You're going to need something pretty devastating to get past the memories of Showgirls and Hollow Man. How about a World War?

Black Book (or Zwartboek) is a period epic set in Holland during its Nazi occupation towards the end of the Second World War. 'Inspired by true events', Paul Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman (a longtime collaborator) have woven the fictional tale of Rachel Stein around historical facts and episodes, so grounding Stein's adventures in a credible historical realism. Without this anchor, her story may have seemed more of an incredible flight of fancy.

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Rachel is an attractive, raven-haired and free-spirited Jewish woman hiding from the Nazis out in the countryside. When she's offered safe passage to the Allied Forces, she accepts and to her joy meets up with the family she was forced to separate from. As they're spirited away by boat into the night, a well-planned German ambush guns everyone down leaving Rachel the sole survivor.

Falling into the hands of the underground resistance, Rachel soon signs up to the their operations with more guts than most of her female contemporaries and a personal mission to find out how her doomed escape was so easily foiled. Rachel finds some comfort, and roaming male hands, in the resistance fighters' shared hatred of the occupation and apparent dedication to the cause, but her mettle is tested when the Gestapo captures some of the group. Bleaching her hair she assumes the identity of the sprightly Ellis de Vries to infiltrate the Nazi HQ and charm herself into the arms of Gestapo Head, Müntze.

Deep in the belly of the beast, as lonely as the widowed Müntze, events and emotions take an interesting turn as loyalties and affections mingle with doubt, subterfuge and double-cross all while comrades are tortured and the end of the war approaches.

Verhoeven's commitment is apparent from the start with a tangible eagerness to make his film as critically credible as possible. His initial setting of the characters and story as relived memory has an almost Spielbergian touch and confident glide. Whilst he has neither the Berg's budget for large set pieces nor a heavyweight cast to see this through entirely, his strain for sincerity is helped by a universally good cast, especially Carice van Houten's spirited lead performance as Rachel/Ellis. A relative newcomer to the international screen, she invests her character with enough emotional import and natural vivaciousness to make her continued pluckiness credible as she rushes from devastation and from one tense situation to another.

And what a rush - Verhoeven whips things along at a fair speed and, while effective at first, this is not always a good thing throughout. Moving so quickly from one furtive episode of espionage to another gun-rattling shoot out and on again gives him little time to really develop people's relationships believably, especially when allegiances can seem so briskly compromised. Also, to keep the audience up with the pace the screenplay isn't as tricksy as it would like to be and some exposures of double-dealing are less revelatory than intended.

It is one of Verhoeven's signatures to have scenes that can simultaneously provide both unaffected authenticity for some and almost sensationalist, glib titillation for others. So it is we get a fair portion of gratuitous male and female nudity, but at least here it does serve the story, such as an SS officer's full frontal exposure as an indication of his physical menace and sexual intimidation, or Rachel's bleaching her pubic hair an expression of the lengths to which she must go to protect herself. We hope.

Amidst the tragic circumstances the inclusion of some crassly humorous moments does seem a little unwise and unnecessarily punctuates the drama and tension Verhoeven keeps trying to build. At nearly two and half hours, it does begin to outstay its welcome by taking rather too long for people to get their comeuppances in the final act. Having said that, you are with Rachel until the end, even though it's established early on that she will survive her ordeals. This is testament to Verhoeven's slick direction, van Houten's energy and the English composer Anne Dudley's rollicking romantic score.

These shortcomings aside, the film has been well received in Holland and is the Netherlands' official entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 79th Academy Awards. Robocop it ain't. It's certainly an individual and welcome return to form of sorts for Verhoeven. It does make you wonder what he could achieve with the Hollywood bucks but the European freedom.

Reviewed on: 24 Oct 2006
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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 *****
Chris ****
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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