Black Book

 (2006)

by Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

Paul Verhoeven has had two quite separate careers as a director. In the 1970s and early 80s, he made some generally excellent films in Dutch:

Many of those films touched on resonant themes and/or provided typically European transgressive content but, unlike many European directors, Verhoeven did not eschew comprehensible narratives, and he always stayed mindful that film is an entertainment medium first and foremost. His ability to make high quality films with commercial potential made him attractive to Hollywood, where he worked for about a decade and created some entertaining studio pictures.

With the possible exception of Hollow Man, each of those films is fun to watch. Even the much-denigrated Showgirls has some great entertainment value, sometimes in terms of unintended guffaws, but also in terms of what Verhoeven was trying to deliver. The film looks good. The nudity is gorgeous. The sleaze is sleazy, as it well should be. As for the top four on that list, I could pop any of them into my DVD player right now, and within ten minutes you would not be able to pull me away. Verhoeven is a good entertainer who tries to scope out what a film needs in order to work, then tries his best to deliver that.

In recent years he has come to feel that Hollywood has no more to offer him except large budgets, so he has migrated back to the Netherlands to go back to making the films he wants to make, perhaps in Dutch, and to take a larger role in choosing the projects and writing the scripts with his former collaborator Gerard Soeteman. Not surprisingly, the first major effort, Black Book, was themed similarly to his best early film, Soldier of Orange. Both Black Book and Soldier of Orange are films about the Dutch resistance in WW2. Both films combine sex and small personal stories inside the greater theme of defeating the Nazis. In many ways Black Book is the more complicated of the two films, because it doesn't draw a solid line between Germans and Dutch, with evil ending on one side of the line.

Black Book is filled with duplicity. There are Nazis who double-cross other Nazis for wealth and power. There are Dutch resistance fighters who double-cross their colleagues for the same sorts of opportunistic reasons. There is a Nazi who seems like a genuinely decent human being. There are Dutchmen who seem like total asses. All of this provides complex characterization and a rich environment for intrigue, but it also creates a tremendously intricate web of plots and counter-plots which I didn't always follow. Imagine that the Dutch always know what the Germans are planning because they have planted a microphone in the German HQ, but then imagine that the Germans know the mike is there and act disingenuously in front of it. Then imagine that the Dutch traitor who told the Germans about the mike knows that they know, and knows they are providing disinformation, but uses that knowledge for his own personal post-war fortune, owing allegiance to neither side. Finally, imagine that you don't really know all of those things until they are revealed in the story, and even then you're not sure which Germans and which Dutchmen are co-operating until the last veil is removed. Even after watching the film a second time I was still unclear on some of the details.

All of those machinations provide a steady nail-biting level of suspense and mystery, and the film even includes some music and romance, but Verhoeven doesn't shy away from the real tragedies of the war. He just works them into the story. During the war there are rich Dutch Jews slaughtered for their wealth, mowed down by a combination of Dutch traitors and rogue Nazis. After the war there are collaborators bathed in shit by their own countrymen, and feckless Allied administrators who make poor decisions with fatal consequences. Along the way there are sympathetic characters mowed down by machine gun bullets and tortured by the SS, as well as people killed by bombs dropped in error, and numerous other tragedies of war.

You should not expect this film to be part of a smooth continuum with Verhoeven's early Dutch films. It is very much a slick Hollywood-style film, except for the extensive nudity. The budget was $22 million, but it looks bigger. And it's not a heavy-handed or preachy film. In terms of combining romance and entertainment with tragedy and stirring themes, Black Book might be fairly called the Dutch Casablanca. And considering how much I love Casablanca, I do not make that comparison lightly. Of course, the tragedy of war is portrayed more graphically and in more accurate detail in 2006 than it was in Casablanca's time, given the new levels of film technology and the public's current level of tolerance for extreme sex and violence, so this film is more realistic, less romantic than Casablanca, but given the differences in time and place, the comparison is not unwarranted. Good characters, good story, important ideas.

I shouldn't leave you with the impression that this film is flawless. Perhaps it should have been, with a little more effort, but Verhoeven and his co-author got some period details wrong. In terms of anachronisms, there are modern-style toilet paper dispensers, electric trains, bikes with rubber tires, and sheep in the fields, all details which don't correspond to the reality of the Netherlands in the winter of 1944 and spring of 1945. But in the context of what the film does accomplish, those are small matters.

Not everyone admired the film. The New York Post wrote, "On the one hand, Black Book has the artiness of subtitles, the dramatic weight of history, and the desperate heroics of Jews hiding from Nazis. On the other hand, it has Paul Verhoeven." The New Yorker wrote: "This is trash pretending to serve the cause of history: a Dirty Dozen knockoff with one eye on Schindlerís List."

Fair enough. Accurate statements.

Except that's what I liked about the film!

The film fails neither to honor history's heroes nor mourn its incalculable losses, but it remembers to tell a story in an entertaining, engaging way. Personally, I do not see that as a negative. There are intrigues and romances and good yarns which can lighten even the darkest of times, and we need not always dwell entirely on the darkness. (Nor does Schindler's List do so.) Politics and greed and love and the minor struggles of life always continue inside the greater ones. Even if you do see the "Dirty Dozen meets Schindler's List" aspect in a negative light, you should find your distaste largely offset by the very strong female lead (one of the greatest roles ever written for a woman), and the film's stubborn unwillingness to fall into the "black vs. white" view of history.

DVD INFO

* widescreen anamorphic, 2.35:1

* commentary by Paul Verhoeven in English

 

THE CRITICS AND ACADEMIES

3.5 James Berardinelli (of 4 stars)
73 British Consensus  (of 100)
77 Rotten Tomatoes  (% positive)
71 Metacritic.com (of 100)

 

 

 

 

THE PEOPLE

   
8.1 IMDB summary (of 10)
B Yahoo Movies

 

 

 

 

 

THE BOX OFFICE

Box Office Mojo. It grossed more than four million dollars in the USA, which is damned good for 193 theaters. It grossed $23 internationally. It was a monster hit in The Netherlands, grossing more than nine million dollars. It opened at #1 and held the #1 spot for seven consecutive weeks - longer than Pirates 2!!  (Pirates grossed $13 million, to establish a benchmark.)

The population of the Netherlands is about 1/19th that of the United Sates, so nine million dollars is equivalent to more than $150 million stateside.

 

 

 

 

NUDITY REPORT

  • Halina Reijn - breasts
  • Carice van Houten: breasts, buns, and brief pubes.
  • Miscellaneous breasts in a group strip.
  • Waldemar Kobus - full frontal and rear nudity (and not a pretty sight)

 

 

 

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Our Grade:

If you are not familiar with our grading system, you need to read the explanation, because the grading is not linear. For example, by our definition, a C is solid and a C+ is a VERY good movie. There are very few Bs and As. Based on our descriptive system, this film is a:

B/C+

If this film were in English I would certainly grade it a B and recommend it to everyone.

Call it a B if you speak Dutch, because it was a mammoth commercial hit in that country, and was a critical success everywhere.

Given that it is in Dutch and German (except for a few lines in English and Hebrew), I have to concede that some people just hate subtitles and would not see it under any circumstances, and that others would be offended by the sex and nudity or the unlikely combination of holocaust and entertainment.

Call it a very high C+ for non-Dutch speakers, but a film that I watched enrapt for its two and a half hour running time.