Movie Review: Black Book
FILM REVIEW: BLACK BOOK
By Michael Wilmington
Chicago Tribune Movie Critic
Paul Verhoeven's "Black Book" is a foreign art film on World War II that's as fast and outrageously entertaining as a good slick Hollywood actioner. It's a wildly imaginative portrayal of the Dutch Resistance fighting Nazis in 1944 and 1945 - and of an improbable but intense love affair between a Jewish spy (Carice van Houten) and a German Gestapo chief (Sebastian Koch). It s a movie that scrambles our responses and covers so much ground, with such zest, that its two and a half hours race past like a firestorm.
The biggest production in Dutch film history, it's an epic with a great cast. But it also has the ribald, unfettered style that marked Verhoeven's earlier Dutch films - including like "Turkish Delight," named in a 1999 poll as the best Dutch movie of the 20th century - before he went to Hollywood and became a sometime king of sci-fi and fancy trash ("RoboCop" and "Showgirls"). I like some of Verhoeven's American movies, but the Dutch pictures are better, and, in "Black Book," he's reunited with his most frequent, congenial scriptwriter, Gerard Soeteman, with a bigger budget, richer technology and a deeper cast than they had back in the days of "Turkish Delight." The result is so good that it suggests Verhoeven should keep splitting his time between Hollywood and Holland.
"Black Book" recounts the adventures, recalled years later in flashback in a kibbutz, of a (fictitious) rich popular Jewish singer, Rachel Stein (van Houten), - who fought and spied in the underground and had a love affair, under the alias Ellis de Vries, with the handsome, morally troubled Gestapo commander, Ludwig Muentze (Koch).
That should give you some idea of Verhoeven's audacity. (It's as if "Casablanca's" romance were between Ingrid Bergman and Conrad Veidt.) That narrative daring kicks up almost immediately in the flashback: Rachel loses her safe house in a German air raid, and makes her way to another "safe harbor," only to see her family slaughtered.
Hooking up with the resistance again, she joins leaders Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) and Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). Because of her obvious charms, she's sent into the Gestapo lion's den, to dazzle Muentze and other Nazis, including depraved sadist Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) and unbending fascist General Kautner (Christian Berkel). And the dizzying sequence of battles and betrayals continues.
Movies about the World War II resistance movements tend to be heroic-adventurous, like the John Frankenheimer-Burt Lancaster "The Train," or grim and tragic, like Jean-Pierre Melville's "Army of Shadows." Verhoeven pitches himself somewhere in between. Throughout, "Black Book" mixes the sophistication of a solidly-researched historical drama with loony genre thriller excesses. But it's also shot through with an intriguing moral relativism. In the movie - which takes it title from the little black book in which all the resistance secrets may be revealed - there are sympathetic people, liars and monsters on both sides.
Back in the 1970s, before his Hollywood exodus, Verhoeven had developed a top-notch local Dutch company of actors and technicians, including Rutger Hauer, Jeroen Krabbe and cinematographer Jan de Bont. Some of them are back here (including scenarist Soeteman). But, even though he's working with largely new people, Verhoeven seems even more assured now than the brash young swashbuckler who made 1977's "Soldier of Orange."
That assurance sparks up his cast. Sebastian Koch, the spied-on writer in "The Lives of Others," is a terrific romantic leading man, but he's also alive to the ambiguities of Muentze's dual character. Halina Reijn is a lusty hooker sidekick, de Lint a poignant old radical, and Kobus makes one of the most despicable villains imaginable. (His Franken is hair-raising from our first sight of him, treading arrogantly through corpses after the riverboat massacre of the group that includes Rachel's parents.)
Van Houten is a major leading prestige star film actress in her country right now - talent-wise, a sort of Dutch Cate Blanchett, - and one wonders when American films will start tapping her talents, as they did Verhoeven's. But when they do, one hopes she'll keep returning to her homeland. "Black Book" shows how good a top European filmmaker with heavy Hollywood credentials can be, back on his home turf. The more "Black Books" Verhoeven has in him, the better.
Directed by Paul Verhoeven; screenplay by Gerard Soeteman and Verhoeven; photographed by Karl Walter Lindenlaub; edited by Job ter Burg and James Herbert; music by Anne Dudley; production design by Wilbert van Dorp; produced by San Fu Maltha, Jos van der Linden, Frans van Gestel and Jeroen Beker. In Dutch, German, English and Hebrew, with English subtitles. A Sony Classics release; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Landmark's Renaissance in Highland Park and the CineArts 6 in Evanston. Running time: 2:25. MPAA rating: R (for violence, sex, nudity and profanity).
RachelStein/Ellisde Vries - Carice van Houten
Ludwig Muentze - Sebastian Koch
Hans Akkermans - Thom Hoffman
Ronnie - Halina Reijn
Gunther Franken - Waldemar Kobus
Gerben Kuipers - Derek de Lint
General Kautner - Christian Berkel
Notary Smaal - Dolf de Vries