Black Book (Zwart Boek) (2006)
“What have I got to lose?” – Rachel
Paul Verhoeven has an interesting collection of films, with most venturing into sci fi (Total Recall, Robocop, Starship Troopers) to the sexually charged (Showgirls, Basic Instinct) and finally, surprisingly, Black Book, which is unlike any work he had done previously. He also contributed to the writing, his last being 1985’s Flesh and Blood. The theme, a Jewish woman walking a tight rope as a spy during the end of WWII, also strays from his past works, signifying this film as his masterpiece. Currently this is the last film he has made.
Verhoeven had returned to the Netherlands, his homeland, to make this film after 20 years in the US. He had been working on the script for about 15 years with his friend and co-writer Gerard Soeteman. Financing and health issues delayed the film’s shoot, but Verhoeven wouldn’t let this stop him to make his ultimate statement as a film director, a project he had been nuturing for several years.
The film centers around Rachel Stein, played impressively by Carice van Houten, as a Jewish Dutch singer during the end of the war. When her family is slaughtered during an escape to the liberated south, she joins with an underground resistance group, changing her identity, dyeing her hair blond, including a suprising scene where she paints her pubic hair blond as well. She then seduces a Nazi general and gains an inside position within the Nazi regime, playing a pivotal role as a spy.
The film then launches into a series of unexpected events, putting our heroine into several dangerous situations in which she handles herself gracefully and with a steely reserve. She easily flaunts her beauty and sexuality, a weapon served to gain her people’s freedom and escape. She’s thrusted into several roles and embraces each with realism and passion, from a gorgeous evening singer to a sultry sex object and finally a humiliated, disgraced refugee. Van Houten’s marvelous performance is gripping, stunning; a star making performance that propels the film forward to its stunning conclusion.
Verhoeven establishes a classic style of shooting within the film, using wide shots and easy to follow angles, simply trusting the action and characters to drive the story forward. He seems to be comfortable with his material, trusting himself, never rushing the pace or doing anything over the top for a simple audience reaction but to engage the audience with the truth of the moment. His trademark action sequences serve as perfect plot points, gripping and suprising us with each new twist. Some of these twists are pushing the limits of believability, but then again, this is the same man that brought us Showgirls and Starship Troopers.
This is a master, completely in focus with his craft, giving us a gift that he had worked so hard to create, involved personally with the screenplay, financing and direction, though, at the time he also battled health issues. Given the background of his previous films, it seems his plan was to hone his various talents making blockbusters to help finally produce and finance the film he was born to make, a work of art.
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Tags: Black Book, Carice van Houten, Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven