Dutch director Paul Verhoeven who brought us the iconic Robocop and Basic Instinct but also rubbish like Showgirls returns to his roots and finds his form again.
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 2nd World War 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 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?
Daily Mirror: “As you’d expect from a Paul Verhoeven movie, there’s plenty of nudity and gore – mostly of the gratuitous kind – but Black Book is a far more serious, worthy film than his previous efforts. Mind you, given that he gave us Showgirls, Basic Instinct and Robocop, that’s probably not saying too much.”
Hollywood Reporter: “The epic film is a high octave adventure rooted in fact with a raft of arresting characters, big action sequences and twists and turns galore… Top-flight production values and a ripping yarn should mean major box office returns anywhere there is a taste for old-fashioned big-screen entertainment.”
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 also he is a revisiting some of the material that was left out of his classic Soldiers of Orange (1977).
It is also really good.
Like all his films, it 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 1940’s 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 sub-titles or you will miss one of the classic films of the year.
English Subtitles (Dutch and German language)
Carice van Houten
Derek de Lint