Black Book - DVD review

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven's oddball career has given us classics such as Robocop and Basic Instinct, but also howlers like Showgirls. We're happy to say that Black Book is in the first camp.

A beautiful Jewish singer, Rachel (Carice van Houten) is bombed out of her hiding place and has to resort to dangerous measures to survive Nazi persecution in The Netherlands as the World War II comes to its messy conclusion.

Hiding her identity means more than just dying hair blond (literally all of it), she has to dedicate her all her charms to the Dutch Resistance and that means getting dangerously, even if that means intimately, close to the enemy.

Duty forces her into the arms of Ludwig Mentze (Sebastian Koch), a charming and sensitive SS Officer. But with Europe in turmoil, who are her friends and who are her enemies?

Like all his films, Black Book is technically brilliant with good old fashioned values such as clear but no nonsense editing, vivid lighting and thought through camera angles. There are big set piece sequences with large areas of The Hague taken over for panoramic shots of streets dressed in period style with hundreds of extras and enough vintage vehicles and planes to stock a motor museum. Every shot, whether vast panorama or the biggest of close ups, is lit with a painter’s eye and the design is immaculate with its saturated 1940s colours.

It is packed with action too. Planes zoom towards us and drop their bombs with terrifying proximity. Cars screech to a halt inches from the camera lens and the shootouts are exciting, violent and painfully realistic. Verhoeven celebrates the beauty of period machinery, none more so than the many steam trains that crash across the screen.

Everything is for real - the guns, the bombs and the blood but also the characters and the terrible situations that they have to endure. So flesh is there in abundance too. Naked, provocative, vulnerable, gross, bloated or mutilated. Verhoeven shows it as it is and, consequently, moves us by the humanity and the tragedy of this exciting, painful and largely true story of wartime heroism and cruelty.

He is more than helped by an outstanding cast of actors - none more so than his leading lady, the beautiful and charismatic Carice van Houten as the Jewish girl whose ordeal forms the backbone of the story.

Almost constantly on the screen, she is totally captivating from her first shot all the way through to the emotionally draining conclusion. She is quite simply a star who rises to every opportunity in a role rich in possibilities.

Rachel, we are told was a singer before the war, and Van Houten demonstrates her abilities as a performer whilst at the same time showing the vulnerable and true face of her suffering. She hides her trauma, revulsion and fear so that she can “work” for the Resistance as a spy, a cabaret singer and as a seductress using her extrovert personality, her charm and her body to inveigle her way right to the heart of the Nazi war machine.

With the utmost subtlety, she drops her beguiling mask every now and then for the camera and we see the tragic face of a woman whose life has been ravaged by the course of history. This is a great performance.

Cinema over the last half century or so has given us many noble, harrowing, sometimes exciting, sometimes horrifying accounts of the Second World War. Verhoeven has succeeded in making a thrilling adventure movie without trivialising or minimising any of the suffering or underplaying any of the bravery that characterised the lives of millions during those terrible years.

Don’t be put off by the subtitles or you will miss one of the classic films of the year.

In contrast to the film’s bulky running time, this special features package is frustratingly slight. With no behind the scenes footage we are forced to settle for a couple of above average interviews with director Paul Verhoeven and the film’s star Carice Van Houten.

Verhoeven explains how he became disillusioned with Hollywood after 2000’s disappointing Hollow Man, and spent 6 years looking for a project that really mattered to him before Black Book finally came along.

Meanwhile, Van Houten does her best to dispel the image of the director as a dirty old man who conned Sharon Stone into doing the infamous leg crossing scene in Basic Instinct against her will … with mixed results.

Verdict

Paul Verhoeven has had a bumpy career since swapping his native Holland for Hollywood. After the wonderful Robocop and the controversial Basic Instinct, he came a bit of a cropper with the tacky Showgirls and the brilliant in parts Starship Troopers. Many felt that he was not living up to the great Dutch films from his early career.

His new movie is very much a return home for Verhoeven. Not only is it a film about the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands - an event he remembers from his own childhood - but he is also revisiting some of the material that was left out of his classic Soldiers of Orange (1977).

Rating: 15
Staring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Extras: Tartan exclusive interviews with Paul Verhoeven and Carice Van Houten
Film Notes