Judge Ben Saylor is hoping Paul Verhoeven's next film is Blue Book, an erotic thriller starring Carice van Houten as a car saleswoman with a deadly secret: She can't drive!
Our review of Black Book (Blu-Ray), published September 27th, 2007, is also available.
To fight the enemy, she must become one of them.
After a six-year absence from filmmaking, director Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct) returns with a vengeance with Black Book, a historical thriller that brings the filmmaker back to his Dutch roots while still allowing him to work in the sex and violence that characterizes both his Dutch and American films (although the sex and violence are not nearly as graphic and exaggerated as in his previous films, especially the American ones). Featuring a stunning lead performance from Carice van Houten, Black Book is packed with non-stop suspense throughout its two-hour-plus runtime. Smartly written and skillfully acted, Black Book more than makes up for Verhoeven's previous film, the awful Hollow Man.
Facts of the Case
In the waning months of World War II, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish singer living in Holland, is secretly lodged with a Christian family. But when the family's house is bombed, Rachel finds herself on the run. She falls in with a group of Dutch Resistance fighters, including Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) and Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). The group has Rachel dye her hair blonde and change her name to Ellis de Vries, assigning her to seduce a local Gestapo commander named Müntze (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others). But things become complicated when Rachel/Ellis not only starts to fall for Müntze, but also realizes there is a traitor within the Resistance's ranks.
Paul Verhoeven made a number of acclaimed Dutch films before becoming famous (or infamous) for American films both good (RoboCop, Starship Troopers) and bad (Showgirls). One of his Dutch works, 1977's Soldier of Orange, stars Rutger Hauer and Jeroen Krabbé as friends who become involved in the Dutch Resistance during World War II. Black Book, using the same historical template to tell a completely different story, makes for a wonderful companion piece to the classic Soldier.
In Black Book Verhoeven, as he did so well in Soldier of Orange, immerses the viewer in the morally gray world of the Dutch Resistance. Here anyone could be a traitor, and the protagonist faces danger at every turn. This is not a film where the successful underdog scores victory after victory against the mighty enemy (even though the Nazis ultimately lose, of course); this is a film where an accident leads to the discovery of a secret weapons shipment, and missions go awry because of treacherous comrades. The horrors of the war are not confined to the Nazi side; Verhoeven makes sure we understand the brutality the Dutch people showed to collaborators, which makes for some difficult-to-watch scenes.
Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (who co-wrote Soldier of Orange and worked on a number of other Verhoeven films) have written a fast-paced, twisting script that rarely slows down for a breather. No sooner are we introduced to the family Rachel is hiding with than the house they are living in is bombed. Characters are introduced and quickly killed or taken prisoner. Through it all, the resourceful Rachel rolls with the punches, risking life and limb for the Resistance. (She even dyes her pubic hair blonde to match her hair.) Van Houten, in a flawless performance, plays Rachel with charisma and charm. Despite the movie's epic scope and nearly all-male cast, the actress effortlessly carries the film on her shoulders. Verhoeven and Soeteman are to be praised for making Rachel such a strong, three-dimensional character. She is also unconventional; just after she has narrowly escaped the bombing of her hiding place, instead of sobbing as most movies would have her do, Rachel blithely makes dinner, singing and remarking that now she won't have to recite Bible verses for her supper. On a train with Hans, just when it looks like they will have to shoot their way out of a jam, she brilliantly improvises on the spot, saving them both. With no hesitation, she is willing to bed a Gestapo officer in order to further the Resistance's cause. In short, she's one of the most compelling screen characters you're likely to find in recent cinema.
Koch, who was so good in The Lives of Others, turns in another strong performance as the "good" Nazi Müntze. Verhoeven again gamely toys with convention with this character, who collects stamps and agrees to stop shooting prisoners if the Resistance fighters give up their arms. Koch brings compassion and a touch of melancholy to Müntze in his performance.
Verhoeven peoples his supporting cast with actors who have worked with him previously, of which the most prominent is Hoffman, who was in The Fourth Man. With his perpetually grim, droopy eyes (like a Dutch David Morse), Hoffman fits the role perfectly. Both Derek de Lint and Dolf de Vries (who plays the lawyer Smaal) acted in Soldier of Orange. Other actors in the cast also turn in noteworthy performances, such as Waldemar Kobus as the odious Franken, a truly despicable Nazi whose cruel, meathead exterior masks an even crueler, devious streak. Halina Reijn is also memorable as Franken's girl Ronnie, who switches to a Canadian boyfriend at the end of the war without missing a beat.
Many of Verhoeven's films feature dynamic camera work; here, things aren't quite as visually kinetic as in his previous films, which the director himself admits on the commentary track included on the DVD. Instead, Verhoeven filmed with multiple cameras and relied more on editing with this film. Even so, the film is photographed beautifully by Karl Walter Lindenlaub, and when there is camera movement, it is always well done.
A Verhoeven film isn't a Verhoeven film without going over the top, which Black Book is certainly guilty of at times. A scene where a pious Resistance fighter eschews his non-violent ways to gun down a traitor after the man blasphemes, while apparently based on a real incident (according to Verhoeven, in the commentary), just comes off as silly on film. And this isn't really an over-the-top moment, but it stretches credulity: Müntze and Rachel seem to fall in love literally overnight, after the former relates the story of losing his family in a bombing. Never mind that he's the head of the Gestapo and surely facilitated the deaths of Rachel's countrymen; can't we see that he's a lonely man? And he collects stamps! As I said before, I know what Verhoeven was doing in making the character sympathetic, but the speed with which they fall in love is still kind of silly. This is a minor quibble, however, as both performances are so strong, and slowing down the movie with an extended relationship subplot could have been deadly.
Sony presents Black Book in a fine transfer that renders the film's color palette of browns, grays, and greens well; the sound is also good. As for extras, there is a 25-minute making-of featurette called Black Book: The Special, which is mostly a puff piece where the actors and crew heap praise on Verhoeven. It is fun to see footage of Verhoeven's energetic directing as he runs alongside actors during an action scene, but other than that, there is not a lot of meat here. Verhoeven does a commentary track as well, which contains more information about the process behind making the film. The director pretty much talks non-stop, and despite a habit of explaining events in the film as if the audience is composed of 8-year-olds, the track is an enjoyable listen when he sticks to the film's production history (He and Soeteman have been trying to make the film for years) and historical basis. (Many characters are based on real people.) He even defends the pubic hair-dyeing scene. Overall, Verhoeven's passion for the project is palpable, and his connection to the material strong. (He has boyhood memories of bombers flying overhead and other parts of the war shown in the film.) A collection of trailers rounds out the special features on the disc.
Any fan of Paul Verhoeven (by "fan," I include fans of his early Dutch films as well) will love Black Book's mostly-successful blend of suspense, action and sex. The morally ambiguous universe the characters inhabit recalls Verhoeven's best works, among which Black Book undoubtedly belongs.
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Scales of Justice
• Black Book Making-of Featurette
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