Black Book

Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

Carice van Houten and Michel Huisman get bombed.

(Sony Classics) Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus, Derek de Lint, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries. Directed by Paul Verhoeven.

While war itself is an absolute evil, often life in wartime is characterized by varying shades of grey. Those caught up in it must often differentiate between these shades, trying to find the one that is least black. In the process, they often have to become something terrible in order to avoid becoming a corpse.

Rachel Stein (van Houten) is a Dutch Jew hiding in the countryside during the waning days of World War II, hoping to survive until the Germans are defeated. When her hiding place is obliterated, she is taken to see a sympathetic notary (de Vries) who helps reunite her with her family with the purpose of getting them across the border to Allied territory. During the river crossing, the boat full of Jewish refugees is ambushed by the Nazis and gunned down. Rachel is the only survivor.

She is rescued by Gerben Kuipers (de Lint), a Dutch resistance leader who offers her shelter. Instead, the vengeful Rachel joins the resistance as a spy and changes her name to the less ethnic Ellis de Vries. During a mission with Hans Akkerman (Hoffman), she meets Ludwig Muntze (Koch), the head of the Dutch SD. She makes an impression on him, but thinks nothing further of it.

After Kuipers’ son is captured she is enlisted to seduce Muntze and obtain the release of the captives. She is hired as his assistant and soon befriends Ronnie (Reijn), a Dutch woman who is using whatever means necessary to survive, including sleeping with Frankel (Kobus), a ruthless sub commander who was responsible for the death of her parents. Ellis/Rachel manages to bug Frankel’s office, giving the resistance much useful information. She also finds that Muntze’s duties are being suborned by his conscience, and that he is an incredibly decent man. She begins to fall in love with him.

After several missions go horribly wrong it soon becomes clear that the resistance has an informant in its midst. Suspicion falls on Ellis/Rachel after Frankel frames her. Now, she finds that post-war Holland is in many respects more dangerous for her than the Nazi occupation was as she tries to discover who the true traitor is before she is captured by those she worked so hard to assist.

Verhoeven, whose career was established based on his Dutch war masterpiece Soldier of Orange has been making Hollywood blockbusters such as Total Recall, RoboCop, Starship Troopers and Basic Instinct. This is his first Dutch film since 1983’s The 4th Man. Black Book holds the distinction of being the most expensive film ever made in Holland at the time it was released, and also the most commercially successful film to come from the Netherlands ever.

The movie has a very slick look to it, and cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub does a fine job of making it look good. Verhoeven has done an excellent job of bringing wartime Holland to life. He has also co-written a script that has ample twists and turns as Ellis/Rachel navigates – often painfully – through the politics not only of the Nazi occupation but of the Dutch resistance as well. It works pretty nicely as a thriller.

The big problem with the writing, if it has any, is that there are too many twists and turns. As Ellis/Rachel wails near the end of the film, “When will it all stop!” and we, the audience agree – the movie is about 20 minutes too long. However, that really is where the bellyaching from this critic begins and ends.

Van Houten is a spectacular-looking woman, and not a bad actress to boot. She has to carry the movie nearly entirely on her shoulders and she does a good job of it. She gets support from Koch, who reminds me of the Dutch actor Jeroen Krabbe, and from Hoffman, who reminds me a bit of Andrew McCarthy.

Overall, this is very well-made and does keep you on the edge of your seat. Although this is a work of fiction, many of the events depicted here actually happened. Verhoeven, when at the top of his game, is a world class director, and he’s at the top of his game here. With just a bit of tweaking, this might have been his best work ever. Instead, it’s a very enjoyable, entertaining two hours well worth spending.

WHY RENT THIS: This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller that is as well-made as any coming out of Hollywood. Van Houten is an absolutely spectacular looking woman. World War II-set movies are big these days.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Movie goes on a bit too long with one two many twists. Dialogue is mostly in Dutch and German, so those who abhor subtitles will be annoyed.

FAMILY VALUES: Many Nazi atrocities are depicted in unflinching detail. There is also a fair amount of female nudity, as well as extremely sexual situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The genesis of the film came when director Verhoeven was researching true stories from the Second World War in the Netherlands back in 1977 when he was making Soldier of Orange.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Capitalism: A Love Story

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3 thoughts on “Black Book

    • I certainly agree with you that this isn’t what you’d expect from a World War II thriller, subtitled or not.

      My quibble is that I think that there was already a genuine sense of unease; the final few twists took me out of that feeling which I’m quite sure is not what the filmmakers intended.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments! I’ll be sure to check out your review as well and I encourage my readers do the same.

      • Yeah, you could well be right with there being too many twists – it certainly wouldn’t have suffered if they had cut out one or two. I forgave it thought because I really enjoyed the whole thing.

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