Black Book Review
As one other critic put it, if this is what Paul Verhoeven is capable of producing in his home country, then I hope he stays there. Black Book (Zwartboek, to use its native Dutch title) is the controversial filmmaker's first project to be shot in the Netherlands since The Fourth Man in 1983, and one that has supposedly been in a period of gestation for a good 25 years. Featuring allusions to materials uncovered by Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman while conducting research for their earlier collaboration, the much-lauded Soldier of Orange (1977), it revisits the same subject matter of the Dutch resistance movement during the Second World War, but to a vastly different effect. If Soldier of Orange was sombre and sincere, Black Book is a shamelessly exploitative, violent and sex-laden thriller with a breakneck pace: precisely the sort of film for which the director made a name for himself during his 15-year career in Hollywood.
Set during the dying days of the war, when the Nazis were merely prolonging their inevitable defeat, the film focuses on the plight of Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten), a young Jewish singer forced into hiding in the Dutch countryside. When an attempt to sail south to Ally-controlled Belgium is intercepted by a German gunboat, Rachel is forced to witness the murder of her entire family and several acquaintances. Committing herself to the cause of the Resistance, she dies her hair blonde and transforms herself into Ellis de Vries, using her beauty to charm high-ranking members of the occupying German forces. In this world of uncertainty, however, she quickly finds herself making unlikely enemies and even more unlikely allies as the British and American forces draw ever nearer and the Nazis become increasingly desperate to hold on to their fading power.
DVD Times already features two other reviews of this film: a cinema review by Kevin O'Reilly and a review of the UK DVD release by Noel Megahey, with represent the opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of critical reaction, and oddly enough I find myself agreeing wholeheartedly with both. It's not difficult to find the flaws in Verhoeven's film: in the broadest sense, it takes extremely sensitive topics and uses them as the backdrop for a gung-ho thriller which piles gratuitous sex on top of gratuitous violence, and seems to convey the message that there are no good guys, only heartless bastards. So far, so sensationalist - but what such a reading fails to convey is that Black Book is rollicking good fun. It's possible that you'll feel slightly guilty after watching it, and, if you take the time to pick apart what it is trying to say, it might seem rather offensive, but I would consider it to be hands down the single most engaging film released in 2006. The 145-minute running time flies by, with scarcely a single shot put to waste.
This is a Verhoeven film after all: calling it exploitative is like calling the Pope a Catholic. It's a foregone conclusion that the film will be loaded to the gills with sex and that the leading lady will bear her breasts (and more besides) on as many occasions as possible. Carice Van Houten does so with considerable gusto, becoming involved in seemingly every sordid situation imaginable and yet does so with the gracefulness of a leading lady from the days of classical Hollywood (few people can retain a sense of dignity when half-naked and covered in steaming excrement, but she somehow pulls it off). Hers is a star-making performance, conveying the many facets of the character - fear, anger, seductiveness, bravey, vulnerability, but never weakness. Indeed, despite the negative attention Verhoeven often attracts for his portrayal of women, Rachel Stein is a far stronger heroine than you would expect to find in most supposedly feminist productions. (It comes as something of a surprise to learn that Verhoeven initially developed the project with a male lead in mind.)
What comes through more than anything else is, rather than misogyny, an overwhelming sense of misanthropy. Key Resistance figures turn out to be corrupt while the only truly decent individual, barring Rachel, ends up being a Nazi commandant: a point of consternation for many viewers, but one which seems to me entirely appropriate given the bleak irony with which Verhoeven coats all his characterisations in this film. Most of the various characters are deeply multi-faceted, and, with Verhoeven's focus on the squabbles and petty in-fighting taking place among both the Nazis and the Resistance, he succeeds in capturing the grey morality that, by its very nature, defines war. A considerable number of films depicting the Second World War do so only in the broadest terms, looking at the broader perspective of a battle against unspeakable evil, but Verhoeven actually gets down into the trenches and shows that, when you're in the thick of the fight, such notions of "good" and "evil" cease to apply. There is little of the nobility or nationalism normally found in dramatisations of this period, and this somehow comes across as more honest. Indeed, Verhoeven's only major misstep, by my reckoning, is his decision to bookend the main narrative with a framing device set in an Israeli kibbutz. It's unneccessary and it threatens to derail the film's suspense, because it makes it abundantly clear from the start that Rachel will survive.
