BLACK BOOK (Zwartboek) (director/writer: Paul Verhoeven; screenwriters: based on a story by Gerard Soeteman/Gerard Soeteman; cinematographer: Karl Walter Lindenlaub; editors: Job ter Burg/James Herbert; music: Anne Dudley; cast: Carice van Houten (Rachel Stein/Ellis), Sebastian Koch (Ludwig Müntze), Thom Hoffman (Hans Akkermans), Halina Reijn (Ronnie), Waldemar Kobus (Günther Franken), Derek de Lint (Gerben Kuipers), Dolf de Vries (Smaal, Lawyer); Runtime: 145; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Fu Works Productions (San Fu Maltha), Hector (Jos van der Linden) and Motel Films (Jeroen Beker and Frans van Gestel); Sony Pictures Classics; 2006-Netherlands-in Dutch, German, English and Hebrew with English subtitles)
“It’s a strange and beguiling mainstream action film that didn’t seem plausible or did it emotionally move me.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Black Book takes its title from a secret list of Dutch collaborators collected at the war’s end. Paul Verhoeven (“Spetters”/”Robocop”/”The Fourth Man”) returns to his native Netherlands to film after twenty years in Hollywood. It’s an erotically entertaining, crass and provocative Hollywood-style big-budget drama/thriller about a sexy Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten, Dutch actress) who poses as a member of the Dutch resistance and becomes the girlfriend of the Nazi head of the Gestapo in Holland, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), to help the freedom fighters get inside info during World War II. It surprisingly makes the resistance fighters an odd lot, with some true to the cause and others double-crossers and anti-Semites; while, on the other hand, not all the Nazis are seen as pigs. Verhoeven and cowriter Gerard Soeteman spent many years researching for Black Book and ground the film in real events, even though it’s fictionalized and laden with an involved mechanical plot right out of Hollywood. But it also raises moral complexities that blockbuster films don’t often confront, such as the amorality of wartime events, how wartime criminals often evade justice and its heroes are often not the good guys. Whether one takes this film seriously or just as another action-packed thriller, is up to them. There’s enough arguments to go either way, as far as I’m concerned.
Rachel, the Jewish heroine, is seen in the opening scene teaching school at a kibbutz, by the Sea of Galilee, in Israel in 1956, and has the awkward meeting with her Dutch friend Ronnie (Halina Reijn) who is on a tour bus of the Holy Land with her Canadian husband. Overcome with memories, Rachel goes to the water to be alone as she contemplates back to 1944 and how she had been a popular and wealthy singer but now as a Jew had to go into hiding. She’s first seen being called for breakfast by the large Christian farmer family hiding her and is forced to recite the Lord Jesus’ prayer to get her grub and hear the stern patriarch lecture that if the Jews only listened to Jesus… . Soon after she’s flirting on the dock with a young lad, when her hideout is inadvertently bombed by an American plane trying to drop bombs to lighten his load. This causes her to go on the run, and she meets up with her family who are also promised escape to Belgium by boat but run into a Nazi ambush and everyone is killed but for Rachel. She’s rescued by a resistance member and smuggled to safety in a coffin. She takes a new identity as Ellis and a new look as a blonde, even bleaching her pubic hair. On a train she attracts the Gestapo head at the Hague, Müntze, pictured as the sensitive type, an avid collector of stamps and a man determined during the last days of the war to make an unauthorized deal with the ‘terrorists’ to stop the violent clashes between them and his Nazis. At a Nazi singalong party, Ellis has to sing while the swine bigwig SS official, under her boyfriend, Franken (Waldemar Kobus), plays the piano and she gags as she recalls him mowing her family down during the ambush.
Though her boyfriend recognizes that she’s a Jewess, he’s overcome with lust and soon falls in love with her. But there are some double-crosses in the works and Ellis gets framed by Franken for sabotaging a resistance raid on the jail to free some members. The liberation has her in a Dutch detention camp, where she has a bucket of shit dumped on her as a bawdy group of jailers taunt her (showing that the Dutch could be almost as inhuman as the Germans, which might be true since so few Dutch Jews survived because of all the collaborators). But the gal has moxie and is a survivor, and the final scene has her back in her Israel kibbutz with her Israeli hubby and two kids. The kibbutz looks like a military fort, as it’s guarded by soldiers signaling there’s still no peace for her in this world.
It’s a strange and beguiling mainstream action film that didn’t seem plausible or did it emotionally move me, but I thought in its audacity to make things over-the-top it did make clear that good and evil might have some gray in between, that it’s ok for a pretty woman to use sex to get ahead in the world and, in his usual cynicism, the 68-year-old Verhoeven points out that human nature leaves no one above suspicion.
REVIEWED ON 5/19/2007 GRADE: C+
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
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