Carice van Houten and Derek DeLint in "Black Book"
It would have to a be Dutch filmmaker--Paul Verhoeven, to be specific--who could cast the Dutch in a less-than-heroic light for their role in World War II.
Not that everyone has delusions about Dutch heroism: yes, it was Dutch people who sheltered Anne Frank and her family, but it was also Dutch people who turned them in.
In "Black Book," Verhoeven, returning to his native land after a series of popular American flicks like "RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Starship Troopers" and "Basic Instinct," takes a critical glance at his fellow-countrymen's actions during the final months of the war. Many are heroes, and many who look like heroes turn out to be scum. In between, there's a sizeable gray area of people who are driven by opportunism or whose motives are mixed.
"Black Book"'s heroine is Rachel Stein (Dutch star Carice van Houten), later given the name Ellis de Vries to shield her Jewish identity. A successful singer, Ellis is being hidden by a farm family who require her to recite verses from the New Testament for her supper. When their farm is blown up while she's out relaxing by a canal, she's picked up by a young sailor and taken to the office of her family's lawyer, Mr. Smaal, who arranges for her to join her parents and brother and escape to safety. The lawyer notes the particulars in his little black book, which turns out to be significant. But the group is ambushed, and only Ellis escapes alive.
That's only the beginning of Ellis's adventures, which include being shut inside a coffin, working in a soup kitchen, joining the resistance, dyeing her hair blonde, seducing a Nazi officer, bugging Nazi headquarters… I could go on. "Black Book" falls somewhere between a serious wartime film and a pop entertainment that happens to be set in wartime. It's grim enough in parts to be the former: there's torture, there are executions, there's harsh justice dispensed by the eventually victorious Allies against Dutch collaborators.
On the other hand, the film bristles with howlers like "Franken will never take us alive--never," and "Follow me!" Does anyone really say "follow me"? Maybe it works better in Dutch. Anyway, blame screenwriter Gerard Soeteman.
There's also the "Is that a banana in your pocket?" moment when one of Ellis's lovers says, "It's my gun--what did you think?"
Ellis is an appealing heroine, but one who'd be more credible if she weren't portrayed as Wonder Woman. Take that bugged Nazi office. If someone handed me a microphone and said, "Here, plant this behind the portrait in Müntze's office," I'd stand there with my mouth open. But Ellis not only gets it in place seconds before the Nazis walk in, but also arranges (apparently) for perfect reception of vital secrets.
Hauptsturmbannführer Ludwig Müntze, the Nazi whom Ellis is sent to seduce, turns out to be a stamp-collecting softie whom she falls in love with. It doesn't hurt that Sebastian Koch, who plays Müntze, is a hunk, and that their love scenes are steamy. But how credible is it that he instantly trusts Ellis and employs her to help entertain the Nazi muckamucks at a Hitler's birthday celebration; or that, spotting her dark roots, he immediately deduces that she's really a Jew?
"Black Book" is as filled with double and triple crosses as--well, as "Basic Instinct," Verhoeven's 1992 thriller (written by Joe Esterhaz). It's entertaining but not a great addition to our understanding of WWII.
Rated R for some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language. 2 hours, 25 minutes.
- Renata Polt