Black Book Review
Billed as a return to his Dutch filmmaking roots, Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book may have subtitles and be supposedly based on real events, but its treatment is as pure Hollywood fiction as the Basic Instinct and Total Recall Verhoven references on the cover, the real-life events that inspire it seeming to begin and end with the Nazi invasion of Holland. In the first half hour of the film alone – giving away as little as possible – the heroine Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman trying to avoid capture by the Nazis in Amsterdam during 1944, has a near miss from an attack by a bomber plane, a near miss as she tries to make a getaway with her family to liberated territory, a near miss as a German soldier investigates rather too closely the conveyance in which she is hidden (a rather elaborate means of transportation since at any other time she can walk about quite freely and even flash her legs at troops from a bicycle) and, on her first day working for a Resistance group, she immediately survives an ambush from those pesky German troops who always seem to appear out of the blue with no visible or audible signs of approach at the most inopportune times. That’s a lot of close escapes for one person in such a short period of time – a situation which gives the impression that the capture of Rachel Stein, a former night-club singer, is the sole object of the German operations in Europe.
Such a myopic vision of one person’s personal journey overshadowing the suffering of hundreds of thousands of others is very much in line with Hollywood style filmmaking, and perhaps there is validity in the approach here since, in addition to racking up the tension, the approach quickly establishes the kind of risks that lie in store for the Jewish population of Amsterdam during the War, the danger for anyone hiding them, as well as laying out the network of resistance that is in place. The constant threat of danger moreover raises another very interesting theme – that in the time of war, trustworthy relationships are hard to find, friendships are fleeting and the shifting moral climate and need to survive can give rise to dubious alliances.
This is the situation faced by Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) who, operating as a courier for the Resistance under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, finds that she has the ability to use her feminine charms to distract the enemy and divert their attention away from their activities. When out of necessity she manages to strike up a rapport on a train with the head of the SS, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), the Resistance realise that closer contact with the prominent Nazi official could prove invaluable to their operations - but it depends on how far Rachel is willing to go. Inevitably showing any kind of relationship between a Jewish woman and a prominent Nazi official is bound to be controversial, not only for the taboo nature of the sexual relationship depicted here, but also for the ambiguous line it crosses with regards to collaboration.
Is then such dramatic licence permissible if it effectively gets across the gravity of the situation and the morally difficult decisions that have to be made under exceptional wartime circumstances? It’s a question that has also recently been raised in relation to The Lives Of Others, and the answer is that, if indeed it hits upon a deeper truth, then of course it is a valid approach. Whether Verhoeven achieves this however is not so much debatable as dubious. There is no doubt that Verhoeven is able to masterfully handle Black Book’s strong narrative drive with plenty of sex, thrills, spills and action, but the finer nuances of the moral questions raised get completely lost. In order to keep up the momentum of the film across two and a half hours, the plot has to resort to increasingly absurd levels of contrivance. The close-calls of the first half hour give way then to improbable twists, crossing and double-crossing to such a point that any characterisation theretofore established – thin and stereotypical though it may be - goes completely out the window.
Inevitably, such an emphasis on delivering thrilling plot twists works to the detriment of the seriousness of the historical reality of the period. With no solid foundation to the characterisation, Verhoeven’s response to the complex moral questions of the correct action to take in response dealing with the evil Nazi invaders raised here ultimately comes down to it being little more than every man for themselves as, in that improbably Hollywood manner, each and every character set about pursuing their own personal vendettas.
Black Book is released in the UK by Tartan. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The image is clean, clear and relatively sharp, though it does tend towards the softer side. Additionally, with a fine level of grain there is not an exceptional amount of detail. The tone and contrast presents a rather dark image, and although it’s a colourful film, on the whole the colours look rather lifeless, thin and on the cool side. Technically however, apart from some very minor aliasing in a scene or two, there are few problems, and superficially, the transfer looks reasonably good.
There are a full choice of audio options, a stereo Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix and a DTS mix. The surround mixes are obviously the ones most appropriate here for a big-budget action movie, both being fairly strong, clear and impressive, handling the busy sound design of the film fairly well. While the DTS mix has a slight edge with a fuller rounder tone, it did sound overly clinical and too studio-perfect to me and I preferred the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, though that’s purely a personal preference. In practice, there’s not a lot of difference between the choices and any of them will keep most people happy.
English subtitles are required since the film is, barring a few sentences in English, almost entirely spoken in Dutch and German. The subtitles are optional, in a white font, and are clear and readable throughout.
Extra features are surprisingly light for such a blockbuster film, with no commentary, deleted scenes or making of features. There is a Paul Verhoeven Interview (12:36), where the director talks about returning to Dutch filmmaking and how Black Book differs from his previous work there (notably Soldier of Orange), his motivation here to raise an issue – the German occupation – that is not widely spoken about in Holland and, incredibly, treat it with as much attention to realism and authenticity as possible. In a longer Carice van Houten Interview (21:51), the actress talks about her apprehension about working with a director of Verhoeven’s reputation, the actual experience and the difficult scenes she had to undergo in its making, as well as giving some thoughts on the film’s intentions and message. There’s a lot of talk in both interviews about wrestling in shit, which to me sounds like an honest account of the content of the film, but they are actually referring to one of the more gratuitously humiliating scenes in the film. The only other extra is the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:17), which of course gives away some of the development of the story, but there are plenty of other twists in the film to prevent this from being a spoiler in any way.
If you are willing to accept the historical period of the liberation of Amsterdam from Nazi occupation as nothing more than a backdrop for a big epic Hollywood action movie in the style of Pearl Harbour, Verhoeven’s Black Book certainly delivers. The film is ludicrously over-plotted, densely packed with all the nerve-racking tension you expect from a war movie, with a well-judged balance of mystery, thrills, sex, violence and explosions thrown into the mix at appropriate points. Anyone looking for a serious and far more nuanced study of the moral issues involved in collaboration with the enemy that this film raises, as well as maintaining an incredible level of action and tension, would be better advised to look towards Bertrand Tavernier’s Laissez-Passer, Jean-Pierre Melville’s remarkable L’Armée Des Ombres or even Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca.