The best guilty pleasure of the year, “Black Book” (aka. “Zwartboek”) looks like a real arty film at first glance – an English subtitled, Dutch-made feature about a Jewish singer in 1944 recruited to seduce a high-ranking SS officer and in the process falls for the man just as WW2 comes to a close.
What makes the film different is that it’s written and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the Dutch filmmaker behind such big budget US features as “Basic Instinct,” “Total Recall,” “Robocop” and even “Showgirls”. Thankfully this is a far cry from “Showgirls”, ‘Book’ reminds us of Verhoeven’s sheer strength as a filmmaker and combines it with material far weightier and more compelling than any of his previous work (even if those films have more replay value than this).
The production quality feels like a major Hollywood epic with lots of suspenseful escape and wartime action scenes to satisfy the blockbuster crowd. Yet the film never falls into conventional plotting, throwing in frequent surprise twists and remaining refreshingly frank and unapologetic about its portrayal of characters on both sides and what they do to survive.
Rather than the boastful buffoons seen in the likes of the “Indiana Jones” films, the Nazis in general are portrayed as a well organized and coldly efficient army who’re often a step ahead of our heroes, whilst Sebastian Koch as the subject the singer must seduce is a well fleshed out and at times sympathetic character. Some members of the allies as well, though noble, are daringly portrayed as either blindly stupid or wilfully traitorous.
Verhoeven gives us his trademark assertive heroine in the form of Carice von Houten who delivers a career-making performance up there with Sharon Stone in “Basic Instinct” or Sigourney Weaver in “Alien”. Kudos also to both of them for making her a smart and tough nut unafraid to use her sexuality as a means to an end, but at her core remaining a woman who is still emotionally impacted by what she does, though never letting it get in the way of what needs to be done.
Some have decried the film’s use of van Houten’s nudity as sexist when this is one of the few times its not only essential to the plot but is actually empowering – many American films could take lessons from this as to how to portray a fiercely intelligent and determined female character.
It does get dragged out for too long, and the framing device of telling most of the film as a flashback from the 1956 Suez Canal crisis robs it of some inherent suspense. Yet this is one of the more entertaining films I saw this year, certainly not as well made as Ang Lee’s similar but far more poetic “Lust, Caution” – but certainly more engaging.