Black Book

It’s interesting that, with the exception of Saving Private Ryan, it’s been some years since Hollywood threw its weight behind a truly powerful war film. Or, more likely, just came up with something that wasn’t all “war is hell” clichés. Fears that it meant we’re all suffering some sort of emotional fatigue can be put to rest by three films though, all with a foreign viewpoint. Pan’s Labyrinth, while ostensibly a sinister fantasy, was a breathtaking, stomach-wrenching look at the effects of war. The forthcoming Letters From Iwo Jima, Clint Eastwood’s deservedly Oscar-nominated sister film to the better-than-you’d-think-but- still-over-egged Flags of our Fathers, is another one. The final one is Black Book.

Simply put, Black Book — or Zwartboek, to give it the original Dutch title — is a masterpiece. If it had come out in 2006, it would have been the best film of 2006. And it’s very hard to imagine anything beating it in 2007. It’s thrilling, erotic, enraging, disturbing and proves that reports of Paul Verhoeven’s creative demise were premature. Yes, Showgirls stank like a sweaty stripper’s tassles; yes, Hollow Man was even worse. But this is a man of great vision and talent and in Black Book, he combines his grasp of action movies with a brain — he made Total Recall and RoboCop, don’t forget — and his ability to tell a story with intelligence and depth, such as Soldier of Orange or The Fourth Man.

A Jewish jazz singer Rachel Steinn (Carice Van Houten) is hiding from the Nazis. When her safe house is bombed, she arranges to cross to the liberated south of the Netherlands. However, a traitor has betrayed them, the boat is intercepted by a German patrol and the refugees — including Rachel’s parents and brother — are massacred. Rachel escapes, and is drawn into the Resistance. As Ellis de Vries she manages to work her way into the affections of a charming (andhuman) German officer, Müntze (Sebastian Koch). The two become lovers, a move encouraged by the Resistance, as Ellis goes to work in his office. As she becomes embroiled in the relationship and he finds his suspicions raised, her role with the Resistance increases. Yet the identity of that traitor is still to be found, putting all at risk – and ending with Eliis being framed for a disastrous mission that leaves many dead. As she fights to clear her name, life has a few more surprises in store for the resilient Ellis.

This is a fantastically involving film, that’s part moving political statement — the framing device of the Middle East conflict is particularly poignant — and part all-out rollicking yarn. Performances are excellent, particularly Koch, Verhoeven plays around neatly with audience sympathy — a sympathetic Nazi, a brash Resistance man, etc — and the twists and sense of justice are deeply satisfying. Slick, watchable but with an intelligence always lurking just below the surface, this is a genuinely great movie.

Stuart O'Connor is the Managing Editor of Screenjabber, the movie review website he co-founded with Neil Davey far too many years ago. He likes all genres, as long as the film is good (although he does enjoy the occasional bad "guilty pleasure"), and drinks way too much coffee.

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