I will never forgive Paul Verhoeven for Showgirls. It just won't happen. But I'll pretend to forget he ever made it since seeing Zwartboek (Black Book to us Americans). I went into the theatre not knowing what to expect, and I came out truly satisfied. I may have enjoyed Total Recall and Starship Troopers, but Verhoeven has never really impressed me. Black Book, in comparison to Verhoeven's past works, is spectacular.
Carice van Houten plays Rachel, a Dutch Jewish woman who's in hiding during WWII. In a matter of days (and minutes in the first act of the film), Rachel's hiding place is bombed, her entire family is gunned down by Nazis, and she's taken in by a resistance group where she receives a new identity as Ellis. With her new identity and a strong will to survive, Ellis infiltrates a Nazi commune in order to save members of the resistance. At first, Ellis slips easily in and out of her role as the beautiful girlfriend of a Nazi officer, but quickly things begin to escalate and snowball. This is when the film got really interesting.
Not being a connoisseur of Dutch films, I recognized not one of the actors, and I was grateful. I always find recognition hampering the first time I see a film. An unknown cast always helps the story flow better for me. And boy, does this story flow! Even in the tender moments of sex or death, the beat is quick, the moment gone before you can savor it. This speed may be harrowing for some viewers, but I think it works. This movie is about a woman who will do anything to survive. Ellis has no time to enjoy life, and Verhoeven doesn't allow the audience the grace either.
Verhoeven isn't just going back to WWII with his story, he wants the whole film to travel back in time. The fast paced, forties-style storyline is complimented by a forties feel. Not just in dress and speech but in the entire look. The editing is simple, never flashy. The characters are saturated in color. The backgrounds stay muted and pristine, looking so perfect they could be painted. The camera movements are simple and never overshadow the performances.
Even though Black Book presents an entire package, the story is still the shining star. It may be advertised as a war drama, but there is a fair share of mystery. Most of the film is pretty straightforward, but about halfway through, a twist pops up...then another and another. Not the kind of twist that M. Night Shyamalan is so proud of, mind you. The kind of twist that makes you crave answers. Many questions are answered by the time the credits roll, but you'll walk out of the theatre with a handful more. You'll be left thinking about what you may have missed, wondering about the mysteries left unanswered, and trying to figure out when you can watch it again. And that, boys and girls, is the true beauty of this film.