Movie Review 2008 #7: Black Book

A foreign-language Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Starship Troopers, Basic Instinct) film telling the story of a Jewish woman trying to survive at the end of Nazi control of Holland in World War II. In Dutch, German and a bit of English.


Verhoeven’s penchants for violence and nudity are probably well known to anyone who has seen more than one of his films. In this film, they are in full force as he tells the story of Elle Van Stein, a Jew in hiding in Holland during the latter part of the Second World War. Normandy has already happened, and in fact Operation Market Garden has just failed.
And so, the Nazis are still in firm control, and its still very dangerous for Jews. So much so that Elle seeks escape from Holland, to liberated territories. Her attempt to do so with a group of fellow refugee disastrously fails, with the loss of her family in the process. The sole survivor, she finds her way to the Resistance, and even more so, comes to the attention of the German Gestapo, in the personage of Ludwig M√ľntze…
The movie has lots of violence, nudity, and brutality. Some of it is gratutious, another charge with some merit. Some people have argued that Verhoeven is misogynistic, and certainly Ellis (whose real name is Rachel) goes through many trials in an effort to survive. She winds up deeply embedded in both sides, juggling a double, even triple life.
However, with betrayals and the forthcoming liberation by the Allies, and framed as really working with the Nazis to kill her fellow Jews, Ellis soon winds up on the run as a fugitive, trying to find out the real betrayer…and survive.
The movie is not dull. When the movie seems to flag, an action scene, or a flash of nudity seem to be inserted just to make sure the audience keeps paying attention.
I think Verhoeven does a good job showing how complicated, for lack of a better term, life under Nazi occupation really could be, especially for someone having to live a double life like Ellis. I saw historical inaccuracies (especially on the timing of events as regard History) which are used for dramatic effect, perhaps. Still, these didn’t bother me overmuch.
Carice van Houten makes a sympathetic protagonist, and the rest of the cast, with which I am equally unfamiliar, do an equally good job. I liked the film, even given its faults.