“One bottle of gin and the Resistance is ready to die”
Paul Verhoeven’s Zwartboek, known internationally as Black Book, was the Dutch director’s first film made in his home country since establishing his Hollywood career with hits such as Robocop, Total Recall and Basic Instinct, as well as the immortal classic that is Showgirls. Peter Bradshaw detested it but the Dutch public voted it the best Dutch film ever made, so who knows…for my part, I really rather enjoyed it.
Starting in 1944, Black Book tells of life in the Netherlands under Occupation, following the Jewish Rachel Stein as her life in hiding is shattered, her subsequent escape plans with her family foiled by discovery by the Nazis, and her ensuing life as a resistance fighter dogged by ever-present danger. Under the alias Ellis de Vries, she goes undercover at the local Gestapo office but betrayal is a constant worry and threatens to undermine all she’s working for.
Moving from Hollywood to The Hague tempered Verhoeven only a little as the film – as Bradshaw points out – does lack subtlety but for me, it is an effective thriller, racing through a collection of impressively tense set-pieces. It also essays an interesting take of moral equivalency in occupied Dutch society – where some sympathetic Nazis turn a blind eye to Jews and where some Dutchmen betray them terribly, these shades of grey work very effectively in keeping the film unpredictable.
Carice van Houten (best known as Game of Thrones’ Melisandre) is a compelling central presence as Rachel/Ellis, a former singer who has to draw on all her resources to survive day to day; Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Halina Reijn is vibrant as Ronnie, another Dutch girl working for the Nazis, Sebastian Koch’s Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze is perfectly coflictingly appealing, and there’s strong work too from Thom Hoffman as the Dutch Dr Akkermans.