Dutch director Paul Verhoven is one hell of a filmmaker. His latest film ‘Black Book’ aside, which is simply fantastic - though I do have some questions that bug me a bit in relation to the end of the movie, Verhoven is a man who just seems to know what he’s doing behind the lens of a camera. I’m not saying that all of Verhoven’s movies are great as a precursory gander at his film history will attest to that not being the case, but even the man’s failures are spectacular failures. So as I sat down to watch the directors film chronicling the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during the waning days of the second world war and one woman’s incredible ability to survive, I knew even before going into the theater that it would be visually commanding, there would be no dull moments and there was a damn good chance I’d see some naked people. All that was left was to see if the movie was going be any good. Considering that this follows another spectacular Verhoven failure in ‘Hollow Man’, it’s is a valid concern. But an unnecessary one as it so turned out.
Candace Van Houten portrays a Jewish woman in hiding named Rachel Stein who in her previous life was a singer of some note, but now finds herself alone in the Nazi occupied Netherlands with no papers to speak off and a one way ticket to the Polish concentration camps should she be caught. A mysterious stranger by the name of Van Gein finds Rachel and promises her safe passage to a neutral place for her and numerous other Jews, and by chance joyfully reunites Rachel with her parents and younger brother. With some financial help from friend Notary Smaal (Dolf DeVries) who is constantly writing down notes in his little black book, Rachel and family is off to a better place. Well no, they’re not as the boat is ambushed in what suspiciously looks like a setup and everyone aboard is slaughtered in a hail of Verhoven style violence, except Rachel who has a knack for survival like few before her ever have.
Rachel makes her way, now as an Aryan style blonde, to the resistance led by Gerben Kuipers (Derek De lint) and the coldly lethal Dr. Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). When Kuipers son is captured by Nazi’s for smuggling guns, he makes a bold request of Rachel, now going by the much more German name of Ellen DeVries to get close, in anyway possible, to Nazi SD captain Muntze (Sebastian Koch) whom she met on a train and who was smitten with her winsome beauty, in the hopes she can get some information to help the resistance and hopefully save Kuiper’s sons life. She does manage to get close to Muntze, perhaps even falling in love with the man whose sensibilities belie his Nazi allegiance. She also spies the Nazi lieutenant responsible for the slaughter of her family in Gunther Franken (Waldermer Kobus – in a completely vile and hateful role) whose disposition epitomizes his Nazi allegiance. Intrigue abounds as Ellen Devries works her best mojo to help the resistance and her people only to find that there is a traitor amongst them which leads to some incredibly tragic results and even casts a long shadow of suspicion on Ellen / Rachel as the traitor in question.
Clocking at close to two and a half hours, you would think that ‘Black Book’ is overly long, but you hardly notice the time as there is nary one second of wasted space in this film, and I hate overly long movies. This was a film crafted by skilled artisans who filled this movie with tension, action, drama, romance, dry wit and humor… Or substance to just keep it short. Any discussion of the success or failure of ‘Black Book’ must first start with Verhoven’s leading lady in Candace Van Houten who is in virtually every scene of this film and as such the film will go as she goes. Well Ms. Van Houten’s soft shoulders must be quite sturdy as she carries this film from beginning to end with ease. She is able to infuse Ellen DeVries with so much humanity and so many layers that it’s difficult not care about the woman’s plight. Ellen is no heroine though, merely a survivor and though her daring feats of do to pull off her preservation may stretch the limits of believability at times, this is still a movie and it was entertaining. Plus she had to do a good portion of her work nude. I wonder if it’s easier to perform in the nude if your body is as close to perfect as perfect can get. Say like, hell I don’t know, Candace Van Houten. I suppose it probably doesn’t matter because I’m the hallmark of physical imperfection, but I would get naked in front a camera for a few bucks.
SPOILER: it is revealed that Hans is the traitor which kind of doesn’t work for me because if he’s in bed with Franken, then why does he kill Franken’s top Jew killer Van Gein? And at the botched raid, the Nazi soldiers where trying to kill him as sure as they were trying to kill anybody. Also, are we to assume that he killed Notary Smaal as well and then took off running in the crowd? Because now Hans is recognized as a hero and there is no way he could run through a crowd without being celebrated or noticed. Yeah, he being the traitor in the end just doesn’t add up for me. END SPOILER.
I suppose all Paul
Verhoven had to do to get back on his game was get the
hell out of the United States and go back home.
Easily one of the best movies I’ve seen all year.