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Black Book Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 May 2008
ImagePaul Verhoeven, a success in his homeland of the Netherlands, was brought to America to direct, somewhat surprisingly, “RoboCop.”  He did a bang-up, eye-popping funny job, then went on to other special effects extravaganzas (“Total Recall,” “Starship Troopers,” “The Hollow Man”) and a couple of sexy melodramas, one successful (“Basic Instinct”), one a notorious flop (“Showgirls”).  Evidently burned out by his Hollywood experience, the director fled back to native Holland to direct “Zwartboek,” released in the U.S. as “Black Book.”  It’s a story he came up with while working on “Soldier of Orange,” his very fine film about the Dutch underground during World War II.

“Black Book” is also about WWII’s Dutch underground, but begins in Israel in 1956.  Jewish Rachel (Carice van Houten), now a schoolteacher, is surprised to meet Ronnie (Halina Reijn), an old friend from the Netherlands.  The meeting leads Rachel to think back on her wartime activities; the rest of the film depicts her adventures.

They’re pretty colorful.  In 1944, she’s hiding out with a Christian family on their farm, occasionally meeting a charming young man with a sailboat.  But her rough idyll ends abruptly when planes blow up the farm and the family.  She turns for help to cool, measured lawyer Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who gives her some of the money her family entrusted him with.  Van Gein (Peter Blok), who has connections with the underground, manages to reunite her with her family, and they board a barge to head for Belgium.

But a brutal SS officer (Waldemar Kobus) and his men suddenly hit the boat with searchlights, then open fire.  Rachel, who immediately dives overboard, is the only survivor.  She joins an underground group headed by Kuipers (Derek de Lint).  Most of the group are communists and are fighting the Nazis for political and nationalistic reasons; at least one is a devoted Christian, which causes problems later on.  Among the group is charismatic doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman); he and Rachel, who adopts the nom de guerre Ellis de Vries, are attracted to one another. But there’s damned little time for romance, as the movie plunges ahead into intrigue and action.  Rachel, as Ellis, is instructed to romance SS officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch, from “The Lives of Others”).  She unexpectedly finds him kind, thoughtful and somewhat tragic—his entire family was killed by Allied bombs.  She’s disturbed to find Günther Franken, the officer who killed her family and the other evacuees, among the officers on Müntze’s staff.  But she’s realistic enough not to hold it against Ronnie when the Dutch girl begins an affair with Franken.  She learns Franken is working with a secret informant to set up Jewish refugees, killing them for their money and valuables.

“Black Book” is a sizzling, lively historical action movie that goes by so fast it doesn’t seem as long as it is.  Action scenes can erupt out of nowhere, and they’re treated with brutal realism.  As usual with Verhoeven, the movie is excessive—but that’s right where this interesting director is at home.  He’s a poet of excess. 

Verhoeven co-wrote the script with Gerard Soeteman, with whom he’d collaborated in his earlier Dutch period on such movies as “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man” (you have to see “The Fourth Man”).  This isn’t a historically responsible World War II drama, like the recent “The Counterfeiters,” it’s a wartime adventure movie.  But since it’s Verhoeven, it isn’t at all traditional, though it uses some traditional imagery—the “good” German is handsome, the “bad” German is porcine.  The script throws barbs everywhere; the surly Christian farmer at the beginning says the Jews wouldn’t be in this trouble if they’d followed Jesus.  Hans takes a moment out of resistance fighting to do a nightclub-like comic impersonation of Hitler.  In front of a crowd of Germans, Rachel sings a song with Franken.  To disguise herself, she bleaches her hair—including, graphically, her pubic hair.

The story keeps turning corners you didn’t know were coming, while also carefully setting up elements that pay off later.  But these are done relatively unobtrusively; it’s reasonable for doctor Hans to be annoyed when some vial of insulin in a shipment are broken—but this is partly so we’ll recognize one of the surviving vials later on.  Toward the end, the movie has one climax after another, more than you’re expecting, before it returns to Israel and Rachel’s kibbutz—where they’re preparing to battle the invading Egyptian army.  War goes ever on.

Carice van Houten (who does her own singing) is a major star in the Netherlands, and could easily become one overseas as well.  She’s very appealing, with a bright, expressive face, graceful control of her body, and a sharp, focused awareness as an actor—she’s always precisely in the moment.  Sebastian Koch, as the good German, is surprisingly warm and charming; he was the cranky, eavesdropped-upon writer in “The Lives of Others,” where he was likeable but anything but charming. 

The dramatic, beautifully-composed photography of Karl Walter Lindenlaub and the well-researched production design of Wilbert Van Dorp keep the film looking believably of its period.  But the detail isn’t fussy; they grabbed what they could find.  Several key scenes were shot in an abandoned factory with large metal balls here and there.  On the commentary track, Verhoeven admits he has no idea what they are—they were simply there in the factory, so they used them.  The high definition images make the many different fabrics of the costumes almost tactile, and often skin as well.

This must have been an expensive movie for the Netherlands, Germany and Belgium (it’s a co-production); there are plenty of extras, lots of period cars and some planes, many costumes and a lot of locations.  And it looks sensational in high definition—it’s a beautiful movie, evocative of the period for all its energetic melodramatics.

The only significant extra on the Blu-ray disc is Verhoeven’s lively commentary.  (Notice I use the word “lively” a lot in this review?  That’s because it’s the right word for this director.)  He’s full of enthusiasm, chatting on about the actors, the locations and the true-life events that gave rise to this story.  He speaks with a rich Dutch accent, but his English is very good, and he’s always completely intelligible.  And he’s fun to listen to.  But watch the movie before listening to the commentary; he blithely gives away every plot turn long before they occur.

Yes, “Black Book” is a melodramatic adventure movie, rather than a serious drama about the Dutch resistance.  But it’s great fun, full of interesting characters, surprising plot developments, and it looks wonderful in high definition.  It’s something anyone interested in sheer moviemaking skills should take a look at.

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