Carice van Houten
Derek de Lint
2 Hrs., 25 Mins.
Black Book May 27, 2019
he World War II-set espionage thriller Black Book (2006) was the first movie the Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven made in the Netherlands after 1983’s The Fourth Man. Returning to his roots was a good idea. Post-The Fourth Man, Verhoeven moved to America. There he’d serve, for a brief time, as an epochal Hollywood filmmaker — a director who consistently, and pretty effectively, challenged the norm via movies featuring graphic
sex, violence, and a kinetic visual style. His products, though frequently featuring elements that were, in hindsight, perhaps too provocative, were inspired at least for a while. Think of the zesty weirdness of RoboCop (1987), the thunderous pulp of Total Recall (1990), the freaky, noiry extremes of Basic Instinct (1992). Following that successful three-movie run, though, Verhoeven’s returns began diminishing. The plummet notably began with the campy backstage melodrama Showgirls (1995), which, while beloved enough now, is also considered one of the worst movies ever made.
Black Book, an ambitious and effective epic, feels like a regrouping. It was the first film Verhoeven made after a six-year hiatus; one he had been writing with pre-Hollywood collaborator Gerard Soeteman since the early 1990s; and, more or less, a stylistic divergence. While the majority of Verhoeven’s previous projects were like feature-length versions of dime-store thriller comics, this one is by all means an update on movies like the stylish-but-elegant spy caper Notorious, from 1946.
Like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), Black Book is a revisionist WWII fantasy we’d be foolish to take too seriously or really be offended by. Clocking at two and a half hours and spanning about a decade, the movie stars a great Carice Van Houten, who’s a winning combination of Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard, as Rachel Stein, a young Jewish woman. Though we first meet her in mid-1950s Israel, where she lives with her husband and kids and works as a teacher, the film almost entirely takes place in a flashback, specifically one set in 1944.
In it, we initially find Rachel living, in hiding, in a farmhouse in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Shortly into Black Book, though, the structure is destroyed during an Allied bombing. To try to run through what Rachel endures next in the movie would be to write something of a tome. But what can be said is that, in a bid to stick around, she changes her name to Eilis de Vries, dyes her hair — and pubes (!) — corn blonde to avoid sticking out, joins the Dutch resistance, and is then enlisted to seduce one of Hitler’s right-hand men (Sebastian Koch).
While promoting the film, Verhoeven made it clear that we are not to mistake any characters as moral or myopically heroic. (Though to be fair I’m sure most viewers should be able to discern that for themselves.) “In this movie, everything has a shade of grey,” he told The Guardian in 2006. “There are no people who are completely good and no people who are completely bad. It's like life. It's not very Hollywoodian.”
I wouldn’t quite say that Black Book is like life or anti-Hollywood — the thing’s profoundly historically inaccurate, and, in spite of Verhoeven’s claims, gray in a rosy, often glamorous way. But, indeed, not a character here — not even the heroine — is outrightly “good.” No one is left off the hook. There’s even a moment at the end of the feature where an allusive cutaway subtly condemns Israel’s treatment of Palestine, for instance. So what Black Book is, really, is an old-fashioned adventure film that shirks moral simplicity, instead standing as a movie about pulling out all the stops to survive. Which is, in its own way, much more fascinating a thing than a clear-cut good-and bad-guy-laden espionage thriller.
I found that I ultimately enjoyed the movie in a sort of nearsighted sense. As long as we aren’t thinking too much about how ahistorical it is or the reality that the majority of its chief characters are pretty bad people who can’t help but be thrust into heroic roles, we find ourselves in the presence of a slickly made, propulsive survival movie. B+