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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 12%
Average: 28%
Pretty Bad: 0%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 13 user ratings

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Black Book
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by Peter Sobczynski

"The Return Of The Dutch Master"
5 stars

As some of you may know, I have spent the last few years working on and off on a book analyzing the career of Paul Verhoeven, the director of such controversial works as “Soldier of Orange,” “Robocop,” “Showgirls” and “Starship Troopers.” Needless to say, the project is way overdue for completion and while I could offer up any number of reasons for my delay in completing it–the constant need to put it aside for writing projects that will bring in some immediate money, the difficulty of trying to put aside my occasionally flippant writing style in order to utilize a more serious and scholarly approach and sheer laziness would probably rank high on my list of excuses–but deep down, I think the real reason as to why I have been unable to pull it together is far more simple than any of those. You see, Verhoeven has been surprisingly absent from the film scene for the last few years–some projects have been announced and later abandoned and he had some medical problems a few years ago that also kept him on the sidelines–and I just didn’t relish the idea of spending a couple of hundred pages arguing for Verhoeven’s place in the cinematic pantheon on the strength of his slyly subversive and always daring filmography only to have to wind it all up with a discussion of “Hollow Man,” his 2000 invisible man epic that, despite a few nicely perverse moments, is arguably the most conventional (and therefore least intriguing) work of his entire career. Doing that would be like writing a book on the work of Robert Altman and being forced to end it with an analysis of “The Gingerbread Man.”

Now Verhoeven has finally returned from limbo with his long-planned World War II saga “Black Book” and for fans of compelling cinema in general and Verhoeven in particular, its release is a cause for celebration. Returning to his native Holland for the first time in a quarter-century (since 1983's “The Fourth Man”), he has created a thrilling, sexy, darkly hilarious and emotionally devastating epic of wartime survival and betrayal that is easily one of the best films of the year and one of the greatest war films in recent memory. Even those who have never quite sparked to his efforts in the past–the kind of people who dismiss “Total Recall” as a dumb Arnold Schwarzenegger epic, “Basic Instinct” and “Showgirls” as sleazy exercises in softcore silliness and “Starship Troopers” as quasi-fascist sci-fi claptrap instead of realizing that they are actually surprisingly subtle deconstructions of those very subgenres–are likely to find themselves roused by its crackerjack blend of romance, drama, action, eroticism and dark humor. And speaking purely on the personal and selfish level of someone trying to complete a book, “Black Book” is a godsend in the way that it serves as a summation of both Verhoeven’s career to date and the various obsessions that have fueled his work in the past in the way that only a veteran filmmaker can pull off while at the same time being staged with the giddy and headstrong energy of a newcomer eager to show the world what he can do.

After a brief prologue set in 1956 Israel (more about that later), “Black Book” opens in Holland in September, 1944. Although the war is waning, the Netherlands are still occupied by the Nazis and when we first see our heroine, a young Jewish woman named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), she is living in the attic of a Christian family. This may sound like the beginning of a typical wartime story but Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman undercut any idealized notions of simple Christian charity and nobility almost immediately–Rachel is required to memorize a new Bible verse every day before being fed and the head of the household actually goes so far as to tell her point-blank that “if the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now.” Although Rachel nods and agrees, we get a sense of her true feelings when she uses molasses to make a crucifix on her oatmeal and then cheerfully stirs it into oblivion. When a stray German bomb destroys the house that has been serving as her hideaway, Rachel hardly bats an eye but it means that she must move on. She joins up with a party that is being smuggled by boat to freedom and is even happily reunited with the parents and brother that she has been separated from while in hiding. Alas, the group has been betrayed and is ambushed by a boatload of Nazis that gun them down and steal the valuables that they have brought along for themselves.

By a miracle, Rachel manages to survive the attack and when we catch up with her five months later, she has hooked up with the resistance and living under the name of Ellis. After spending time working behind the scenes, she is recruited for a mission involving the smuggling of contraband via train. Although she is only meant to pose as an operative’s girlfriend in order to throw off suspicion, circumstances force her to make off with the incriminating suitcase and while looking for a place to hide, she slips into the car occupied Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), the head of the local Gestapo and charms him with her feminine wiles and talk about rare stamps. Seizing upon his obvious interest in her, her comrades convince her to take a job in his office (and, it is implicated, his bed) in order to spy on him. She agrees and even bleaches her hair blonde in order to better pass as the ideal Aryan woman and since this is a Paul Verhoeven movie, after all, we see here bleaching all of it, if you know what I mean.

