|© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
|Carice van Houten as Ellis de Vries in
BLACK BOOK (ZWARTBOEK)
© 2007 SONY Pictures Classics
Often I wonder whether a movie's reception
audiences didn't know who the director was. It
seems to me that some directors carry so much
baggage with them that as soon as it becomes
clear that he or she is behind the camera on a
particular project, it will be judged not on its
own merits but as part of the director's output.
Dutch-born Paul Verhoeven carries enough
baggage with him to fill out a cargo hold in a
jumbo jet. Having made his mark in his native
country with the Oscar-nominated TURKISH
DELIGHT (1973) and later with SOLDIER OF
ORANGE (1977), SPETTERS (1980), and THE
4TH MAN (1983), he moved to the United
States and gained a following with the sci-fi
movies ROBOCOP (1987) and TOTAL RECALL
(1990), before crafting the controversial BASIC
INSTINCT (1992). Following the dreadful yet
campy SHOWGIRLS (1995), the box-office
disappointment STARSHIP TROOPERS (1997),
which I would argue is underrated, and the
dismal HOLLOW MAN (2000), Verhoeven all
Instead, he retreated to his native Holland
where he and longtime collaborator Gerard
Stoeteman wrote the screenplay for the World
War II drama BLACK BOOK (ZWARTBOEK),
which The Netherlands selected as its 2006
entry for the Best Foreign Language Film
Academy Award. The Oscar voters didn't select
the movie as one of the finalists (it was a
particularly strong year) but that in no way is a
slight to this terrific movie.
What's that? Yes, I said "terrific movie." The
film in many ways is a throwback to the type of
movie that was prevalent in the 1940s. Sure
there are some moments that flirt with being
over-the-top, but in general, BLACK BOOK is
an entertaining and thrilling work.
Verhoeven and Stoetman have based their
screenplay on actual events, and to be truthful,
they seem to have felt they had to include as
many incidents as possible in the film. BLACK
BOOK moves at a sharp pace, careening from
one thing to another. Their heroine is Rachel
Stein (Carice van Houten in a towering
performance), a singer now in hiding because
of she's Jewish. She's out enjoying the sun one
day when a boat pulls up and she flirts with
the young sailor on board (Michiel Huisman).
Together they watch in horror as Nazi planes
bomb the home in which she was hiding. The
sailor offers her temporary shelter and there
they are warned that her location has been
betrayed. Rachel heads off to her family's
lawyer and eventually is reunited with her kin
in an attempt at fleeing the country by boat.
Once again fate intervenes, and the Nazis
intercept the boat, killing all but Rachel who
escapes by hiding in the reeds. (If that
conjures up Biblical allusions to Moses, so
much the better.)
Eventually, Rachel hooks up with members of
the Dutch Resistance, including Gerben Kuipers
(Derek de Lint) and Hans Akkermans (Thom
Hoffman), who clearly is attracted to her.
Rachel accepts a particularly dangerous
assignment: to infiltrate Nazi headquarters and
get as close as possible to Ludwig Müntze
(Sebastian Koch, who co-starred in the
eventual Oscar winner THE LIVES OF
OTHERS). To accomplish this, she dyes her
hair blonde and adopts the name of Ellis de
Vries. What she doesn't count on is falling in
love with her target, who despite learning of
her heritage, continues their affair.
BLACK BOOK plays out like a soap opera on
steroids, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Verhoeven keeps the pace flowing and the
story moving. The script also posits questions
of guilt and innocence, betrayal and
redemption, moral rectitude and comeuppance.
Various people are set up by those whom they
trust and the reversals and reveals are handled
in a manner that keeps you guessing.
The cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub,
the production design of Wilbert Van Dorp and
the costumes of Yan Tax all create the
appropriate atmosphere. Individual scenes in
the film recall other movies about the same
period, whether deliberate or accidental.
BLACK BOOK is a feast, and for a film that
runs over two and one-half hours, the time
flies thanks in no small part to the effortless
lead performance of van Houten and the large
MPAA Rating: R for some strong
Running time: 145 mins.