Four stars (R)
Most people know Paul Verhoeven from his high-profile Hollywood movies: Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man. It would be easy to mock or dismiss the Dutch filmmaker for his consistently dour worldview and his pattern of cheesy overkill. I’ve certainly done so, particularly with Showgirls and Starship Troopers. But regardless of Verhoeven’s club-wielding approach to directing, his stuff is always interesting.
Verhoeven grew up in occupied Holland during World War II and witnessed the ravages of war from a child’s point of view. Before hitting Hollywood, he turned out a number of well-regarded films in his homeland. With Black Book (Zwartboek), he returns to his roots, presenting a big, lurid, satisfying tale of love, lust, adventure, intrigue and betrayal set in 1944 German-occupied Holland. The screenplay, co-written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman, is a beaut, packed with engaging characters and memorable moments.
Understand, Verhoeven is still Verhoeven and the traits he exhibited in his high-profile productions are present here. It’s just that they work so much better in this context.
Carice van Houten plays Rachel, the sole survivor of a disastrous attempt by a number of Jewish families to escape the Nazis. After meeting some resistance fighters at a soup kitchen run by Knipers (Derek de Lint) as a cover, she gets recruited into the inner circle of the group by bold, brave Hans (Thom Hoffman).
Rachel soon proves her own bravery when she meets SS officer Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch from The Lives of Others) on a train. In short order, she ends up at the area Gestapo headquarters, sleeping with Muntze and doing office work alongside local girl Ronnie (Halina Reijn) for the feared officer Franken (Waldemar Kopus).
Turns out that the failed escape attempt that wiped out Rachel’s family and neighbors was not an isolated incident, but part of a particularly vile get-rich scheme that involves both the Nazis and the Dutch. Rachel is right in the middle of a nest of snakes. The resistance fighters are making plans, but there may be traitors among them.
Will Rachel be able to extricate herself from her nightmarish circumstance, or is she in too deep? Will the bad guys be brought down? Hell, with all the mixed allegiances, will they even be correctly identified?
What worked against Paul Verhoeven in his Hollywood films works for him here. This is a whale of a story where everything is over the top by necessity and a dour worldview is the norm. Verhoeven places his fiction in a time and place he knows inside and out. It pays off in spades.
The performances are all good, but Carice van Houten knocks it out of the park as Rachel. Her role is as demanding as it is rich and she never falters.
With Black Book, Paul Verhoeven has pulled off quite a trick. The movie succeeds as a splashy, larger-than-life pulpy epic, but it also has emotional resonance beyond the cacophony."