Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) has seen everything she holds dear systematically stripped away as the German forces mount their invasion: her family, her livelihood as a cabaret singer, the countryside farm where she was kept hidden from harm's way, and her very identity, forced to dye her hair and change her name to better mask her Jewish heritage. Barely escaping from bombing raids and bullet-riddled double-crosses, the newly-dubbed Ellis de Vries settles into a life as a spy for the Dutch resistance. A chance encounter on a train attracted the lustful eyes of Ludwig Müntze, one of the chief German officers stationed in the area, and Ellis is tasked with playing on that interest to seduce her way into a privileged position in the Nazis' headquarters in the Hague. Ellis succeeds at endearing herself to the upper echelon of the invading German forces, but the lives she's determined to save soon conflict with the goals of the Resistance, pairing her with an unlikely ally and pitting her against further betrayals.
The World War II drama has been a mark of prestige since the release of Schindler's List nearly fifteen years ago, furthered by the likes of Life is Beautiful and Saving Private Ryan. What's intriguing about Black Book is that it falls somewhere in between those sorts of visually powerful, emotionally arresting films with the sweeping romance/action epics of Hollywood's golden years and even a couple of fistfuls of Verhoeven's smirkingly sleazy days in Hollywood. As impossible a combination as that'd seem to be, not only is that just what Verhoeven has hammered out after several years of silence as a filmmaker, but he pulls it off astonishingly well.
A large part of the film's success is owed to Carice van Houten. Black Book demands so much from her, particularly seeing as how her character is herself forced to portray many different roles. The former Rachel Stein dons whatever mask is necessary to survive, be it the role of a studious Christian, an arm of the Resistance, the whore of the invading Nazis, a Jewish freedom fighter, and a traitor to her country. Black Book spends close to every moment of its nearly two and a half hour runtime trying to dehumanize this poor young woman and irrevocably shatter her spirit. Despite everything she's subjected to and having to adopt so many disparate identities throughout the course of the movie, she never succumbs to the vulnerability so clearly visible in van Houten's haunted eyes. Rachel...Ellis...however you want to think of her...remains strong throughout, and it's a strength that's conveyed purely by her physical presence, not by teary-eyed monologues. van Houten is a remarkably engaging actress, both endlessly charming and fascinatingly intense. Her co-stars contribute similarly strong performances, especially Sebastian Koch, one of the leads in Sony's recent Blu-ray release of The Lives of Others.
Despite Black Book's runtime approaching a daunting two and a half hours in length, Verhoeven never lets the pacing drag. There's not a single instance of shameless padding, deftly alternating between moments of charged sexuality, tense, Hitchcock-inspired thrills, and over-the-top sequences in which no matter what the underground schemes, it inevitably ends with a half-battalion of Nazi stormtroopers stepping out from nowhere, guns blazing. Black Book doesn't shy away from its graphic imagery, from the unrelentingly brutal mowing down of everyone and everything in sight to a slew of savage beatings to mutual sexual exploitation to slathering its leading lady in a vat of shit.
No, Black Book isn't exactly subtle; it does have Paul Verhoeven's name plastered throughout the credits, after all, and its bombastic, hyperdramatic score half the time sounds like temp music lifted from an Indiana Jones knockoff. Some of the writing's so clumsy that I had to have Verhoeven explain to me in the audio commentary that one married couple was meant to be portrayed in a positive light; I thought they were supposed to be two of the most thoroughly repulsive, self-serving villains in the movie. Black Book is bookended by a wraparound catching up with Ellis at a Kibbutz in Israel a decade after the war had ended, and I have mixed feelings about opening the film by showing that she lived through it as that defuses some of the tension. Still, the point of the movie isn't whether or not Ellis survives but showing how doggedly fighting for survival can so thoroughly transform someone into becoming nearly unrecognizable, so I can understand the apprach.
Even with some of its over the top moments, Black Book is a surprisingly thoughtful movie. Its characters not only continually deceive each other but willingly deceive themselves. Gallant heroes and moustache-twirling villains are in short supply; essentially everyone on all sides is ultimately doing whatever serves their own best interests. Even Ellis' motivation seems to be partially fueled by revenge and half borne out of the idea that everything else has been taken from her, so what does she really stand to lose by playing the role of hero? Taking a cue from the horror genre in which the tormented gradually become the tormentors, Verhoeven shows the invaded Dutch gleefully inflicting some of the cruelties they endured on their former captors when the tables are turned, so he's certainly not overromanticizing his countrymen.
Black Book is a beautifully shot film, crafted with the sort of visual polish that's almost inconceivable considering that it's an independent production with a budget under $25 million. The construction of the story is similarly impressive, teeming with a score of twists and turns and never once dragging throughout its considerable length. Verhoeven revels just enough in his more exploitative tendencies to keep Black Book endlessly entertaining yet somehow manages to avoid letting that ever step on the strength of the acting or the storytelling. It could certainly be argued that it's cringingly inappropriate for a World War II drama to be this shamelessly over-the-top, but at the end of the day, this is a Paul Verhoeven flick, not a somber documentary. Verhoeven aims to give these days in the Netherland a higher international profile and to make a hell of an entertaining movie, and he's succeeded on both counts. Recommended.
