Black Book

May, 2007, Thriller

Directed by:Paul Verhoeven

Starring:Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, and Halina Reijn

Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven was born in 1938, one year before Hitler invaded Poland and launched WW II, so his memories of German-occupied Holland are those of a young child. But his interest in that appallingly-violent era fueled his study of Dutch resistance in Soldier of Orange, his first international success. That film brought him to Hollywood, where he’s labored for over 3 decades on commercial successes like Basic Instinct & Total Recall interspersed with high-end trash like Showgirls & RoboCop. He’ll celebrate his 69th birthday this summer, undoubtedly relishing the critical and financial success of this, his latest film. It’s an elaborate spy thriller, mixing ample amounts of sex and violence, (his trademarks) with dark observations about the complicity of some of his countrymen with their Nazi occupiers. Though it lacks the brilliance of Melville’s Army Of Shadows, this examination of civilian resistance in Holland and its relationship to Jewish atrocities there moves briskly throughout it’s 2 ¼ hour running time and burnishes the director’s reputation. Lovers of espionage won’t be disappointed.

Black Book traces the nightmarish odyssey of Rachael Steinn, (a composite of several actual women unearthed by Verhoeven’s research in writing the screenplay) who’s forced from hiding with a Dutch family when their farm is destroyed in an air-strike. She adopts the name Ellis and contacts her family’s non-Jewish lawyer who arranges - - for a handsome price - - to reunite Rachael with her parents and younger brother so they can leave the country with a group of fellow Jews. When the small barge they’ve chartered to make their escape gets brutally machine-gunned by German troops, Rachel dives overboard and survives by hiding among reeds along the river’s channel. Devastated by the loss of her family, she joins the Dutch resistance and due to her striking good looks, seduces Ludwig Muntze, the local head of the Gestapo in Holland. Bed him she does, quite enthusiastically, which earns her a job at his headquarters, allowing her to acquire information valuable to her Dutch compatriots. Rachel’s zeal for her dangerous assignment is fueled primarily by her desire to revenge her murdered family rather than hatred of Germans and she finds herself falling for her handsome lover, (played by Sebastian Koch, the playwright at the center of this year’s Academy Award winning foreign film The Lives of Others.) Thus conflicted, Rachael encounters duplicitous comrades, vile members of the Gestapo hierarchy and a number of civilians whose anti-Semitism frequently bubbles to the surface. At the war’s end, when her opportunity for revenge finally comes, Rachael extracts it from those whose complicity she could have hardly imagined.

For those who old enough to remember the espionage films of the 40’s and 50’s, Black Book triggers instant nostalgia; it’s been handsomely shot in superb locations with painstaking attention paid to period detail in everything from costuming to military equipment. Verhoeven and veteran cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub work in lush colors, employing a lucid, no-nonsense style reminiscent of those big-budget Hollywood studio productions of yesteryear. This visual clarity compensates for a convoluted plot complicated by enough double and triple-crosses to keep even the most focused members of the audience working hard to follow the heroine’s dangerous and frequently humiliating journey. 

The European cast is uniformly competent and Carice van Houten, (rumored to be James Bond’s love interest as the latest entry in that series begins shooting) dazzles as Rachael; this red-headed 31 year-old Dutch actress with the dazzling smile and legs to match manages to put a consistently credible face on a storyline often in danger of collapsing from the weight of its numerous sub-plots. As gorgeous out of her clothes as she is effective in them, Ms. Van Houten’s performance bears worthy comparison with the real-life Mata Hari.

Black Book struggles to adequately treat the director’s stated intention in making this movie; the collaboration of too many of his fellow Dutchmen with their Nazi occupiers and the often thinly disguised anti-Semitism which fueled it. While the script raises those issues frequently, they’re presented in passing as a rather minor aspect in the storyline of what is essentially a work of cinematic escapism. Enthralling it is, but really serious consideration of these themes awaits a more ambitious film, one Verhoeven may lack the skills to deliver.

The verdict?  A fast-paced and highly energized war-time thriller, intent on entertaining rather than informing. But watch out for Ms. van Houten; after this film, she’s going to continue getting a lot of work. 

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