Before coming to Hollywood, Paul Verhoeven had directed a number of films in his native Netherlands, including the excellent Soldier of Orange. In Hollywood, his first film was the sleeper hit of 1987, Robocop. After doing the Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller Total Recall (in which Arnold almost gets beaten up by Sharon Stone), he had his biggest hit with the psycho-sexual mystery Basic Instinct. His movies were notable for pushing the boundaries of violence, as well as of sex and nudity, as with Instinct’s iconic interrogation scene. In his next movie, the boundaries pushed back. Showgirls was an over-the-top mess with more nudity than a high school shower room, though without that level of sophistication. It derailed his career, turning him into a joke in Hollywood. Verhoeven made two more movies stateside – the underappreciated sci-fi satire, Starship Troopers, and an update of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man, Hollow Man. Neither was successful, and Verhoeven returned to Europe.
Six years after Hollow Man, he released the wonderful Black Book. Set during the last year of WWII, it’s a Résistance thriller with a corkscrew of a plot. At any moment in the film, you’re never sure who is friend and who is foe, who is good and who is evil.
The movie begins in Israel in 1956 with a tourist group visiting a kibbutz. A woman on the tour recognizes the teacher in a school room as a person she knew in Holland during the war. While the visit is friendly, it awakens in the teacher memories of all she went through during the last year of the war.
Jump back to Summer 1944. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) had been a cabaret singer in Germany until she was forced to flee to her native Holland because of the repression of the Jews. Since the 1940 invasion, she’d been hiding with a Christian farm family. On a beautiful day when she’s catching sun by the lake – and flirting with a passing sailor – her hiding place is destroyed when a damaged B-17 accidentally bombs the farmhouse. The sailor gets her safely away, but not cleanly. A representative of the Résistance, Van Gein (Peter Blok) comes to the sailor’s house to warn them his boat was recognized and the Gestapo is searching for them. Rachel begs the man to help them escape. He offers to arrange transport to the Allied lines, but tells Rachel she’ll need money. Rachel visits her family’s banker, Wim Smaal (Dolf de Vries) to get funds. When she and the sailor join the fleeing group, she’s surprised to find her parents and brother among them. They’re loaded onto a river barge to sail to the Allies, but the barge is ambushed by the SS who machine gun the group. Rachel dives into the water and hides. From her vantage point, she watches as the Nazi troops under the command of SS Obersturmfuhrer Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) loot the bodies of the gold, diamonds and money they were carrying.
Rachel is given a new identity by the Résistance – Ellis de Vries – and dyes her hair blond. She works for a couple of months in a soup kitchen run by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), who is the head of the Résistance in Amsterdam. Kuipers recruits her to help with a supply drop by the Allies and with transporting some of the supplies back to Amsterdam. For a train trip, she acts as the girlfriend of Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), who was a doctor before the war but now is focused on killing Germans. When a search by the Gestapo almost catches them with their contraband, Ellis improvises and ends up sharing a compartment with SS Captain Ludwig Muntze, who’s been put in charge of the SS in Amsterdam. The rest of the contraband, a shipment of guns, is being transported by truck back to the soup kitchen, but an accident leads to its discovery by the police and the arrest of three people, including Kuipers’ son. Kuipers asks Ellis to infiltrate the SS headquarters to facilitate a rescue, using Muntze as her entrée into that world.
Less you think I’ve shared too much plot, that’s about the first quarter of the movie. The film moves at a breakneck pace that never lags, even at a length of almost 2 ½ hours, and the final twist is revealed in the very last shot. You should be warned that there is a fair amount of both nudity and violence in the film, though it is all dictated by the plot of the story.
Carice van Houten is mesmerizing in the difficult role of Rachel/Ellis, even doing her own singing. Sebastian Koch brings to the role of Muntze humaneness during an inhumane war. Particularly outstanding is Halina Reijn as Franken’s secretary and mistress, a happy-go-lucky spirit that masks a deep soul.
The attention to detail in the production is exacting, right down to the wartime license plates on the vehicles. The film cost about $20 million to make, but it looks like a Hollywood movie that what would have cost $100 million. Another production value is the dialogue, as the film was shot in Dutch, German, English and Hebrew: the characters speak the appropriate language for the location or situation.
The movie is as much a mystery/thriller as a war film. If you like either of those genres, you’ll enjoy Black Book.