Film Reviews

Black Book Paul Verhoeven

Rating - 8/10

Paul Verhoeven’s filmography is a tale of two languages. His Hollywood produced English-language films are generally split between erotic thrillers (Basic Instinct) and trashy sci-fi (Total Recall). On the other hand, his Dutch-language efforts produced in his native Holland are a striking mixture of sexual psychodramas (Turkish Delight; The Fourth Man) and historical pictures (Keetje Tippel; Soldier of Orange).

 In 2006, Verhoeven returned to the Netherlands for the mischievous director’s first Dutch language production since 1983’s The Fourth Man. Reportedly inspired by true events, Black Book (Zwartboek) is a strikingly revisionist World War II thriller. According to Verhoeven, the screenplay written by himself and Gerard Soeteman is comprised of the unusable research material the pair collected for Verhoeven’s 1978 Dutch Resistance film Soldier of Orange. Nurtured over the course of two decades, Black Book is a stylish throwback to the melodramatic World War II thrillers of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Opening at a kibbutz in Israel on the eve of the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis, Black Book proceeds to tell in flashback the wartime escapades of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten). The film tracks the former Jewish cabaret chanteuse from her days hiding in a rural farmhouse to her eventual admission into the Dutch Resistance under the pseudonym Ellis de Vries. Her commitment to the cause is sealed by her decision to go blonde in an attempt to seduce The Hague based Müntze, a high-ranking Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch) with a heaving stamp collection.
Clocking in at around two and half hours, Black Book is a surprisingly pacy affair. A deft balance of action and melodrama, Black Book is a luridly pulp thriller, albeit one with morally complex presentations of good and evil. The film never strays far from Verhoeven’s career-long critiques of sexuality, power, deception and the depraved seductiveness of fascism. Resultantly, Black Book is a film doused in heavy shades of grey in its intricate approach to life in Occupied Holland.
The film’s controversial portrayal of the Dutch Resistance typifies the tone and nature of Verhoeven’s film. In Black Book, an anti-Semitic streak filters throughout the anti-Nazi Dutch Resistance, who are portrayed in the film as having their own treacherous personnel and perverse wartime moral code. As with Jean-Pierre Melville’s French Resistance drama Army of Shadows, Verhoeven’s film posits the Resistance as a murky, rather than glorified organization. But while Melville fortified his abstract analysis through a sombre lens, Verhoeven’s film is typical of the Dutch director’s style: slick, vulgar, erotically-charged and colourful.
The difference is a visible in a remarkably congruent scene contained in both works. In each film, members of the respective Resistance groups attempt to kidnap a traitor to their cause. In Melville’s film, the act is performed with quick and coldly calculated professionalism; in Verhoeven’s film, the same act descends into a lengthy chaotic scramble with fatal consequences. While Melville emphasizes the precise preparation, Verhoeven stresses the disorderly amateurism and the outrageousness of the scene. In Army of Shadows, Melville’s characters embody an abstract Hawksian functionalism centered upon a loyalty to the tenets of the cause; in Black Book, Verhoeven attends to his protagonists' ambiguous loyalties and intra-organizational factionalism.
A rabidly energetic film, Black Book perhaps operates best as a ripping Saturday afternoon spectacle, rather than a historical inquiry. However, the film is not all inconceivable thrills. There are brutal and sickening scenes of torture, often performed by ordinary Dutch citizens during the Liberation as retribution against wartime collaborators. Ever the critic of the American military-industrial complex, Verhoeven lines the film with contemporaneous links to water boarding and the refusal to negotiate with terrorists. Verhoeven’s sly implications are clear, yet thankfully not overused during the course of the film.
Instead, Verhoeven prefers to navigate his film deeper into morally ambiguous territory. Subsequently, his spy epic is laced with stock characters played against type: well-meaning German officers, deceitful Resistance members and corrupt freedom fighters. This ambivalence, when properly applied in Black Book accords the picture with an array of plot twists and deceptive turns. The thick, destructive brew accords the film a sense of depth and intrigue, yet overlooks any consistent subjective insights into the moral mindset and intentions of its characters. 
For instance, although Van Houten’s Ellis witnesses numerous violent acts committed against Jews throughout the film, there are only brief moments in which her disgust towards the Nazi hierarchy is expressed. This is particularly disconcerting, when one considers her romantic affections throughout the film are for Sebastian Koch’s altruistic Gestapo head. Despite producing some fierce chemistry with his co-star Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch’s character feels far too easily persuaded and benevolent given his position. Unquestionably, this is clearly van Houten’s film to lose. Thankfully, the young Dutch actress puts in a vibrant performance replete with verve and sass, but also tinged in regret and melancholy.
An audacious historical melodrama, Black Book is a riveting revisionist account of the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War. Fronted by Carice van Houten’s stellar performance, Paul Verhoeven’s juicy thriller is exemplified by its morally vague characters and slippery twists. Although Verhoeven arguably neglects to roughen the edges of Koch’s Müntze, Black Book is noteworthy for the overall haziness of its moral structure. In doing so, Verhoeven creates a film emphasizing not only the instinct to survive during times of conflict, but also the implications of one’s choices. In spite of its bravura, Black Book fittingly does not close with solace for its Jewish heroine, but with the cynical realization that her desire for peace in a postwar environment is unfortunately a fruitless affair.