Judge Ryan Keefer thinks that Paul Verhoeven could have used Joe Eszterhas' help on this one.
Our review of Black Book, published September 25th, 2007, is also available.
To fight the enemy, she must become one of them.
When I see a film directed by Paul Verhoeven, I usually think of one with a little bit of…color, or flair to it. The Dutch director's American film credits include Robocop, Basic Instinct and Showgirls. He decided make a film around a female character in World War II in his first film in his homeland in almost a quarter century. So how is Black Book on Blu-ray?
Facts of the Case
Written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman (Flesh+Blood), the film follows Rachel (Carice van Houten, Valkyrie), a Jewish singer hiding in the Netherlands. She constantly finds herself avoiding German capture, first when the house she's living in is bombed, and then later when a boat she is riding on with other Jews is mowed down by a German patrol boat. Perhaps spawned by this experience, she decides to join the resistance, and meets a German officer named Müntze (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others). With some persuasion by the resistance, she pursues a relationship with him and manages to work in his offices near the end of the war, along with her friend Ronnie (Halina Reijn, Blind). Things get complicated when the resistance's effort to free the prisoner and some others is telegraphed, failing miserably, and the resistance believes that Rachel (under a name of Ellis) is the one to blame.
At first glance (shoot, after the fourth and fifth glances also), one would get the impression that the woman that's on the cover of this disc looks strikingly like Portia de Rossi of Arrested Development lore. But that's a random and pretty irrelevant thought on Verhoeven's Black Book. Frankly, I didn't know what to expect of the film, other than it was a serious directorial effort from Verhoeven with a cast comprised mostly of his fellow Dutchmen, and quite possibly in my cynical eye was a ploy from Verhoeven to get some award recognition, and that critical praise might not do. Let's face it, in recent years, some others might have made sport out of piling on to Paul Verhoeven's creative gravitas through the years, but a few things are already going against this film before it leaves the starting gate.
• As an audience, are we prepared, or do we want to see yet another film about World War II suffering? I don't mean to be cruel about it or come off as overly Aryan, but I would say that Hollywood's fascination with Holocaust-set features started with Schindler's List and ended with The Pianist. I'm sure that there are compelling stories to tell from that decade, but that does lead me to point number two.
• Verhoeven is not the right person to be directing this film. I'm not familiar with his work pre-Robocop, but after two decades of working in Hollywood, it would seem he's lost touch of knowing when and how to provide emotional resonance in what he shoots. Granted, the better shots don't necessarily require this, but it seems like any affecting scenes in the film are too fast and almost distract from the film itself. Take the example of Rachel/Ellis returning home to a recently liberated Netherlands. Scenes where sympathizers are tortured seem to mirror a little excessiveness in his mainstream films, while watching Dutch women who slept with Germans being degraded in a market square are brief and more effective emotionally than the other prolonged material.
• Understanding that Verhoeven probably made this film for his people, at almost two and a half hours, this is hard to watch for the average viewer here in the States. The pacing is slow, sometimes the events that unfold are a little on the incredulous side and at the end of the day, the end result is that the film doesn't come off as original, let alone profound. All in all these things make Black Book an exercise in tedium rather than a serious film whose material should be discussed openly and honestly, which was probably the intent.
Technically, the AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer is quite spiffy in its 2.35 widescreen glory. You can spot detail in just about every image, savory or not, and the image stays sharp almost throughout the whole film. The PCM soundtrack is just as good, possessing quite a bit of subwoofer activity during the action sequences, including quite a bit of panning. All in all it was excellent looking and sounding, as I've come to expect with similar presentations. The extras are the same as the standard def disc, starting with a commentary from Verhoeven. He talks about the production and recalls how some scenes played out. He didn't sit with anyone, so you get to listen to the man for the whole film. It tends to be tiresome, but if you like the film, it's a decent commentary. The only other feature is a half hour look at the making of featuring interviews from the cast and main crew participants, where Verhoeven discusses more of the production (some of which was covered in his commentary), Soeteman discusses the story, and the actors discuss the role they play in the film. As far as featurettes go, it's run of the mill, which is to say it's not all that informative.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Several strikes have been listed against Verhoeven's film, but the story that he and Soeteman wrote does have its interesting moments. The performance by van Houten does show courage and is one of the more daring roles to take on since Nicole Kidman's turn as Grace in Dogville. Others, like Koch and Derek de Lint (Deep Impact), who plays one of the resistance leaders, do manage to stretch their roles a little larger than perhaps they were written. Overall if this were remade in a different setting by another director, I believe you'd be looking at a great film.
Black Book is a bit of a disappointment, however, oddly enough, the fault doesn't lie entirely in the material. The key performances were great, however I think that the material could have been directed a bit better to be truly memorable. The film is a technical star in a growing galaxy, but at the end of the day, I'd recommend renting over buying.
Guilty for Verhoeven but considering his recent work, I think the prior courts have punished him enough.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Director Paul Verhoeven
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