Finally, a movie to write home about.
Yes, I’ve seen some good movies this year, but none that have lit my fire, so to speak. But along comes “Black Book,” a Dutch film by Paul Verhoeven set in The Netherlands during the last year of World War II.
After some time spent in 1950s Israel, “Black Book” kicks into gear with a Jewish woman (Carice van Houten) hiding on a farm. Somewhat haphazardly, the farm is bombed and her cover is blown; she runs off with a sailor, but a man from the Resistance tells her the Gestapo knows where she is, and he can get her and her sailor to Belgium ( and safety) on a boat.
But betrayal hits our heroine, as the boat is swarmed by Nazi’s and every passenger, including her parents and her brother, are gunned down, she manages to escape. After some help from a kind stranger, she heads to The Hague for a new name, Ellis, and to join the Resistance, lead by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and crack shot Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) and to help where she can.
And does she ever. After a chance encounter on a train, she begins dating SS officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch) and trying both to keep her cover and help her friends locked in the basement cells. That’s a lot of plot, and there is plenty more coming, but I’m stopping here. One of the joys of “Black Book” is watching the plot enfold and being lost in the same minefield that Ellis is in. Every step, every move can (and does) go wrong because one person betrays them, or doesn’t shoot straight, or trusts the wrong person to do the right thing, etc.
In the middle of all this life-and-death intrigue are Ellis and Muntze; he discovers her secret their first night together, but doesn’t turn her in. In turn, she discovers another that has lost everything in this war. Their bond might not be love, but need; Ellis acts as Muntze’s way back to the human race, and he is her hope for the future, that this war will end and she won’t turn to stone. Koch and van Houten give their all to these delicate scenes and show through their characters’ masks the complexity and longing at the heart of their romantic entanglement.
A Nazi officer who turns out to be not such a bad guy is quite a risky move for a WWII drama, but its Verhoeven and fellow screenwriter Gerard Soeteman’s dedication to ambiguity that keeps this melodramatic setup from coming apart. There are no saints to be found in “Black Book,” and both sides are guilty of being human, equal parts reprehensible and benevolent.
The only gray (not black) mark I can give to “Black Book” is the twist ending, seemingly ubiquitous in all movies nowadays. But again, credit to the screenwriters for setting up the twist beforehand; it doesn’t come out of nowhere, but that cinematic device is seriously getting on my nerves. A rant for another day, but fortunately, “Black Book” doesn’t fall into that trap; the real surprise ending is that for our heroine, the war never stops, just like real life. Catch it if you can.
And while I don’t usually this, I also want to recommend “The Lives of Others,” the 2007 Best Foreign Language Film, as something of a companion piece to “Black Book.” Yes, other than Sebastian Koch’s presence in both films, they have nothing in common, but after seeing them within days of each other, the two have haunted me like no other films in a long while. They’re linked for me, and I love them more for it.
“Black Book” (2006)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written Gerard Soeteman and Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice van Houten (Ellis/Rachel)
Thom Hoffman (Hans Akkermans)
Derek de Lint (Gerben Kuipers)
Sebastian Koch (Muntze)