(In Dutch with English subtitles, running time 2hr 25mins)
Black Book (titled Zwartboek in Dutch) is a 2006 action thriller directed and co-written by the prolific Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, who returned to his native Netherlands to make the film after years of success in Hollywood.
He is best known internationally for directing glossy American films from the late 1980s and early 1990s, such as Robocop, Basic Instinct (the film that made Sharon Stone famous, if not notorious) and the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Total Recall.
His latest films have been French-language projects: the hysterical and confusing Elle, which I watched on its release in 2016, and the upcoming film Benedetta, based on the book Immodest Acts: The Life of a Lesbian Nun in Renaissance Italy, which sounds like it might need to work hard to appear more than simply titillating (the art work for the film features a sexy nun flashing a bit of nipple).
Black Book, which claims to be inspired by actual events, retains key elements of Verhoeven’s aesthetic – overt eroticism, high gloss, glitz and lots of imaginative violence – and is set in occupied Holland during the Second World War. It tells the story of a young Jewish chanteuse, Rachel Stein (played by Carice van Houten, probably best known as the sinister, hot priestess Melisandre, otherwise known as the ‘Red Woman’, in Game of Thrones).
After tragedy strikes, Stein obscures her Jewish identity, becoming ‘Ellis de Vries’ in order to infiltrate Nazi HQ and assist the Resistance by ingratiating herself with the military leadership. Sebastian Koch (perhaps most well-known for German film The Lives of Others, which I reviewed earlier this year) plays the target of Ellis’s subterfuge, Ludwig Müntze (the ‘Hauptsturmführer’), but he is revealed as a conflicted Nazi who is nurturing an inner pain.
This film has all the standard Hollywood action tropes, but also allows room for a little nuance. How far a person might be willing to go to save their own skin becomes a central theme. This is particularly salient given the constant twists and turns of the plot. What makes someone good? Is it possible to be a ‘good’ Nazi? Can someone automatically be assumed by us to be ‘good’ if they work for the Resistance?
The film was noteworthy for being, according to Wikipedia, three times more expensive than any other previous Dutch film. Fortunately for the makers, it has also been the Netherlands’ most commercially successful film. It is highly regarded in terms of quality, too. We (my husband and I) found it consistently entertaining. Not just us: in 2008 the Dutch public voted it the best Dutch film ever made and, looking at IMDB, users have rated it a healthy 7.7/10. US review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes summarises it as “shamelessly entertaining” – sounds about right.