Dec. 11, 2008
Black Book (2006)
Grade: 77/100

Director: Paul Verhoeven
Stars: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman

What it's about. Set in the Netherlands in 1944 and 1945. The Nazis have occupied the country, and are hunting Jews. Rachel (Carice van Houten) is a beautiful Jewish woman who becomes a spy for the Resistance movement. Her usefulness to the cause increases when she becomes the mistress of Müntze (Sebastian Koch), a high-ranking Gestapo officer.

Supporting characters including local Resistance movement leaders and Nazi officials. It becomes clear that certain Resistance members are traitors, and certain Nazis work with the Resistance, but which ones? Well, we know that Nazi Franken (Waldemar Kobus) is a bad guy, because he is so completely obnoxious.

How others will see it. Because it is a foreign language film and was made apart from the Hollywood publicity machine, not everyone knows about Black Book. And, true, it is too much for prudes or youngsters, given its violence and nudity. The rest of us will enjoy the movie. Van Houten provides continual sex appeal, and she gets into and out of more trouble than James Bond, regardless of whom is playing him.

How I felt about it. You have to give credit to Paul Verhoeven. The man knows how to direct action films. RoboCop and Starship Troopers are my favorites (until now, since Black Book is even better), but Verhoeven is also well known for Total Recall and Basic Instinct. He is frequently criticized for excessive violence, but make no mistake. He can keep you on the edge of your seat.

Black Book opens with a scene in Israel in 1956 that proves Rachel lives through World War II and its aftermath. This should remove most of the suspense. But it is gripping, anyway. If a cat has nine lives, then Rachel has a full litter's worth. If it was God's task to keep her alive, he should have placed her in Kansas. It would have saved Him a great deal of effort.

Per, Black Book is the most expensive Dutch film to date. From an American point of view, the cast has no name actors. (Just as well, since eyes roll at the thought of Angelica Jolie in the leading role). The money instead went into sets and action scenes, exactly where it belonged. Better movies were probably made in 2006. But as with 1987 and RoboCop, they might not be as much fun to watch.

It takes careful, calm viewing to notice how improbable it all can be. Take an early scene: Rachel is hiding out in a farmhouse. Instead of staying inside and cooking or cleaning (which is what she would be doing in real life), she's catching sunrays on the dock and playing an English record on a phonogram. Rather conspicuous, and likely to be frowned upon by her Puritan protectors.

But she is on the dock, as if she's on a holiday in a peaceful country. A man comes by in a sailboat, and not two minutes later, the Nazis are bombing the area. What are the odds that these two events would occur so closely together?

Not long after, she is shot in the forehead with a machine gun, yet manages to jump overboard and hold her breath underwater long enough to swim away. This confirms that Verhoeven is more concerned with activity than credibility. Admittedly, activity can be exciting, but the real trick is to also present a believable story. Black Book provides a great ride, but the kindly and handsome stamp collecting head of the Dutch Gestapo is a bit much. The old saw about World War II films having to have a 'good' German might just be true after all.