Black Book (Verhoven, 2006)

Paul Verhoven still has some bite left after many years in Hollywood. Black Book, Verhoven’s latest film and first produced in his native Holland in almost three decades, is grand epic filmmaking, visually stimulating with Hollywood gloss but surprisingly subversive and brutal in tone and theme. Verhoven’s heroine, a Jewish woman named Rachel Stein, navigates WWII Holland with a keen eye for survival, first by escaping a mass execution by the SS (which included her whole family) and then becoming embroiled with the underground Dutch Resistance. Rachel cozies up with a Gestapo Officer, using her charms to earn a job in SS headquarters and be the eyes and ears for her new found allies. Rachel’s motives steam under the surface, her actions more pragmatic than vengeful. Verhoven uses Rachel as a window into the supposed valiant resistance fighters, masterfully revealing true and deceiving character traits as the plot twists and turns keep coming. Rachel’s journey is book-ended with segments from her life in the future, in 1956 Israel remembering back, yet Verhoven ends his film with a disquieting wide shot revealing the inevitable connections between Rachel’s past (the plot of the Black Book) and her future as a Jew in a different but equally restless land. Black Book uses a multitude of Hollywood story conventions, but it really transcends any easy comparison throughout it’s second half, when the affects of Post War life takes on a new and just as disturbing focus. Rachel states to her Nazi lover Muntze, “I never thought I’d dread the day of liberation.” Her allegiances have been muddled and her vision of good and evil blurred. Verhoven complicates even the most traditional characters and situations, enabling biting critiques of heroism, revenge, and greed to overwhelm a sometimes meandering overall story. Black Book is more thriller than war film, at least in the most basic sense, but has elements of suspense, action, and Noir in the mix as well. Rachel, with her dyed blonde hair, maneuvers from man to man attempting to find survival, but almost everyone becomes consumed by the image of her, not the reality, much like a Femme Fatale. Black Book falters only in it’s moments of weakness when it sometimes overlookes Rachel’s hypnotic undercurrents of fear and retribution for large scale melodrama. Yet it’s the personal moments between Rachel and Muntze which sum up Verhoven’s purpose – that good and evil blur into variations of the same human need for survival.

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