It would be grossly unfair to spill the beans about the adventures that Verhoeven and Soeteman have in store for Rachel as the story progresses. Suffice it to say, a series of betrayals and double-crosses leaves Rachel branded as a collaborator by her former colleagues and the only person she now trusts is Muntze, whom she has unexpectedly and genuinely fallen in love with in their time together. By now, however, the German occupation has collapsed and both Rachel and Muntze find themselves targeted for death amidst the chaos–her from fellow countrymen who have mistakenly assumed that she is a collaborator and him from fellow Nazis who want to prevent him from speaking out about their own nefarious, pocket-lining deeds. (As Rachel ruefully puts it, “I never thought I’d dread Liberation Day.”)If that weren’t enough, Rachel has discovered that there was a spy within the ranks of the Resistance that was involved with the deadly scam that killed her family but once she figures out who that was, it just adds one more bulls-eye to her back.

Needless to say, “Black Book” is not your standard-issue World War II epic. You know, the kind that feature tried-and-true archetypes–square-jawed men who throw themselves into constant danger because it is the right thing to do, women who do little more than stand on the sidelines to offer encouragement on the eve of battle and black-hearted Nazis driven to do despicable acts because of their blind fealty to a monstrous ideology–placed in a framework in which the lines between right and wrong are cleanly and distinctly laid down. In this film, on the other hand, the would-be heroes are often ineffectual types who are as likely to fold under pressure as anyone else, the women are tough and resourceful types and the Nazis are more likely to be driven by simple greed as anything else. Towards the end, “Black Book” completely breaks from tradition by including an element that is usually overlooked in WW II films–the reprisals that the newly-liberated people enacted upon their one-time oppressors as well as those suspected of collaborating with them. In fact, the cruelest act that we see in the film is the one visited upon Rachel after she is arrested by her countrymen and branded a traitor–she and other accused collaborators are cruelly tormented by drunken Dutchmen in a sequence that culminates with innocent Rachel forced to stand naked in front of the crowd as an enormous vat of excrement is dumped on her.

This approach flies in the face of what we have seen in war films over the last 60-plus years and while it can easily be read as Verhoeven subverting genre expectations as he has done before so many times in the past, it has the strange side effect of lending the tang of real-life experience to the otherwise pulpy proceedings. Verhoeven was born in Holland in 1938 and was therefore old enough to get a real sense of what was going on around him. While he may not have personally experienced all of the events that he depicts here, the mood of fear, paranoia and chaos that he has created from his memories of that time give the film the kind of straight-forward authenticity that Roman Polanski was able to bring to “The Pianist.” Even the smallest and most seemingly inconsequential details have the unnerving ring of truth to them–instead of spending a chunk of screen time discussing the famine that brought Holland to the brink of starvation in 1944-45, Verhoeven neatly and efficiently sums it up with a shot of Rachel encountering a pet bunny rabbit and ravenously stealing a bite of its carrot–and as a result, the film has an immediacy to it that stands in powerfully marked contrast to Verhoeven’s more overtly ironic and detached prior work.

At the same time, even as “Black Book” is subverting our very notions of what to expect from a WW II epic (the film is the most expensive production in the history of Dutch cinema), it also works as an example of great cinematic storytelling as well. Even though the storyline is a mass of double-crosses, shifting loyalties and outright betrayals, the screenplay from Verhoeven and Soeteman (who spent over 20 years working on this project) tells it in a surprisingly clean and uncluttered fashion. The action scenes–whether they are the carefully-choreographed set-pieces such as the pursuit that leads to Rachel’s arrest or the brief bursts of shocking violence that sometimes come out of nowhere–are consistently tense and gripping (and aided immeasurably by the gorgeous cinematography from Karl Walter Lindenlaub). The romance that develops between Rachel and Muntze, the element that might seem most questionable to some audiences, actually comes across as completely plausible–after being betrayed and abandoned by so many people in her life, it isn’t surprising at all to see Rachel become deeply attached to the one person who demonstrates constant loyalty and devotion to her, even if he is a Nazi. There are also welcome bits of jet-black humor that catch us off-guard at certain points–one of the biggest and most unexpected laughs comes during an otherwise tense pursuit in which a pious Resistance member–one too religiously devoted to fire a weapon–is finally goaded into violence in a hilariously unexpected manner. Actually, this is a screenplay that is so brilliantly crafted that even an element that feels at first to be an obvious misstep–the 1956 prologue that clues us into the fate of our heroine even before the story properly begins–winds up paying off in spades at the end with a sublimely ironic coda that reminds us that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

