Black Book (2006)
Director: Paul Verhoeven Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, et al. Time: 145 minutes. Color. Dutch, German, English, Hebrew (English subtitles)
In this hyperdrive pulp fiction set in 1944–45 Holland, Rachel Stein, a pretty Jewish singer turned Resistance member after her hiding place with a Christian family is accidentally bombed, goes undercover as a Dutch party girl, moving in on a Gestapo chieftain named Muntze. His cohort Franken ambushed and killed Rachel’s family, who thought they were escaping to Belgium—a scam that Franken, without Muntze’s knowledge and with the help of a Resistance mole, keeps repeating to amass a fortune for his escape when the Allies triumph.
Though Muntze quickly guesses that Rachel is Jewish, the odd couple soon fall in love against a backdrop of lines for potato soup, birth day parties for the führer, bitter intramural politics and anti-Semitism in both Nazi and Resistance headquarters, foiled sabotage attempts, mounting paranoia and bloodshed, and dizzying rounds of betrayal.
Once the tommies finally arrive, the Dutch morph into celebrating mobs gunning for any suspected collaborator— which Rachel’s ex-comrades believe she is, because of a ruse by Franken. Thanks to Muntze and her street smarts, Rachel escapes and ultimately exacts vengeance, with the help of Gerten Kuipers, a Resistance leader who wanted her dead until an English officer confronts him with Rachel and the title’s black book. (Another Resistance figure’s diary, it holds the key to the final plot twist.) Together, Rachel and Kuipers kill the mole in a scene that is, by turns, poignant and acidly funny.
But not before Muntze’s hardcore superior has insisted to a Canadian colonel, with astonishing success, that Muntze committed high treason by negotiating a presurrender truce with the Resistance and that Nazi treason is a punishable offense under British military law.
The upshot: Muntze is executed by a Canadian firing squad that his ex-boss commands.
Stuffed with double agents, triple crosses, and more twists and turns than Lombard Street, this is the first movie that Verhoeven (whose cred its include RoboCop, Total Recall, and Basic Instinct) has filmed in his homeland since Soldier of Orange (1979) and The Fourth Man (1983). More like his Dutch than his American films, this satiric thriller deliberately, gleefully, blurs if not erases simple frames for good and evil. Oh, there are a few noble characters (they usually end up dead or ineffectual) and a few total pigs (most get theirs by the end too). But everyone else oscillates between moral poles, flawed and human, no better than they have to be and maybe worse, depending on circumstances.
The movie’s narrative frame heightens the open ended ironies. Black Book opens in 1956—the eve of the Suez Crisis—at an Israeli kibbutz built with the stolen Jewish money. It closes with a scene of Israeli soldiers deploying around the kibbutz’s cyclone fences and primitive rifle towers. In between, Rachel relives how she got there.
Van Houten’s intense, tightrope-walking performance in the lead role is a big reason this film snatched film festival awards.
The ensemble acting (most of the cast are Dutch stars) is spirited and tight. The cinematography is effortlessly brilliant. There’s enough humor along the way— ironic, subtle, and slapstick— to release the hair-trigger tensions. And the plot skate boards through its gyrations with such giddy, careening momentum that the film’s two and a half hours speed by as if it was half that long.
You’ll be pondering the tangled implications, though, long after the movie ends. Just ask the Dutch: the Netherlands Film Festival named Black Book a Golden Film, and it is the official Dutch nominee for the 2007 Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Originally published in the September 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.