A Review of Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book”

*Above: Carice Van Houten in “Zwartboek” aka “Black Book.”

Triumph of the “Performance” over the “Act.”, 23 April 2007
David H. Schleicher from New Jersey, USA

Paul Verhoeven is a strange breed. He’s responsible for three of the most gleefully violent, fascist, and wildly imaginative sci-fi thrillers of a now bygone era (“Robocop,” “Total Recall,” and “Starship Troopers”). He’s also directed the only commercially successful erotic thriller of the past twenty years (“Basic Instinct”) and what is arguably one of the worst films ever made (the highly un-erotic and campy “Showgirls”). With “Black Book” he digs back into his Dutch roots and delivers a thrilling, though flawed, WWII flick anchored by an amazing lead performance from Carice Van Houten.

The first thirty minutes play like a crackerjack version of a “surviving the Holocaust” epic. Imagine what Hitchcock might have done had he ever tackled the genre and you’ll get an idea of just how splendidly Verhoeven starts the film. He begins with the plucky and beguiling Jewish singer Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) hiding out in the Netherlands from the Nazis, traversing tragedy after tragedy and escaping by the skin of her teeth due to her own innate will to survive until she becomes embroiled with a terrorist Dutch resistance group plotting against the German occupation. The first third of the film is full of suggestive dark humor, crisply shot action set pieces, and a luminous Van Houten who throws her whole body into her acting and could melt (or kill) a man with her smile.

The middle portion where Rachel Stein becomes Ellis de Vries and infiltrates the Nazi regime is a stark contrast to its excellent build up. All suggestion is thrown out the door for a crass, misogynistic take on the spy genre. It’s fun to watch, but leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It’s also the type of crude sadism that is likely to offend the typical audience for this type of historical drama. Van Houten once again throws her whole body into the role, and it’s often naked and glowing in this portion of the film. She’s immensely watchable as she becomes a pawn in the games of these fascist men hell bent on mutual annihilation. Once driven by her own wits, she now must be rescued time and again by the amoral men who have fallen under her spell.

All changes when the Allied Forces march into the Netherlands triumphant, returning sovereign rule to the bitter Dutch, and striking up deals with the crumbling Nazi infrastructure. The fall out from the multiple double-crossings in the middle portion of the film turn the last third into a pulsating and memorable revenge saga.

Ultimately, justice is in the eye of the beholder, and Verhoeven seems to be saying that all men are capable of evil deeds when their freedom has been taken away and their lives threatened. In his view of war there are no heroes. The only character with any virtue and good sense is a woman, and her inherent “weakness” often leads to pain, tragedy, and humiliation. It’s a troublesome and often fractured view of the world (which leads to the film’s fracturing into three distinct parts), but it’s miraculously held together by Carice Van Houten’s galvanizing performance that emotionally and physically upstages the worst of what Verhoeven can deliver thematically and visually on any given day.

Originally Published on the Internet Movie Database:


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