Black Book (Zwartboek)
reviewed by Andrew James
Black Book takes place at the tail end of the war. The alliance is closing in on Berlin and Germany's other occupied territory. In Holland, a small resistance has formed to try their best at thwarting the Nazis whenever and wherever they can. Enter Rachel; a young Jewish woman in hiding whom makes the attempt at escaping to liberated territory only to have her entire family and other refugees gunned down before her eyes. Her only hope is the relative safety of this small resistance. Soon, she is neck deep within the Nazi ranks as a spy for the resistance; and often, she's more than over her head.
Rachel is played by the very fetching Carice van Houten. A relative unknown to western audiences and myself. Here is an actress of obvious talent that may have great things in front of her if discovered by a Hollwood agent (and assuming she can speak English). Her role in Black Book shudders with emotion and drama. Completely believable and with an equal amount of natural good looks and likability, she is most certainly an actress I'd like to see more of. Alongside a rather large cast, she is accompanied by The Lives of Others' star, Sebastian Koch. Together they fill an ensemble cast that is perfectly assembled and who all fit their roles like a glove.
Despite an excellent cast, wonderful storyline and arguably Verhoeven's best work from a technical standpoint, it isn't without its fair share of problems. One thing that bugged me was the obviousness to many things. I knew the bad guy the second I saw the character. We know traitors abound in almost every story of WWII, so when I laid my eyes upon this traitor, I knew it instantly; even though we're not supposed to know. This added to my overall frustration throughout the entire picture. On a personal note, I hate feeling frustrated in a movie. A bit of frustration or helplessness is normal at points, but to sit through an entire movie and seeing what lies ahead, it's always difficult for me; especially when the stakes are so high.
Also, the film is well over two hours. Not always a problem, but here I felt like some things could've been removed to speed up the story a little bit. Just a snip here and a snip there could shorten the movie by maybe 15 to 20 minutes. Although everything in the film happens for a reason, so it might be difficult to decide what to cut and what not to. So difficult in fact, that it's arguable that by cutting anything, you'll wreck some of the greatness of the movie.
Though there seem to be some slow points and the whole thing is terribly depressing (right down to the last shot), for the most part, we have an exciting picture with nail biting suspense with deeper meaning and poignancy. Compared to most Verhoeven films, the amount of violence is surprisingly downplayed. There's definitely some blood and death, but nothing over the top the likes of which you might find in RoboCop or Basic Instinct.
I can honestly recommend this film fairly highly if you can find it playing near you. It's suspenseful, original, exciting and acted beautifully by all involved. Not to mention the supreme realism of German occupied Holland of 1945. Everything from the costumes to the locales to the automobiles and props - it's nearly perfect in that regard. Although terribly depressing (almost to a fault) and a bit long, it should be more than enough to keep your attention and your heart pounding with sadness, anger, frustration and the need for vengeance.
IMDb profile - full cast and crew
FLIXSTER PROFILE for Black Book