Black Book (Netherlands/Belgium/United Kingdom/Germany, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

In the 1980s and 1990s, Paul Verhoeven made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such high-profile films as Robocop, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Before arriving in America, however, Verhoeven had a flourishing career in the Netherlands, where he cut his filmmaking teeth. For Black Book, a film he has been writing (on and off) for 20 years, he has returned to his roots. The result is a powerful and compelling World War II thriller that features note-perfect performances and an almost flawless screenplay. Verhoeven's sure hand, honed as a result of 15 years of big-budget features, gives Black Book a polished look that few American war movies can exceed. An element of controversy has shadowed Black Book because Verhoeven has the temerity to portray resistance fighters as less-than-heroic and one high ranking Nazi as a nice guy.

Many male directors have difficulty handling strong female protagonists, but that has never been the case with Verhoeven. In fact, in the director's most infamous work, Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone outclasses Michael Douglas at every turn. Douglas may be the hero, but Stone is the one everyone remembers. So it is fitting that the central character in Black Book is a woman. And not just any woman - Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a no-nonsense heroine. She doesn't stammer, falter, or fall prey to stupid plot clichés. She does what must be done to solve a problem, whether that's dying her pubic hair blond (that stings!), bearing her breasts to a boorish soldier, or sleeping with an SS officer. She suffers grief and falls in love, but never do her emotions betray her or slow her down. In today's world of dumbed down characters, most men aren't given the kind of respect accorded to Rachel, let alone women.

It's 1944 in Holland, and Jewish singer Rachel Stein is in hiding. A brief reunion with her family turns to tragedy when they are betrayed and gunned down by a group of Nazi soldiers. Rachel is the lone survivor. She hooks up with the Dutch resistence led by businessman Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). At first, she does menial jobs but is eventually "promoted" to a position of importance. She is chosen to seduce an SS officer, Ludiwg Müntze (Sebastian Koch, recently seen in The Lives of Others), who is attracted to her. The seduction is easy, but Rachel traps herself by falling for the dashing man, who risks his career and life to protect her when he learns her secret. Once the Allied victory arrives, circumstances become grave for Rachel and Müntze as they discover that the end of the war doesn't mean the end of betrayals and killing.

Black Book possesses a taut, exciting script that throws surprises at the viewer on a regular basis. To say more would potentially spoil the fun, but there are two things to keep in mind. None of the twists are Hollywood contrivances and no life is sacrosanct. Having made that point, however, I must voice one objection about the manner in which Verhoeven elects to present the story. He does so by framing it as a flashback between two scenes that take place in 1956. Since Rachel is alive and well in 1956, we know she does not die in 1944. This recognition defuses some of the suspense that would have been present had the film not let us know at the outset that the heroine would survive. Black Book is gripping enough that there are times when the viewer may almost forget this.

I'm not familiar with Carice von Houten, although her filmography lists a substantial number of credits in Dutch productions. Having viewed her fiery performance in Black Book, I'm an instant fan. This is fearless, camera arresting work. Despite some fine acting by a variety of co-stars, there's no doubting that von Houten owns this movie. Not since Ellen Ripley (of the Alien series) has there been a female protagonist so strong and heroic.

Verhoeven's last few years in Hollywood were not happy ones; if this is the kind of work he can produce by returning to his native country, then I urge him to stay there. This is one of the best war movies to emerge about World War II in the last ten years. It has everything a good war thriller should have: impeccable period detail, wonderful performances, action, romance, tragedy, and heart-stopping suspense. Black Book offers the best of both worlds: Hollywood spectacle and European sensibilities. It's 145 minutes well spent.

Black Book (Netherlands/Belgium/United Kingdom/Germany, 2006)

Ranked #5 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2007
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-04-04
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Nudity, Profanity)
Subtitles: English subtitled Dutch and German
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1