Black Book (Zwartboek) Review
Paul Verhoeven's first Dutch-made film in more than twenty years, the spy thriller Black Book is crude in places, frustrating in others and objectionable if you think about it too hard. Then again, it's also superb storytelling and a beautifully crafted piece of cinema. This is a film that's going to inspire strong reactions in very different ways. Verhoeven can be accused of being many things but safe and dull are not among them. Black Book deserves to be seen and to be hotly debated.
The story begins in 1944 in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands, where a young, Dutch Jew named Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten), who has been posing as a Christian, has her cover blown - literally - by a stray bomb. Trying to escape the country before she's captured and sent to a camp, she barely survives a Nazi ambush that claims the lives of her family. Rachel's saved and taken in by the Dutch resistance. In return, she offers to work for them and do her part in the fight against the Nazis. Her comrades dye her hair blonde and give her a new identity - Aryan beauty Ellis De Vries.
Rachel's already had a chance meeting with a local Gestapo officer, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) and had quite an effect on him, so it's obvious how she can best serve the resistance. She turns up in the Nazi's office smiling and fluttering her eyelashes and she quickly becomes Müntze's secretary and his lover. Of course Rachel's assignment is fraught with danger, she knows that, but she is to discover the danger doesn't come only from the Germans.
After a shaky first half hour, which crams in far more plot than is necessary, Black Book hits its stride when Rachel goes undercover at Nazi HQ. The script by Verhoeven and his longtime Dutch collaborator Gerard Soeteman milks the situation for all the suspense it's worth and deftly weaves the film's themes of deceit and treachery around an absorbing, slowly emerging plotline. Verhoeven's direction is as dynamic as ever. He's never been boring, even working with material as dumb as Hollow Man and Showgirls, but he's clearly more involved this time around. This is an enormously gripping film. Like Basic Instinct, his previous suspense thriller (and I'd argue his last great piece of entertainment), Black Book is the cinematic equivalent of a page-turner. You're hooked and you have to know what happens next.
If Verhoeven's film-making talents make Black Book riveting viewing, his misanthropy makes it difficult to take at times. The director certainly has a low opinion of the human race, a subtext Black Book has in common with Basic Instinct (along with the gratuitous helpings of sex and violence) but there it suited the sleazy pulp material. In the context of a World War II thriller about a heroic organisation - the Dutch resistance - misanthropy feels out of place.
Carve Her Name With Pride this is definitely not. There's little honour or nobility on either side in Verhoeven's war. Black Book's heroine is betrayed and abused by just about everybody she trusts, she's reviled by her country as a traitor and she ends up completely disillusioned. No good seems to come of Rachel's efforts or those of her comrades.
The Dutch resistance as portrayed here is riddled with collaborators, antisemites, thieves and traitors. Even the decent members are shown to be complete idiots, at one point falling for a Nazi deception that wouldn't have fooled the cast of Allo Allo! Former members of the resistance and their families would be justified in finding Black Book offensive.
Equally problematic is that, besides our heroine, the most sympathetic character in the movie is a Gestapo officer. Not a regular army officer, who we could accept as a decent man on the wrong side, but a Gestapo officer - a man in charge of rounding up Jews and torturing and executing prisoners.
Is Verheoven trying to make a subversive point here? I didn't see it and I didn't detect any irony in the characterisation of Müntze - he's a decent guy, the good Nazi to Waldemar Kobus's sadistic ogre, and his love for Rachel the Jewish spy is apparently genuine. Schindler's List contained a Nazi commandant who fell for a Jewish woman but that film treated it as the absurd hypocrisy it was. As soon as Müntze falls for Rachel, Black Book seems to forget what he's been doing in the Netherlands.
It's undoubtedly true that there were good Germans and there were Dutch traitors and there were injustices on either side but Black Book never puts it into perspective. Based on what we see onscreen, the members of the Dutch resistance were on roughly the same moral level as the Nazis, which is an outrageous implication. Also dubious are Verhoeven's attempts to compare the Nazi occupation and the current War on Terror. The references to the resistance as "terrorists" (was this word really used in the 1940s?) and the implication about Israel in the final shots are as gratingly unsubtle as the commentary on American imperialism in Starship Troopers.
These issues are troubling but it can't be denied that Black Book is a very impressive film in spite of them. Carice van Houten makes a sympathetic heroine and the story is told so compellingly that it's difficult not to get involved. It certainly works on the viewer, even if it does leave a bad aftertaste.