Eugene Weekly : Movie Review : 5.3.07


White Lies
The director of Basic Instinct goes home

BLACK BOOK: Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman. Cinematography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Music, Anne Dudley. Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch and Thom Hoffman. Sony Pictures Classics, 2006. R. 145 minutes.

Thom Hoffman and Carice van Houten in Black Book

Chotic, fidgety and incredibly tense, Black Book carries so many contradictions that by the end it simply collapses, broken-backed. For one thing, this mostly enjoyable spy thriller is a love story between a Dutch Jew, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), and the German Colonel Muntze (Sebastian Koch) during WWII. What’s more, although Black Book was filmed in Holland to recreate a complex period in Dutch history, the film has an epic Hollywood feel reminiscent of Spielbergian blockbusters, notably Schindler’s List. It wants quite badly to be a serious picture, but Americans only know Black Book‘s director, Paul Verhoeven, as the man who yelled “Action!” just before Sharon Stone uncrossed her legs. I could go on, but you get the drift: Black Book is something of a paradox — one that’s satisfying almost all the way through.

As a dramatization of life during wartime and of Nazi occupation in particular, Black Book succeeds overwhelmingly. This is due largely to our willing heroine, Rachel, who gathers strength despite suffering a series of misfortunes that would seem ridiculous were they not inspired by history. A former singer, Rachel goes into hiding from the Nazis until she’s reunited with her family, only to watch them gunned down in front of her. Devastated, she joins the Dutch resistance, but most of her comrades are sacrificed to history while the man she loves is executed for an act of conscience. Even when Rachel is framed by her nemesis, Colonel Franken (Waldemar Kobus), she still retains her inner grace and dignity. The problem is, Black Book asks too much of her. There’s only so much one person can do.

At its core, Black Book is a dramatic investigation into how wealthy Jews were betrayed by Dutch officials who, solely for money, promised them escape routes but sent them to their deaths. Amid these atrocities, Rachel is a witness, survivor and fugitive, all of which I found true and credible. I even accept her as a spy and possibly even a traffic cop. But a detective? No. Give the poor girl a break.

Still, the primary motive of Black Book is to get your pulse racing, not rewrite history. After a languorous buildup, the film quickly hot-foots us through one narrow escape after another, providing a thrilling throwback to gangster-era films with their kiss-off lines and rat-a-tat-tat gunfire. Black Book‘s score is wonderfully propulsive, as you’d expect from Anne Dudley (The Crying Game, The Full Monty). Carice van Houten’s Rachel is the Energizer bunny of heroines, steely but not inhuman, with a face every bit as pretty as Jean Harlow’s. If you can suspend disbelief as the film hits the two-hour mark — and if you can avoid the temptation to draw lazy parallels between 1944 and 2007, which is an insult to millions dead — you might just enjoy the way Black Book crosses history and entertainment. If the film makes anything abundantly clear, it’s this: In terms of personal freedoms, we’re living in a golden age by comparison.

Black Book opens Friday, May 4 at the Bijou.