BLACK BOOK - Blu-ray review

If you can get past the unevenness, the gratuitousness, and the slick surface of Black Book, Verhoeven's film is entertaining enough.

James Plath's picture

It's World War II, and in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands a Jewish singer has decided to work for the Dutch Resistance. She has personal reasons, as well as political. You see, she was among a boatload of Jews who left their Anne Frank hiding places and paid a man to transport them to safety. Moments after they were herded onboard, a German gunboat appeared out of nowhere and mowed them all down. Somehow she escaped and watched her family and the others slain from her hiding place in the reeds. She alone survived.

It's a powerful moment, and there are many such moments in "Black Book," which follows Rachel Stein (a.k.a. Ellis de Vries) as she infiltrates Nazi headquarters and uses her sexual charms to get close to top-ranking Germans like Franken (Waldemar Kobus), the man responsible for her family's death, and an SS officer named Muntze (Sebastian Koch, "The Lives of Others"), a "good" German to whom she's strangely attracted.

Over the course of the next 118 minutes, Rachel/Ellis (Carice van Houten) bounces back and forth between interacting with the heads of the Resistance--among them Dutch factory owner Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman)--and working underground as a spy. Along the way she becomes friends with a woman named Ronnie (Halina Reijn) and bares her breasts more times than a showgirl. Not coincidentally, perhaps, "Black Book" is directed by Paul Verhoeven ("Showgirls," "Starship Troopers," "Total Recall"). There's also plenty of footage of the Dutch Resistance fighters taking on the Nazis.

The look of this film, overall, comes very close to "Pearl Harbor." Though it was filmed mostly in the Netherlands and Germany, it has a Hollywood backlot feel to it, and a sheen and polish that smacks of Tinseltown. Example of a Hollywood moment? When a character says, "We'll never split up again, will we?" you know what's coming. Lines like that might as well be in Morse code, they're so telegraphic. And in terms of the overall tone and plot, one minute we feel as if we're watching "Cabaret," and the next minute it's "The Diary of Anne Frank" or "Schindler's List." The pacing and single plot thread, meanwhile, as we follow Rachel/Ellis on her sometimes wild ride, feels as episodic and serialized as "Raiders of the Lost Ark," with more gratuitous sex and nudity than the snakes that plagued Indiana Jones. Subplots? Character development? What are those? The focus is totally on Rachel/Ellis. It's her story, and as people come into and move out of her life, we follow along. Naturally there's a traitor-that much was all but guaranteed-and a German counterpart who learns Rachel's secret but refuses to turn her in.

In the commentary, the director said the screenplay was based on a real person and real incidents, and one element that he captured absolutely was the uncertainty of the age. Was so-and-so really a Resistance fighter, or playing both sides? Was such-and-such a person one who would turn you in for being Jewish? Verhoeven cultivates the pervasive paranoia and makes it palpably real, and that's perhaps one of the film's chief strengths. But "Black Book" could have been helped by developing subplots not related to the main character to add complexity.

Even so, Dutch actress Carice van Houten turns in a performance that, in a crossover film, should earn her more jobs acting in American films. She's surrounded by a cast that gives strong support, though it's hard to grasp on to anything of substance when the plot moves so quickly and we keep having Indiana Jones flashbacks. In one of the cheesiest scenes (and one that harkens back to Indy and "Pearl Harbor," we see Rachel/Ellis and her sailing beau against the backdrop of attacking planes. There's just something about the jauntiness juxtaposed against battle that seems "off."

Part of the problem is that Verhoeven has an odd way of undercutting his own narrative thrust because of an apparent love of titillation and excess. A bucket of feces dumped on a naked woman while others look on and laugh seems too "Carrie" a moment for a film that has, at its core, the nobility of human survival and the struggle to fight oppression. It's a distraction, not a complement to the film's main story. Whether it's gross-out moments like that or head-snapping little scenes that seem inserted just to snap the audiences heads--as when we watch Rachel/Ellis dye her pubic hair--it all seems too gratuitous and too deliberate.

Did I enjoy the film? Yes. But it felt so uneven that, even now, I have a hard time putting it into words. "Black Book" just felt as if it could have had more power had Verhoeven decided to focus on one tone and one effect, rather than attempting a film that combined action-thriller, social relevance, shock-value elements, and a character journey that feels near-epic. It's too much--though I'll be the first to admit that it pulls you along in the tradition of those old serials.

"Black Book" looks great in Blu-ray, with the 1080p Hi-Def picture presented in 2.35:1 widescreen. Colors are brilliant, black levels and level of detail superb.

The audio is a Dutch Dolby Digital 5.1 or a Dutch PCM uncompressed track, with subtitles in English, English SDH, French, Hindi, and Spanish. The pure sound has a good resonance, with equally good spread across the front speakers and good ambient sound coming from the rear-effect speakers.

Not much in the way of extras, just a commentary with the director and a making-of feature that's shot entirely in Dutch, with the talking heads (director included) given subtitles in English. Yet Verhoeven does the entire commentary in fluid English, and it turns out he's a fascinating man to listen to.

Bottom Line:
If you can get past the unevenness, the gratuitousness, and the slick surface of "Black Book," Verhoeven's film is entertaining enough. And performances by van Houten and Koch are worth watching.


Film Value