Film Review: Black Book

Black Book

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Starring Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch
Review by David Chiu

Black Book, the latest film directed by Paul Verhoeven (Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Showgirls), recalls the classic World War II suspense film thrillers, depicting the resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Holland.

For Verhoeven, Black Book is a departure from his several Hollywood movies known for their sex, violence, dark humor and cartoonish behavior. More accurately, it recalls one of his earlier movies depicting that time in history, Soldier of Orange (1977). Black Book is also the first time the director made a film in his native Holland in 20 years.

The movie begins in 1956 in the then-newly created state of Israel. After an encounter with an old friend from the war, Jewish school teacher Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) recalls her time in Holland during World War II. Her story flashbacks to 1944 when Rachel, a singer, hides in a safe house. What that house is bombed, she and her family reunites as they travel on a boat with other Jews for safe passage. The journey halts abruptly as the traveling party is ambushed and massacred by Nazi soldiers who later pillage their belongings. Rachel escapes by diving into the water.

She is later rescued by the Dutch resistance and is taken under the wing of its leaders Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) and Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). Soon Rachel, who dyes her brown hair blonde and changes her name to Ellis de Vries, is recruited to infiltrate Gestapo headquarters. On board a train, she meets Muntze (Sebastian Koch), a Nazi official who is smitten by her. Rachel uses that attraction to her advantage as she gains access to headquarters. She gradually falls in love with Muntze as she learns that he’s been secretly negotiating with the resistance for a truce in the war’s waning days. Followed is a series of shocking betrayals that put Rachel’s and Muntze’s lives in peril.

Carice van Houten as Rachel is an absolute stunner through her acting and beauty (She definitely recalls the 1940s starlet). Sebastian Koch portrays the benevolent Muntze with heroic sensitivity and charm, the total opposite of the usual Nazi bad villain. Other strong performances come from Hoffman as Akkermans, de Lint as Kuipers,Waldemar Kobus as the evil Fraken, and Halina Reijin as Rachel’s friend Ronnie.

Director Verhoeven doesn’t depart entirely from his usual sense of shock. There is the sex (Rachel dyes her pubic hair as she prepares for her rendezvous with Muntze), violence (shootings, though more realistic than sadistic), and over-the-top theatrics. What emerges importantly is a solid suspense thriller that keeps you guessing two-thirds of the way. There is also a sense of poignancy such as the romance between Rachel and Muntze. Black Book is one of the director’s best works in recent years. He should film more in Holland and leave Hollywood behind for a while.

video trailer courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics/


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