Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, best known for Hollywood action spectaculars such as Robocop (1987) and Starship Troopers (1997) as well as the flesh-filled Basic Instinct (1992) and Showgirls (1995), marks his return to the Netherlands with an intelligent and gripping World War Two drama. Set against the dying months of the war, Black Book is a fast-paced thriller about young Jewish singer Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) who joins the Resistance in The Hague after her parents are brutally murdered in front of her. Verhoeven clearly wanted to produce something special after the 23-year wait for him to produce another Dutch film, and the great news is this is one of his most accomplished pieces of work.
Opening with Rachel teaching at a remote village in 1956, she encounters an old friend prompting a flashback to her traumatic experiences towards the end of the war in 1945. As a famous Jewish singer, she is hiding with a farming family in the north of Holland while the war rages on around her. When her hiding place is bombed, she is forced into an attempted river-crossing to the already liberated south of the country where she is joined by her whole family. Ambushed, Rachel is the only survivor after plunging into the water. Her only option to survive is to join the resistance and use her voice to get close to key German officer Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch) in the Nazi headquarters of Holland. As she is gets deeper into a conspiracy to kill wealthy Jews for money, she becomes closer to the true about her ambush.
Verhoeven’s skills have finally matured — gone is the over-reliance on action set pieces or daft set-ups, as good as they were in Robocop and Starship Troopers, to make way for an engaging, character-driven tale.
Verhoeven has often been accused of going for too much glitz and glamour with his films, hiding behind spectacle, but for Black Book he allows plenty of time for us to get under the skin of Rachel and become fearful for her safety in the halls of the Nazi base. Her very personal story is peppered by many short, sharp shoot outs and nudity, but rather than being indulgent like in Showgirls, it feels tightly structured and grounded in the story. It is almost as if his skills have finally matured — gone is the over-reliance on action set pieces or daft set-ups, as good as they were in Robocop and Starship Troopers, to make way for an engaging, character-driven tale. The focus on Rachel negates the need for detailed information about the war effort and concentrate on her efforts to remain in control of her fate in a fast changing and dangerous position. The sets are lavish, his style keeps it moving quickly and the score is a suitably epic piece of work by Oscar-winner Anne Dudley (The Full Monty, 1998).
Van Houten puts in an gripping performance which is sure to get her a lot of offers from Europe and Hollywood. Switching effortlessly from gutsy freedom fighter to fragile singer at a moments glance, she makes a fine lead. Koch is also well cast as a German officer you can empathise with, while the collection of other resistance members and German officers perform the usual array of hard line believers in their cause or reluctantly carrying out orders. This is fine, however Verhoeven fails to give us much time to consider characters beyond Rachel and Muntze enough because he insists on keeping the narrative going a little too fast. The months of the movie seem to go by in a few days and it feels, even at nearly two and a half hours long, there was room for delving deeper into the many and varied sub-characters. Then again, that would probably make it far too long so if any cuts were made for pacing, they are effective at making it a very approachable epic.
Overall, Verhoeven’s plaudits for Black Book are well deserved as this is unlike anything he has made before. Oscar recognition in the form of a nomination would seem to be just reward for his efforts here, and expect Van Houten to be in high demand in 2007. A great start to the year.