Black Book

Black Book


Reviewed by: Chris

Paul Verhoeven's self-confessed aim is to combine business and art, appeal to a broad audience and yet still have some endurance. The fame of films such as Basic Instinct and Total Recall is lasting, yet they court criticism with their use of sexuality, or by playing to the sci-fi audience. Graphic sex and violence are common in his movies and, when you add the occasional flop (Showgirls), his work often fails to be taken seriously. However, Black Book deserves respect. It is a WWII resistance epic, freed from the conventions of British and American war movies, yet bringing their typically high production values to a uniquely Dutch film.

Israel, 1956. A Holy Land Tours bus stops off at a kibbutz. One of the passengers recognises a teacher there, Rachel, from times they shared during the war. As her friend leaves, Rachel thinks back to Holland in 1944. She was a cabaret singer, but also Jewish, and now in hiding. A chance misfortune means she has to make a getaway with a group of Jews. They are ambushed and she is almost shot. A little later, she starts working for the “terrorists”, as the Nazis call the resistance, and infiltrates the Gestapo, seducing a high ranking officer, called Muntze (Sebastian Koch).

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What follows is a frantic game of cat and mouse, espionage and counter espionage. Rachel, now called Ellis, is torn between the horrors inflicted on her friends and the elaborate deceits she tries to play to save them. Gradually, it becomes clear that Muntze, anticipating the end of the war, is risking his neck to try to minimize death and suffering on both sides, and one or more of the resistance fighters is selling out to the Nazis to reap rich rewards. Muntze, like Rachel, has had to overcome great losses. Their humanity is a bridge that brings them closer.

Rachel/Ellis is played by Carice van Houten, a leading actress of the Dutch screen. Her presence is luminous and charismatic - for foreign audiences, there is the curious sensation of watching someone unknown, who radiates star quality with every breath. Her character has to adapt to many contrasting situations, yet there is an underlying determination and intelligence that shines through and makes such changes seem in character and unscripted. We share her emotional struggle and watch her pit her wits against the Gestapo, who are not exactly stupid. The movie is worth seeing for her performance alone.

On the one hand, the film has been minutely researched, based on actual events and characters, and on the other, it has the larger than life gloss we might associate with, say, James Bond. The escapes are in the nick of time, the sex is steamy and the plot twists increase exponentially as we get closer to the end.

Not content to portray the unique conditions of Holland during the occupation, Verhoeven goes on to catalogue post-war atrocities and Rachel's eventual journey to Israel. The style and delivery will not appeal to everyone, but Black Book is Verhoeven on top form, delivering grand entertainment that shows his talents and those of the remarkable van Houten at their finest.

Reviewed on: 31 Jan 2007
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Paul Verhoeven returns to Europe for an epic wartime tale.
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Read more Black Book reviews:

Caro Ness *****
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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