Black Book

Black Book


Reviewed by: Caro Ness

Despite the fact that this film is nearly 2.5 hours long, it moves at a cracking pace and is always utterly absorbing, thanks in part to Carice van Houten’s mesmerising performance as Rachel Stein/Ellis de Vries, the Dutch Jewess who sees her family murdered and goes on to become a fearless resistance fighter during the Second World War. In the process she falls in love with the German officer whom she is supposed to be seducing and getting information from.

What is truly memorable about this film is that writer/director Paul Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman do not fall into the trap of portraying heroic Dutchmen and villainous Nazis, instead you get a much truer picture of the complexities of human nature, with villainy and heroism in both camps.

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The film begins and ends with Ellis/Rachel on a kibbutz in 1956. A chance meeting with her wartime friend Ronnie, inspires a flashback to the Second World War and Ellis’s part in it. We are then quickly thrown in at the deep end with Rachel narrowly missing being blown up along with the family who were harbouring her, the loss of her family to the Gestapo and her subsequent initiation into the work of the Resistance.

One of Ellis’s missions is to get to know the local Gestapo officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch), who Rachel, now Ellis, rapidly falls for, as we do. For Muntze is a man who is a sympathetic character; he has all the usual human weaknesses but as many principles and strengths. In the same office is Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), a man whom Ellis recognises as the man who murdered her family for their possessions, an unredeemable scoundrel.

Notably Verhoeven doesn’t use documentaries to move his film along. The focus is always on the tight central group of characters, Ellis in particular. Rarely off-screen, van Houten gives the performance of a lifetime, full of pathos, but never overplaying her part, she finds a searing truth that cannot fail to touch the viewer. But Koch matches her in every department, managing to portray Muntze as a flawed but likeable hero rather than a straightforward villain. This is perhaps the film’s greatest strength. There isn’t a member of this cast that doesn’t put in a great performance. The casting directors Hans Kemna and Job Gosschalk need a huge pat on the back.

It is hard to admit that you can enjoy a film so much when it is portraying some heartrending betrayal, brutality and villainy but the truth is that Black Book is many things. You could say it explores the essence of identity and memory, it examines the rather distasteful theme of female sexuality as a service to be used and abused, and the results of blind, unquestioning aggression. It is romantic, challenging, violent, elegiac but above all it is immensely enjoyable and it doesn’t let you draw breath for a second. 145 minutes seem to have gone in a flash and you enjoy every second of the experience.

The money spent on this film (apparently £11 million) was justified. It is high quality in every department. The costumes and the production qualities are first rate, as is the score, which keeps the film moving at break neck speed and the camera work, which is uniformly brilliant. This film is a truly worthy and highly watchable addition to the countless World War II movie stable.

Reviewed on: 02 May 2007
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Paul Verhoeven returns to Europe for an epic wartime tale.
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Read more Black Book reviews:

Chris ****
Paul Griffiths ***1/2
Themroc **

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Writer: Paul Verhoeven, Gerard Soeteman

Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus, Peter Blok, Derek de Lint, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries

Year: 2006

Runtime: 145 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Germany


London 2006

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