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Black Book

2006, 1920x1080

Carice van Houten

Halina Reijn

Scoop's notes:

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:

(7.88) - Soldaat van Oranje (1977)
(7.42) - Voorbij, voorbij (1979) (TV)
(7.28) - Vierde man, De (1983)
(7.09) - Turks fruit (1973)
(6.68) - Keetje Tippel (1975)
(6.59) - Spetters (1980)
(5.75) - Wat zien ik (1971)

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.

(7.40) - RoboCop (1987)
(7.30) - Total Recall (1990)
(6.80) - Starship Troopers (1997)
(6.80) - Basic Instinct (1992)
(5.30) - Hollow Man (2000)
(3.80) - Showgirls (1995)

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 Schindler’s 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.

Bad Actress

Beth Broderick is in her 50s in Bad Actress (2011) but still looks good naked.

Deborah S. Craig

and Whitney Able look good.


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