Sunday, 23 September 2007
Black Book (2006) dir. Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastien Koch
After a series of commercial and critical failures director Paul “Total Recall” Verhoeven returned to Holland to make “Black Book his first Dutch film since the early 80’s. It’s an epic film about the Dutch Resistance in WWII Nazi Germany. For two acts it succeeds as a surprisingly good wartime espionage thriller, but Verhoeven get bogged down in the mechanics of overplotting and essentially ruins a really good film.
The film opens in Israel 1956. A woman visiting with her Canadian husband recognizes a familiar face – a kindly brunette woman teaching to children in a Jewish school. They both recognize each other from during the war. The film then flashes back to Holland in 1944 to show how they get to where they are now. This device of starting in the present and flashing back is so overused it actually cheapens the film and shows a lack of confidence in the material, which, told chronologically, should be powerful enough on its own.
The teacher was Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten), a Dutch Jew who is forced to flee the safe countryside when her family home is bombed. She and her family connect with a group of Dutch Jews and travel by boat to safety. But when they are intercepted by a Nazi patrol, Rachel is the only one to survive the massacre. With no where else to turn she joins the Dutch Resistance and becomes part of the dangerous world of undercover anti-Nazi espionage. When one of the Resistance members is captured by the Nazis Rachel accepts an assignment to infiltrate the regime and rescue their comrade from the inside. Rachel Steinn then turns into a Mati Hari spy. She dies her hair (all her hair) blonde, and assumes the new identity of Ellis de Vris.
Ellis enters the Nazi regime by bedding a high-ranking Gestapo officer named Muntze (Sebastien Koch) and starts spying on their actions from the inside. Ellis’ mission becomes compromised when she falls in love with Muntze. With her allegiance divided she eventually finds herself wanted by the Dutch Resistance for treason. The film does eventually catch up to Israel 1956, but by that time all interest in the characters are buried under unnecessarily complicated overplotting.
“Black Book” doesn’t have the powerful resonating quality of an “Army of Shadows” or “The Pianist”. It’s an unabashed thriller that harkens back to an Alistair MacLean story - more adventure and intrigue as opposed to serious reflection. There's actually nothing wrong with that, because it seems to be clear about it's motives.
Carice van Houten is in almost every scene and she performs well in holding the film together. She is strong and sexy and vulnerable and has to subject herself to a few audacious and disgusting on screen acts, including being dumped on by a giant bucket of faeces. Yep, that’s right. Sebastien Koch, whom you’ll recognize from “Lives of Others”, is well cast as Ellis’ love interest. He’s terrific actor with a commanding presence. Don’t be surprised if he soon makes the jump to big budget Hollywood films.
The reason most people will want to see the film is for Paul Verhoeven, whose body of work ranges from disturbingly violent action to daring and graphic sex. Aside from a couple of brief moments, the film is virtually invisible to his style. The liberal attitude of the Dutch toward nudity and sex is present, but it’s not in your face like Verhoeven’s earlier Dutch films. Verhoeven is good at the action and the craftsmanship of the individual scenes but he is sloppy and unconfident with the mechanics of storytelling. The film disappoints because he complicates a story that doesn’t need complicating.
So for Verhoeven fans, it’s worth a visit, but if you want to see a good film about the WWII Resistance rent Melville’s “Army of Shadows”. Enjoy.
Buy it here: Black Book