REVIEW: DVD Release: Black Book

Film: Black Book
Release date: 30th April 2007
Certificate: 15
Running time: 140 mins
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus
Genre: Drama/Thriller/War
Studio: Tartan
Format: DVD
Country: Netherlands/Germany/Belgium

Black Book marked a return to filmmaking in his native Netherlands for director Paul Verhoeven, following an extended run in Hollywood with genre successes including Robocop and Total Recall (as well as unmitigated disasters in Showgirls and Hollow Man). Outside of his homeland, Verhoeven made a name for himself as a purveyor of mainstream cinematic sleaze, albeit with subversively hidden depths of astute societal observations underneath the boundary pushing sex and ultra-violence.

Elements of Verhoeven’s directorial trademarks are certainly present in the predominantly Dutch language Black Book, set during one long flashback of Rachel Stein’s (Carice van Houten) traumatic wartime experiences in the dying embers of Nazi occupied Holland. The sole survivor of a Nazi assault on wealthy Jews aboard a boat that was supposed to take them to freedom, Rachel witnesses the cold-blooded massacre of her family and becomes desperate for revenge.

When she joins the Resistance, Rachel is entrusted to use her looks and charm to seduce senior S.S. officer Müntze (Sebastian Koch), and learn vital secrets from the German High Command.

Under the assumed identity of the singing (fully) blond Ellies de Vries, Rachel becomes embroiled in a labyrinth of deceit and duplicity. Rachel experiences firsthand the horrors of Nazi rule, even as she begins to have feelings for the surprisingly charming Müntze, while the bloodshed and bitterness of the Resistance, including the determined Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), continues unflinchingly and unabated…

In the role of Rachel Stein, Carice van Houten gives a fearless performance as a woman faced with incredible adversity amongst horrific circumstances. The leading lady runs a gauntlet of suitably Verhoeven-esque sex and violence, with the character of Rachel undergoing a continuous barrage of close shaves and humiliation, where even at one point a container of human excrement is dumped on her half-naked body.

Van Houten creates believability about a character that has endured great pain and yet has to (for the most part) stay emotionally together in order to gain the revenge she desires. While, at times, the blood spraying shootouts and somewhat gaudy sexual content in the film creep towards parody, van Houten’s tenacity shines through and redeems what otherwise could have been a role exploiting just another pretty female face.

The supporting roles in Black Book are equally well cast, further adding a sense of suspense filled intrigue and genuine emotional development to the film. As senior German officer Müntze, Sebastian Koch portrays a deceptively complex role in which he successfully creates a level of sympathy for a man who is ultimately a member of the Nazi Security Service. His role is a subversion of the typically sadistic German officer one might expect (such as in Waldemar Kobus’s overtly villainous performance as the merciless Günther Franken), and, as such, Koch should be applauded in highlighting the humanity of a character who had nonetheless been previously complicit in the atrocities of the Nazi regime.

Similarly, Thom Hoffman’s portrayal of Hans Akkermans, one of the leaders of the Dutch Resistance, subverts expectations, in that his character (as with many of the Resistance) have their own agendas and personal interests in eliminating the Nazis outside of national pride. However, in an extraordinarily violent yet standout scene in the film, Verhoeven highlights the deeply emotional regret of Resistance member Theo (Johnny de Mol) in killing a German agent, revealing a contrast between the efficient and cold-blooded actions of the Nazis and the killing out of desperate necessity by the Resistance.

The cinematography by Karl Walter Lindenlaub and production design by Wilbert Van Dorp in Black Book is wonderfully evocative of the wartime period in the 1940s, from the bright colours and palatial extravagance of the Nazi headquarters in Holland to the drab underground hideout of the struggling Resistance. The costume design for the Nazi officers, in addition to the fashions of the time and place also appear painstakingly recreated, perhaps most particularly impressive when considering the film’s budget was a fraction of a Hollywood production such as Brian Singer’s Valkyrie (coincidentally, also featuring Carice van Houten).

In contrast to Verhoeven’s earlier foray into World War II with Soldier Of Orange (1977), Black Book carries over a gloss of his Hollywood sensibilities that occasionally takes away from the seriousness of Rachel’s wartime ordeals. While the violence and sexual content is certainly not on the same level as a Starship Troopers or Basic Instinct, the director’s penchant for lasciviousness creates a certain over the top comic effect that doesn’t completely sit well within the film’s wartime drama frame, or Verhoeven’s ambitions for a realistic portrayal of Nazi occupation.

Despite these misgivings about Verhoeven’s style, Black Book is not completely derailed. This is mainly because of the superior performances the director coaxes out of his actors, creating an air of authenticity where otherwise the film may have turned schlocky if only served by scenes with exploding blood squibs in shootout segments. There is good and effective dialogue between characters, where the Israeli kibbutz set bookends and Rachel’s anguished question “When will it ever end?” provide significant food for thought in the horrors of conflict.

Verhoeven (just about) at his best, Black Book serves as a reminder of the provocative auteur’s talents, whilst retaining some of his old and somewhat peculiar fixations. An extraordinary performance from Carice van Houten, however, is the real drawer. DB

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