rachel Stein's undercover life as the mistress of a high-ranking Nazi officer is ironic, sexy and violent. But it also captures a quality that's become increasingly rare in movies: glamour. Actress Carice Van Houten's electrifying beauty reminds us of Marlene Dietrich and Brigitte Helm, and Black Book uses her charms to great effect. It's one of the best movies of its year, and a great comeback for Paul Verhoeven.
Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is forced from hiding when an allied bomb destroys the farmhouse of her Christian protectors. A resistance agent arranges for her to be smuggled out of her country with the rest of her family, who have been hiding elsewhere. When things go wrong Rachel is on her own again. She joins a small resistance unit headed by the Notary Smaal and factory owner Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint & Dolf de Vries, both of Soldier of Orange) and the gunman Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). Rachel assumes the Aryan identity of Ellis de Vries and becomes the lover and secretary of SD officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). The German headquarters also holds the hated Günther Franken (Waldemar Korbus) and the uninhibited Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a Dutch girl prostituting herself to the Germans as a means of survival. Rachel/Ellis is torn between opposing desires -- to find and eliminate the traitor helping the Germans ferret out hiding Jews, and doing what she can for Ludwig, a sympathetic and rational man who wants to stop the German reprisals against the Dutch.
Black Book deals with historical material often trivialized in escapist entertainments. After Paul Verhoeven's general record of insensitivity -- mainly the indefensible Showgirls -- we're thrilled to see his firm handling of the Nazi occupation of Holland. Fans of Soldier of Orange will immediately recognize the tough-minded director's attitude toward life & death situations; the occupation is still a defining theme in Dutch history and Verhoeven doesn't shrink from its nastier complexities. Orange overturned the Hollywood fantasy that strong-hearted resistance fighters faced their oppressors with slogans on their lips. His group of young men lept blindly into the dirty business of espionage as if expecting a trolley ride to glory. Black Book is a tightly constructed fiction that carries the ring of truth. Verhoeven's contribution to the resistance thriller is to show that the interplay between Nazis and Dutchmen was a quicksand of twisted motives and ugly decisions. Neither side had a monopoly on bravery or betrayal, and some of the worst treachery came from totally unexpected directions.
Viewers expecting excitement will not be disappointed, as the fast-moving show has plenty of action and danger. Carice van Houten's undercover agent follows in the footsteps of Ingrid Bergman in Notorious: brought to such a sorry state by the Nazis, she willingly volunteers to "go all the way" to seduce Sebastian Koch's suave German officer. The sex scenes are certainly steamy, heightened by the glowing cinematography of Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Director Verhoeven never misses a step and in only one instance shows his penchant for unnecessary grossness.
Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman's script is a model of tight thriller plotting, unfolding the layers of mystery with admirable skill. Most of the gunplay is credible and the tensions between the resistance fighters grow more complicated as we realize that one or more of Rachel's trusted confederates are working for the other side. Daring escapes, break-ins and assassinations ensue, until exposure and arrest seem certain.
Miss van Houten is extremely good in a demanding role; she carries most of the picture. Sebastian Koch (The Lives of Others) is the intimidating German who makes the mistake of working for a humane outcome to the Nazi retreat. His main competition is the dashing Hans, played by the handsome Thom Hoffman. Waldemar Korbus and Christian Berkel are frightening as the Nazi commanders -- Ellis is forced to sing duets with Korbus' onerous Franken -- and Halina Reijn is ultimately sympathetic as the coarse party girl Ronnie.
The story becomes extremely disturbing after the Nazi surrender, when we discover that certain Germans and their Dutch counterparts have really been working for themselves, using the occupation as an opportunity to plunder the misfortunes of others. As in Soldier of Orange personal survival is the only triumph. The rampant moral crimes and injustices make the virtues of patriotism and selflessness seem unrealistic and naïve. Ten years later, Rachel has emigrated to a new land and a new society, fighting yet another war for survival.
Black Book has some strong imagery and sexual content and is definitely adult viewing. It's also the best war-espionage show I've seen since, well, Soldier of Orange.
Sony's DVD of Black Book looks terrific in its enhanced transfer; it's also offered in Blu-Ray and is one of the first HD releases to really tempt me to buy a player. Paul Verhoeven contributes one of his active commentaries. He's rightfully proud of the show, which he and Gerard Soeteman have been working on since the 1980s -- he claims that it was made from leftover true stories found while researching Soldier of Orange. It was a massive aggregate production from many European funding entities, as can be seen in its endless string of credited producers.
A making-of featurette allows us to hear the talented German and Dutch stars out of character. Face it: they're much more adult and glamorous than the star personalities America is putting out. Roles good enough for the likes of talents like Carice van Houton just don't appear on a regular basis.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Book rates:
Supplements: Commentary with Paul Verhoeven; promo featurette
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 20, 2007
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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