As I mentioned before, “Black Book” marks Verhoeven’s return to directing after a seven-year absence. In many cases, such a long break between projects can leave even the best filmmakers feeling a little rusty but Verhoeven attacks the material with such energy and zeal that it hardly feels as if he stepped away for even a day. Combining the rough-and-ready energy of his early Dutch films with the technical skill of his later Hollywood epics, “Black Book” is at once instantly recognizable as a Verhoeven film while still looking and sounding like nothing we’ve seen before. Even though it runs for nearly 2 ½ hours, the film moves like a rocket without ever getting bogged down in the myriad twists and turns of the plot and there are a few scenes here (such as the bit in which a character is improbably saved by one of the candy bars that have floated in and out of the narrative like a chocolate-covered talisman) that are as tense, exciting and satisfying as anything he has ever put on the screen.

That said, arguably the most important element in the success of “Black Book”–even more so than Verhoeven’s own contributions–is the central performance from Carice van Houten as Rachel. Although one might not necessarily think of Verhoeven as a women’s filmmaker, the truth of the matter is that his female characters have always been more memorable than his male ones (face it, the closest thing to an unblemished male hero in a Verhoeven film is probably Robocop and he is a freaking robot) and when he is working in collaboration with an actress ready, willing and able to give him what he wants–someone like Renee Soutendijk in “Spetters,” Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” or even Elizabeth Berkley in “Showgirls”–the results can be quite memorable indeed. On-screen for virtually the entire film, van Houten pretty much undergoes the acting equivalent of an Olympic decathlon and scores a perfect 10 in every category. As far as I can tell, she never once hits a false note–even during her extensive nude scenes, she approaches them in such a way that even the most dedicated horn-dogs in the audience will be too busy paying attention to what she is doing than to the not-inconsiderable sight of her naked body–and while there may be many wonderful performances from actresses on tap this year, I can’t imagine that there will be another as mesmerizing as this one. It is a great and unforgettable performance in a great and unforgettable film and neither one should be missed if you can at all help it.

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originally posted: 04/13/07 15:44:00
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2006 Toronto Film Festival For more in the 2006 Toronto Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

10/20/20 Suzanne A roller coaster ride of emotions, nuanced characters, and van Houten's amazing performance 5 stars
7/01/08 Jack Sommersby Colorfully entertaining from start to finish. Near-brilliantly made. 5 stars
2/09/08 Phil M. Aficionado I'm a little turned off by the tawdriness and contrivances, but struck by the performances. 4 stars
12/13/07 jennifer that girl can act, she's starting in other big movies too, big star in the making 5 stars
6/20/07 Lamb Crazy, sexy, wild, heartbreaking and totally worth your time. An amazing performance. 4 stars
6/18/07 Ralph Lewis Awesome, movie & performances 5 stars
6/15/07 William Goss Sometimes peculiar yet always entertaining Holocaust melodrama. Hot damn, van Houten! 4 stars
6/14/07 Peony what a story! relentlessly exciting & unpredictable 5 stars
5/27/07 jcjs best of 2007 ... clint eastwood wished he' made..better than Munich, Syriana, Shindler's 5 stars
5/13/07 Ole Man Bourbon Captivating story, good directing, and some great acting. Best of year so far. 5 stars
10/24/06 Tom great movie 5 stars
9/18/06 denny entertaining but kind of like watching female james bond. felt manipulated 3 stars
9/18/06 redhorse Best movie I saw at the TIFF this year. I was into the movie in its entire 2 1/2 hr span. 5 stars
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  04-Apr-2007 (R)
  DVD: 25-Sep-2007



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