Black Book

black book

Black Book (Zwartboek)
Made in: The Netherlands, Belgium (location), Germany (location)
Language: Dutch, German, English
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice Van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Sebastian Koch, Halina Reijn, Derek de Lint, Waldemar Kobus, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries, Peter Blok
Year: 2006

Synopsis: It's October of 1944. World War II is raging, and on a small Dutch farm, a beautiful Jewish girl named Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) is hiding from the Nazis. But when her hiding place is accidentally bombed, she finds herself on the run.

With the help of a lawyer named Wim Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who is secretly helping the anti-Nazi resistance, and a cop named Van Gein (Peter Blok), plans are made to smuggle Rachel and a group of other Jewish survivors to safety.

But the plan goes horribly wrong.

Rachel is nearly killed by a Nazi patrol under Günter Franken (Waldemar Kobus), but is rescued and smuggled into a secluded town. She changes her name to Ellis de Vries, and after five months of working at a large soup kitchen, her life regains some sense of normalcy.

Then, she's recruited into the local resistance cell by the kitchen's owner, a fellow named Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). Eager to join their cause, Ellis is introduced to Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), one of the most effective and revered members of the resistance.

During a courier mission by train that nearly gets compromised, Ellis saves the day by pretending to cozy up with Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who heads the SS at the local Gestapo headquarters. Müntze is instantly smitten with Ellis, and this becomes a vital opportunity for the resistance to take some serious revenge on the Nazi occupiers.

Ellis easily infiltrates Gestapo headquarters, but to maintain her cover, she forms a relationship with Müntze. And seeing how this movie is directed by the same guy who made Showgirls and Basic Instinct, you won't be surprised by the less-than-modest bed scenes that follow.

But serious complications arise when the stakes get higher, political in-fighting from within the resistance and Nazi ranks get heated, and when Müntze turns out to be a nicer guy than everyone first thought. Brutal self-interest afflicts everyone, and Ellis finds herself betrayed by people on all sides.

The Good: Story-wise, Black Book holds together and all the plot points work (the resistance-betrayal themes will remind you of Paul Verhoeven's Total Recall). The cast is excellent, and it's great to see venerable actors such as Sebastian Koch and Christian Berkel.

Koch did an amazing job in notable German films such as The Lives of Others and The Tunnel, and you may remember Berkel in the acclaimed film Downfall.

The film definitely has a genuine feel, and the war setting looks authentic. Black Book does a commendable job pointing out the moral complexities that come about during war, and makes a compelling argument that individual vices, especially greed, is an evil that recognizes neither political nor ideological boundaries.

The Bad: Black Book straddles an odd line between being a straight-forward action adventure and a moving war drama. It could have worked as either one or the other, but not both. The slick action scenes are too "Hollywood" but the subject matter is too substantive for two-dimensional entertainment.

Also, there were a lot of characters and names to remember. That's not necessarily one of the movie's shortcomings, but for so many people to share the spotlight, even Black Book's two and a half hour running time was too short to properly showcase the talent of its entire cast. As a result, much of the story almost seems rushed and superficial.

Who would like this movie: Although Black Book can certainly be placed in the category of foreign films, it won't be lost on anyone. It's a bit of a departure from Paul Verhoeven's earlier works, but there's enough here in terms of lighting, violence/gore, and sex to remind you that this is indeed the same person who helmed Starship Troopers and Hollow Man.

Those interested in foreign languages will find much to appreciate as this movie features a multi-lingual cast. Especially impressive is Carice Van Houten, who has the enviable skill of being fluent in four languages. Overall, Black Book works and is appropriately intense in places, but falls just short of being a top-notch World War II drama.

(2 and a half out of 4 stars)

Review Written by: Joe Yang

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