During his 50th birthday party thrown by his wife, Remco's life takes a turn for the worse. His business partners are scheming behind his back to sell him out and his former mistress shows up pregnant.
Israel 1956. Rachel, a Jew, rather unexpectedly meets an old friend at the kibbutz where she is working as a teacher. It brings back memories of her experiences in The Netherlands during the war, memories of betrayal. September 1944. Rachel is in trouble when her hiding place is bombed by allied troops. She gets in contact with a man from the resistance and joins a group of Jews who are to be smuggled across the Biesbosch by boat to the freed South Netherlands. Germans from a patrol boat murder them all however. Only Rachel is able to escape. She is rescued by a resistance group under the leadership of Gerben Kuipers. When Kuipers' son is captured after trying to smuggle weapons, he asks Rachel to seduce SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze. Soon she will find out the attack in the Biesbosch wasn't a coincidence.Written by
Arnoud Tiele (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Director Paul Verhoeven's self-confessed aim is to combine art and business, appeal to a broad audience, and yet still have some endurance. The fame of films like Basic Instinct and Total Recall is lasting, yet they court criticism with their use of sexuality or by playing to the (easily dismissible) sci-fi genre. Graphic sex and violence are common in his movies and, when you add the occasional major flop such as Showgirls, the work of Verhoeven often fails to be taken seriously. Yet Black Book deserves respect. It is a wartime resistance movie on an epic scale, freed of the conventions of British and American war movies, yet bringing their typically high production values to a uniquely Dutch film.
Israel 1956. A Holy Land Tours bus stops off at a Kibbutz. One of the passengers recognises a teacher there, Rachel, from times they had shared during the war. As her friend leaves, Rachel thinks back to Holland in 1944. She was an accomplished cabaret singer but also Jewish. She was in hiding, waiting for the war to end. But chance misfortune means she has to try to make a getaway with some other Jewish people. They are ambushed, and she is almost shot. A little later she starts working for the resistance ('terrorists' as the Nazis call them) and infiltrates the Gestapo, seducing a high ranking officer called Muntze.
What follows is a frantic game of cat and mouse, espionage and counter-espionage. Rachel (now called Ellis) is torn between the horrors inflicted on her friends close-by and the elaborate deceits she tries to play to save them. Gradually it becomes clear that Muntze, anticipating the end of the war, is risking his neck to try to minimize death and suffering on both sides, and one or more of the resistance fighters is selling out to the Nazis to reap rich profits. Muntze, like Rachel, has had to overcome great losses. Their humanity is a bridge that brings them closer.
Rachel/Ellis is played by Carice van Houten, a leading actress of the Dutch screen. Her presence is luminous and charismatic (for British/American audiences, there is the curious sensation of watching someone unknown who radiates star quality with every breath). Her character has to adapt to many contrasting situations yet there is an underlying determination and fast thinking that shines through and makes such changes seem in character and unscripted. We share her emotional struggle and watch her pit her wits against the Gestapo (who are not exactly stupid). The movie is worth seeing for her performance alone.
On the one hand, the film has been minutely researched, based on actual events and characters; on the other it still has the slightly larger than life gloss we might associate, say, with a James Bond film. The escapes are in the nick of time, the sex scenes are steamy, and the plot twists increase exponentially as we get closer to the end.
Not content to portray the unique conditions of Holland during the occupation, Black Book goes on to catalogue post war atrocities and Rachel's eventual journey to Israel. The style and delivery will not appeal to everyone, but Black Book is Verhoeven on top form, delivering grand entertainment that shows his talents (and those of the remarkable Carice van Houten) at their finest.
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