Video: Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and encoded using the AVC codec, the visual polish and immaculate detail of Black Book's 1080p video rank confidently alongside the best on either high definition format. The level of fine detail is often striking, particularly the strength of its facial textures and the intricate gradients between light and shadow. The image is crisply rendered throughout, not marred by any trace of softness or artificial edge enhancement. Its reproduction of colors is wonderful as well, with its exteriors beautifully saturated and natural in appearance while its interiors are often cast in a warm, golden glow.
The presence of film grain in this high contrast image never becomes intrusive either, and that itself is an impressive achievement considering that Verhoeven kept four or five cameras rolling throughout most of the shoot, an approach that may have led to some shots not being optimally lit. A couple of darker interiors do reveal a flattened contrast, particularly one scene in which Ellis is masking the last traces of her naturally brown hair, but this isn't a persistent issue. Black levels aren't always as dense as expected but are generally robust. There isn't a single speck or imperfection to be found in the source, nor is there any sign of digital artifacting, not even in challenging sequences such as a climactic confrontation peppered with muzzle flashes. Simply fantastic.
Audio: The bulk of the dialogue throughout Black Book is delivered in Dutch, with some brief moments conducted in English and German, and this has been preserved on Blu-ray with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a six-channel PCM soundtrack. The sound design lavishes the front speakers with most of its attention, but the lossless audio sounds tremendous when given the opportunity to spread out further. The swift destruction of Rachel's farmhouse hideaway is perhaps its most awe-inspiring moment: the colossal roar of a jet engine careening from the front speakers to the rears is impressive enough on its own, but it's followed by a devastating explosion bolstered by the sort of thunderous low-frequency effects that reverberate throughout the entire room. Sprays of gunfire fill every channel in several of the other action-oriented sequences, accompanied by the distinctive metallic clink of spent shell casings falling to the ground. The music maintains a more persistent presence in the soundscape, and the clarity and distinctness of the instrumentation are often outstanding. Atmospherics and ambiance are both handled well, from trickles of rain to the sounds of creaking metal and dripping water in the underbelly of a German ship. The film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, never dominated in the mix even during its most aggressive moments. The audio may be somewhat subdued throughout much of the film but overall is very well done.
The way Black Book approaches its subtitles is somewhat misleading, though. The disc defaults to 'no subtitles', which, despite what that label suggests, actually brings up English subtitles whenever a character speaks in another language. On the other hand, the dedicated English subtitle stream captions every line of dialogue, including those spoken in English. More accurate labeling would've been appreciated. Other subtitle options include French, Hindi, Spanish, and a third English stream captioned for the deaf and hard of hearing. There are no dubs: just the pair of primarily Dutch soundtracks.
Sony has been near the lead in supporting owners of constant image height front-projection setups -- one of very few studios to do so -- but Black Book overlaps its subtitles with the letterboxing bars, leaving them lopped off on these sorts of 2.39:1 projection rigs.
Extras: The 25 minute making-of featurette -- presented in standard definition and anamorphic widescreen -- is a promotional piece more than anything else. Talent from both sides of the camera fawn over the wonderful script and gush about how marvelous everyone and everything has been, also chatting about their characters and the story in between a lengthy series of excerpts from the film. The featurette improves a bit in its second half, offering a great deal more behind the scenes material, including fairly in-depth looks into the shooting of a couple of memorable sequences, how they approached the lavish production design and Verhoeven's meticulous attention to detail on such a slim budget, and the director being paired with a new cinematographer for the first time in quite a number of years. There's just enough substance to warrant a look, but I'd suggest skimming through most of its first twelve minutes.
The only other extra is an audio commentary with Paul Verhoeven. Conducted entirely in English, the affable director rarely touches on the nuts and bolts of production, instead preferring to put the film's characters and events in a historical context. Verhoeven was a young boy in the Netherlands during these dark days, and although Black Book isn't directly based on a true story, there are analogues for much of what happens in the film. Despite Black Book's daunting runtime, Verhoeven is never at a loss for words, filling the track with everything from a story about a man being dragged by his penis into a pit of human excrement to the translation of Ellis' second song and what that symbolizes when intercut with some particularly disturbing imagery. He does often fall into the trap of just narrating what's happening or will eventually happen, though. I enjoyed the commentary overall, particularly Verhoeven's historical comparisons as well as his notes about wanting to use digital effects sparingly after coming off of a couple consecutive Hollywood spectacles, the creative use of shooting locations, how many years this project had been percolating, his becoming enthralled with a multi-camera approach to photography, and the mindset behind the sex scenes in his films.
Also included are high definition trailers for Perfect Stranger, The Lives of Others, Reign Over Me, and Paprika. The usual 'coming soon to Blu-ray' reel is on here too, although since most of those movies have long since been released, it might be time for Sony to either update that label or swap out some of the footage. A trailer for Black Book is not included, although it is on some of the other discs featured here.
The interviews from Tartan's British Blu-ray release haven't made their way onto this disc, although none of the extras on this disc carry over to Tartan's either.
Conclusion: Black Book is the sort of movie that irks somewhat as a reviewer. I can rattle off a steady stream of complaints if I stop and think about it, but viewed outside of that context...to just lean back and let myself be swept away no matter how much director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven indulges himself...Black Book stands out as quite a compelling film, anchored by a set of strong performances and a story that's both epic in scope and remarkably nimble in pace. Leaving Hollywood behind seems to have been the right decision for Verhoeven, with Black Book standing out as his best in quite a number of years. For a long-germinating project so intensely personal to him, it's somewhat of a surprise that there aren't more extras, but the technical presentation -- its lossless audio and stunning 1080p video -- is first-rate. Recommended.