A kibbutz in Israel, 1956, and a group of tourists arrive to take a look around; one of them hears children singing and peeks through the window of a schoolroom to snap a photograph. The teacher, Rachel (Carice van Houten), stops the singing and asks her not to, then to her surprise she recognises the tourist as someone she knew during the Second World War in Holland. They chat for a while, but after she leaves, Rachel remembers her time in Holland with mixed feelings, for throughout the conflict until 1944 she was a Jewish woman living in hiding with a Christian family who made her memorise parts of The Bible in return for her bed and board. That was how she passed her days, and was sunbathing by the lake in shelter of some reeds when she was surprised by a man sailing a yacht towards her. Getting over her shock proved difficult when this was followed by a damaged bomber in the sky dropping its load to keep aloft and destroying the farmhouse in the process - Rachel was now on the run...
At the time Black Book, or Zwartboek as it was originally known, was released it was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, and all the money was up there on the screen in a vivid recreation of the period. After making Hollow Man and being unsatisfied with the results, director Paul Verhoeven left Hollywood behind to return to the Netherlands and it took him quite some years to get this project off the ground, especially as the script, written with Gerard Soeteman, had taken a couple of decades to perfect. Yet it was worth the wait, as the result was a headlong plunge into adventure that took care not to gloss over the less admirable aspects of wartime, on both sides of the fighting.
Van Houten's lead character is certainly put through her trials, but endearingly Verhoeven and Soeteman are never in any doubt as to her heroism, even if her fellow characters are. At first, she hooks up with her family for the first time in ages with the promise of escaping to safety in Belgium, but it all goes horribly wrong on a riverboat with many other Jewish refugees when they are ambushed by the Nazis and all but Rachel are murdered. She dives into the water to get away, and is forced to join the Dutch Resistance to survive, dyeing her dark hair blonde (above and below) and changing her name to Ellis as a disguise while getting in deeper with supposed doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), although everyone keeps their true identities secret from one another in case they are captured.
When three of them are indeed captured, Rachel, who has become quite the glamourpuss, goes undercover at the local Gestapo headquarters working as secretary to and becoming the lover of officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who, in typical Verhoeven form, is a more sympathetic German than some of the Resistance fighters are sympathetic Dutch. The filmmakers' refusal to shy away from controversy makes the drama more vital, and enhances the thrill sequences of which there are many. There are still vile Nazis around, and they manage to turn Rachel's committed work in infiltrating them around so she becomes, mistakenly, a villain to the Resistance as well. Exhilarating as all this is, there's still the feeling that this is somehow a romp through World War II, and while the excellent van Houten gives us someone to cheer for, the surface gloss never puts you in any doubt that she'll make it out alive. The final image is still powerful, a reminder that war didn't end with the Second World one and the appetite for destruction continues unabated. Music by Anne Dudley.
[Tartan's Region 2 DVD has an interview with Verhoeven and another with van Houten as extras, along with a trailer.]
Verhoeven's sharp sense of humour tempers his over-the-top style, but he frequently sails too close to being ridiculous for many to take him seriously. The war drama Black Book, filmed in his native Holland, raised his standing once more, and his black comedy thriller Elle won great acclaim for star Isabelle Huppert.