Black Book (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

blackbook2If you go back to the films Paul Verhoeven made in his native Netherlands in the early '70s, you see that he is capable of turning out indisputably great films.





Most American cineastes under the age of 30 cringe at the name Paul Verhoeven, whose Hollywood films are usually so over-the-top bad that it seems reasonable for actors to not want to work with him for fear of having their careers ruined. (Showgirls? Hollow Man? Really?) Granted, he made some financially successful films in the late '80s and early '90s (Robocop, Basic Instinct, and Total Recall, to be specific), but I'm pretty sure most people wouldn't try to hard to argue that these are actually good films. However, if you go back to the films he made in his native Netherlands in the early '70s, you see that he is capable of turning out indisputably great films, most especially his 1973 film Turkish Delight. Now, with Black Book, he's made his first film in the Netherlands in a couple of decades, and while he shows that he still has it, he still is having trouble reaching the incredibly high bar he has set for himself.

Black Book to Verhoeven's career is sort of parallel to how The Pianist fits into Roman Polanski's career-they're both epic tales based on true stories of one person's survival against the backdrop of World War II, and while they both show the unmistakable hand of their respective brilliant directors, they're probably both a little too bogged down with Hollywood mentalities and tropes to allow themselves to be as great films as they could have been (on this front, there is a particularly glaring framing device in Black Book that hurts its credibility right from the start). Black Book focuses on Rachel (Carice van Houten, who is as much a find in international cinema as I have seen in the last few years), a Jewish girl who avoids the narrowly avoids the Nazis while alternately fleeing the country, hiding, and joining a resistance group and acting as a spy. During the latter phase of her involvement against the war, she hooks up with a Nazi officer named Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch, who we all know now from The Lives of Others), and finds herself in a precarious situation with how to handle him (and keep him in the dark about her motivations).

While Black Book goes a long way to remind the viewer of the talent Verhoeven possessed at one time (if for no other reason than that he seamlessly integrates some kinky sex and nudity into an otherwise sober and depressing film, which is probably the trait that got him the international renown he enjoys today), it doesn't quite feel like the comeback that it should. Regardless, it is a very good film that deserves to be seen (I'm very surprised it didn't get an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film), as it goes a long way towards erasing the memory of all of the cinematic travesties Verhoeven has unleashed upon us in the past few years, as well as introducing us to van Houten and Koch, who will hopefully become mainstays on the international film scene in the coming years. | Pete Timmermann 

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