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Movie Review: Black Book

Black Book (Zwartboek)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman
Sony Pictures Classics

Paul Verhoeven is an interesting director when he swerves into satire, as he did with RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers.  When he goes for drama, as he did with the sexually explicit Basic Instinct and Showgirls, I usually can’t take it very seriously, even when those kinds of movies have guilty pleasure written all over them.  And the less we say about Hollow Man, the better.

Black Book is Verhoeven’s first true attempt, probably since his days before he made his American splash with RoboCop, to make an honest drama (with a little nudity in it, but no supercharged sex scenes or heightened ridiculous situations).  He is working within foreign language cinema again with this movie, but why could I not get the Zucker Brothers’ Top Secret! out of my head?

Because it is one of those movies.  World War II.  Dutch Resistance instead of French Resistance.  The need to infiltrate the Germans and bring them down from the inside.  Am I wrong for expecting Val Kilmer to show up and sing a tune?

In Black Book, the Germans are stationed in Holland near the end of the war.  The Dutch Resistance wants to bring down Ludwig Muntze (The Lives of Others‘ Sebastian Koch) and they need the help of the Jewish Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) to use her body to get close to the man they think is responsible for the deaths of Jews and Dutch across the country, including her own family.

But Muntze is not really the bad guy here, and he quickly discovers that Rachel (now named Ellis de Vries) is Jewish, but he doesn’t care because he falls in love with her, and she with him.  The real bad guy is Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) who, with another man and a mole on the inside of the Dutch Resistance, has been stealing large sums of money from the fallen Jews.

So it becomes about the Dutch Resistance finding the right people to capture (or kill) and unknowingly playing into the hands of their mole. 

A more challenging and interesting picture would have been if Muntze really was a bad guy (maybe just not the right bad guy) and Rachel fell for him anyway, finding humanity even in the darkest of men.  Because that’s what undercover pictures are about: going so deeply into character that the brain and heart play tricks with emotion and rational thought.  It’s a work of fiction, although many of the events are based in reality, so I think Verhoeven could have run with it.

But I realize I should be grading this on what it is, rather than what it is not.  It’s a good drama, with some interesting plot developments, but it’s so routine.  Van Houten is luminous and commands the movie; I just wish she had a little more interesting of a character than this.  Koch is playing almost the same guy as he did in The Lives of Others: A man under suspicion who isn’t really the bad guy, but others around him are.

You can’t really go wrong with this, there’s nothing bad about it.  But if you’re looking for something a little different, this isn’t it.

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