Film-Forward Review: [BLACK BOOK]

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Thom Hoffman as Hans Akkermans
Carice van Houten as Rachel/Ellis
Photo: Jaap Vrenegoor/Sony Pictures Classics

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Directed by: Paul Verhoeven.
Produced by: San Fu Maltha, Jos van der Linden, Frans van Gestel, Jeroen Beker, Teun Hilte & Jens Meurer.
Written by: Gerard Soeteman & Verhoeven.
Director of Photography: Karl Walter Lindenlaub.
Edited by: Job ter Burg & James Herbert.
Music by: Anne Dudley.
Released by: Sony Pictures Classics.
Language: Dutch, German, English & Hebrew with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: Netherlands/Germany/UK/Belgium. 145 Minutes. Rated R.
With: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Derek de Lint, Halina Reijn & Waldemar Kobus.
DVD Features: Commentary by director Paul Verhoeven. Making-of featurette. English, French & Spanish subtitles. Trailers.

In his first, blazing return to Dutch filmmaking after 20 brazen years in Hollywood, director Paul Verhoeven crosses the styles of his excellent Dutch historical films (with the same cowriter, Gerard Soeteman) in this rip-roaring espionage tale. He expands on the heroic action of his World War II-set Soldier of Orange with a beautiful and enterprising heroine, like in his Katie Tippel, who’s forced to use her sexual wiles to survive. The opening “inspired by true events” claim translates into an amalgamation into one heroine of what several real people experienced during the war.

Rachel Stein, very winningly played by the stunning Carice van Houten, is readily revealed in the prologue set in 1956 Israel. But the bulk of Black Book flashbacks to her precarious life in 1944 Holland, just a few months after Anne Frank was betrayed in Amsterdam. Rachel hides in an isolated farmhouse, singing along to her own recordings as a cabaret performer. Barely avoiding an allied bombing, she deftly survives messy and humiliating trials and tribulations – being shot at in an ambush; hiding in a coffin; harassed, attacked and jailed by Nazis; witnessing atrocities, and more. Disguised as dyed top-and-bottom blonde bombshell Ellis de Vries, Rachel is sustained by her family’s hidden wealth, and agrees to be pimped out as a spy for the resistance. Van Houten does her own lovely singing as Rachel/Ellis seductively entertains at Nazi parties and looks very fetching when imprisoned wearing tight red silk.

Sebastian Koch, from The Lives of Others, plays Captain Ludwig Müntze, the most appealing Gestapo ever portrayed in the movies. Müntze represents the career officers who, by 1944, realistically expected defeat and schemed against Hitler. Though he was supervising the more stereotypical cruel and corrupt Officer Franken (Waldemar Kobus), this good German, widowed by an Allied attack, is seen more through his Queen Wilhelmina stamp collection and in bed with Ellis. This is one of those few times in film when an off-screen romance enflames the on-screen chemistry, visually helping to overcome some plot incredulity about Ellis’ ambivalence towards liberation.

The film captures the extreme deprivations and dangers of living under an occupation where any affront to the Nazis by “terrorists” could be punished by the executions of 40 citizens, and is uniquely caustic about Dutch complicity, frankly portraying anti-Semitism, and one-on-one, up-close and personal revenge killings – a portrait almost as dark as Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows, about the French resistance, or as haunted as Steven Spielberg’s Munich. When the war ends, mass graves are dug up and retaliation turns into mob violence. Issues of the future democracy are ironically raised through the thoughtful Communist resistance leader Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint, who memorably tangoed as a fascist in Soldier of Orange) arguing that, “Even the biggest bastards have a right to a fair trial.”

From flirting to dashing around with guns, Thom Hoffman, the young hunk in Verhoeven’s The Fourth Man, is charismatically effective at keeping us guessing about his complex Dr. Hans Akkermans, whether he's a protector, lover, soldier, rescuer, revenger, wily tactician or worse. Like in Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German, liberation parades are backdrops for excitingly suspenseful chase scenes. The in’s and out’s of who betrayed whom, as documented in the titular ledger, get so complicated as the bodies pile up that the resolution has to be summarized, in two languages no less. Those looking for Verhoeven touches can note the dramatic attention to excrement and full frontal nudity. Though the score recalls a 1940’s clichéd melodrama, the elaborate settings, costumes, make-up, and song selections superbly recreate the period, supporting the fast-paced story’s overwhelming attention to multi-layered details. Nora Lee Mandel
April 4, 2007

DVD Extras: In his commentary, the director spins many anecdotes of the women and men who inspired his characters: a Dutch woman, part of the Resistance, did sleep with a Nazi officer; another fighter’s father offered rare stamps to the German commander, on whom Captain Müntze is based on, as a bribe. Discussing scene after scene, Verhoeven highlights how intricately plotted the script is. Turn away from the screen for a few minutes and a scene later on won’t make sense.

Verhoeven offers much more insight into the historical period than the by-the-numbers making-of extra (where it isn’t exactly revelatory that actress van Houten is extremely talented), but he glosses over the film’s numerous coincidences and improbabilities. One small quibble: It’s unlikely that Ellis would have sung “Lola” for Nazi officers, a song popularized by Marlene Dietrich, persona non grata to the Nazis, and written by Frederick Hollander, a Jew. Kent Turner
September 25, 2007



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