Kevin O'Reilly, in his review of the cinema release, described Black Book as "crude in places, frustrating in others and objectionable if you think about it too hard", but at the same time "superb storytelling and a beautifully crafted piece of cinema", an assessment with which I couldn't agree more. Is it silly? Yes. Thoroughly tasteless? Affirmative. Riveting and incredibly entertaining? Absolutely. Verhoeven has delivered a top-notch Hollywood-style adventure, and the irony is that he had to leave Hollywood in order to do it.
Black Book arrives on Blu-ray in the UK as one of Tartan's initial slate of high definition releases. Released a day ahead of Sony Pictures' US release, it features a 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer on a BD50 dual layer disc, presenting the film in its original 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This is an excellent presentation of the film, and one that improves dramatically on the blurry, ringy standard definition release, which I initially found acceptable but now consider unwatchable. Detail is excellent across the board, allowing the sumptuous costumes and production design, and Karl Walter Lindenlaub's lush photography, to be appreciated in a way that was impossible with the standard definition version. The high bit rate, which constantly hovers just below the 30 Mbps mark, unsurprisingly means that there are no noticeable problems with the compression. The only problem with this transfer comes in the form of what appears to be very light filtering, which removes the finest level of detail and results in some mild ringing that, in the majority of instances, is barely noticeable.
Three audio tracks are included, all in the original Dutch (with snippets in German, English and Hebrew). Oddly enough, the default track is a 224 Kbps Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, with the other options, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track at 640 Kbps and a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, having to be accessed from the main menu or using the audio button on the remote control. I listened primarily to the DTS-HD Master Audio track, or rather the 1.5 Mbps legacy DTS stream contained in it, given the current lack of hardware which can decode the high definition element. In terms of clarity and depth it constitutes a slight improvement on the half bit rate (768 Kbps) DTS track on the standard definition DVD, sounding a little fuller to my ears, although it is primarily a front-focused affair, with the rears generally only kicking in for crowd scenes and explosions. The LFE is impressive when put to use: check out the bass during the destruction of Rachel's hiding place near the beginning.
Optional English subtitles are included, and, bizarrely, are not enabled by default. They cover only the Dutch, German and Hebrew dialogue, with the small number of English lines going unsubtitled. The text is legible and appropriately sized, although there are a couple of spelling mistakes, and they rather annoyingly fall about half-way between the image itself and the black letterbox bar at the bottom of the screen, without the option to adjust the position.
Tartan have ported over all of the extras from their standard definition release, and in doing so have made the unusual decision to display them in a small window on the Extras menu rather than having them fill the screen. On the one hand, this allows them to look considerably crisper than they would have had they been scaled up to 1080i, or if the display had switched to 480i to display them, but it is likely to annoy those with smaller displays. It would have been nice if Tartan had allowed the option for the viewer to decide for themselves whether to view these extras full screen or windowed.
In addition to the original theatrical trailer, two separate interviews are provided with Paul Verhoeven and Carice Van Houten, using the familiar Tartan format of displaying an on-screen text question and then featuring the participant's spoken answer. Verhoeven is on top form throughout, cheerfully discussing his reasons for returning to his roots (apparently Hollow Man, a project that didn't interest him at all, was the final straw) and his stormy relationship with the critics, whom he claims have never given him an easy ride. He also covers, in considerable detail, the casting of Van Houten as Rachel, spending an inordinate amount of time on the notorious "shit shower" scene, claiming that at one point, when she became fed up after doing several takes, he suggested that the pair of them have a wrestle in the muck together.
The 22-minute Van Houten interview, meanwhile, operates at a slower pace, but the actress is enthusiastic about the film, the character of Rachel, and working with Verhoeven, describing how his reputation as a tyrant completely contrasted with her own experience with him. She comes across as intelligent and thoroughly self-deprecating, joking, when asked about whether she would consider a Hollywood career, that Woody Allen hasn't called her yet, but probably because "he has Scarlett" (an amusing reference, perhaps, to an article in the Observer which described Van Houten's performance in Black Book as "putting even Scarlett [Johansson] in the shade").
As insightful as these interviews were, I couldn't help wishing that they went a bit further. In that regard, the upcoming US release from Sony, which features a commentary by Verhoeven and a behind the scenes documentary, will probably have more to offer.
Call it a guilty pleasure if you like, but Black Book is one of the most engaging films I've seen in recent years, and definitely Paul Verhoeven's best offering in a long time. Tartan's Blu-ray release offers up an impressive transfer and audio options, alongside extras that are insightful but rather limited in quantity.
9 out of 10
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