Black Book

Starring: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman and Halina Reijn
Tartan Video
RRP: 19.99
Certificate: 15
Available 30 April 2007

Whilst trying to flee Holland in 1944 Rachel Stein, a Jewish singer, and her family fall foul of the German occupational forces. Her family is killed and Rachel has to go into hiding. She is eventually recruited into the Dutch resistance and uses her, not inconsiderable, charms to seduce and sleep with Ludwig Muntze, a local SS officer. Although Rachel's dyed hair disguises her lineage, Muntze quickly discovers the ploy, but by that time the two are lovers for real. Overcoming prejudices of race and creed, Muntze uses his power to protect Rachel, but it's a protection which marks them both out for death...

Black Book (Zwartboek 2006) is the latest movie from director Paul Verhoeven and is written in collaboration with Gerard Soeteman, who has worked mainly in Dutch film and television. Verhoeven and Soeteman collaborated extensively in the mid seventies and eighties on films including as Flesh and Blood (1985), De Vierde Man (The 4th Man 1983) and Keetje Tippel (1975).

Generally Black Book was very well received, winning numerous awards - though as this is such a recent film it's bound to receive a few more. At seventeen million Euros it also holds the record for the most expensive Dutch film ever.

Anyone who is linking such a large amount of money with Verhoeven's name and expecting a CGI extravaganza on par with his Hollow Man (2000), Starship Troopers (1997) or RoboCop (1987) is going to be sorely disappointed. Like most Verhoeven films there is an exploration and depiction of sexuality, though not to the level of Basic Instinct (1992) or Showgirls (1995). The film most closely resembles Verhoeven's own Soldaat van Oranje (1977), which also examined the effects of the Nazi invasion of Holland. There is spectacle to be had, but at the heart of it is a much more personal film about the grey areas which war creates.

This is not an easy film to watch, as it examines the relationship between Rachel (Carice van Houten) and Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), one a Jewish girl working against the people who have slaughtered not only her family, but pretty much anyone who had tried to help her, and Muntze, an SS officer. It's a big hurdle to get over; that Rachel could move past the presumed hatred she had for everything German to fall in love with Muntze. But then this is the central exploration of the film.

Everyone loves to have their good guys in one box, far away from the bad guys in the other, but that's not really what happens. Collaboration in war is as much about love as it is the search for personal power or protection. Both van Houten and Koch are simply magnificent in this film, with performances that drag you by your nose past any problems of motivation. A less well-crafted film would have the couple walking off into the sunlight at the end; Verhoeven takes a more realistic viewpoint where actions continue to have consequences. So for Rachel and Muntze the end of the film is not the end of the danger. This takes you to the end of the film, which in its own way is both hopeful and sad. I won't spoil it by giving it away.

The film is presented in 2:35.1 aspect ratio with a nice selection of audio options of either stereo, 5.1 or DTS with subtitles. There is a nice selection of extras, with film notes, the original trailer and an interview with the director and the leading lady.

Overall, the film has all the Verhoeven hallmarks of stylishness and sexuality with a sympathetic look at the complications that war can bring to the human condition. And if that was not enough to whet your appetite it,s also one of the best war films produced for years.

Charles Packer

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