In his first film since 2000's Hollow Man, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven escapes Hollywood to Holland for the WWII thriller Black Book. Ostensibly marrying the earthy grit of his early Dutch films to the slick sensibility of his American films, Verhoeven betrays which side wears the pants in his late-period aesthetic.
Resembling nothing so much as Raiders of the Lost Ark (were it unfortunately straightfaced and saddled with a B-movie score), Black Book is at heart a mechanical, mainstream action potboiler in which realism shall be no obstacle to a good plot twist. Nevertheless, Verhoeven's irrepressible, lurid physicality drags behind it a tendency to psychosocial critique, giving the film its distinctiveness. Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman share credit for a screenplay that gives its Jewish heroine Rachel (voluptuous Carice van Houten) nine lives to spend as a fugitive-turned-Resistance Mata Hari.
Operating under the non-Semitic pseudonym Ellis, our singing, dancing, running hero propels herself out of one scrape and into the next. After a highly unlikely escape from the mortal fate dealt to the rest of her family, "Ellis" spends the better part of the picture as the literally undercover paramour of an SS commandant (Sebastian Koch of The Lives of Others), for whom she falls; naturally, the sexually robust Verhoeven encourages us to enjoy her bountiful bosom in subversive contexts, culminating in a nasty assault on her naked form that makes Abu Ghraib look like a tea party. In the film's supreme irony, the snapshot joy of Liberation Day swiftly gives way to sins as reckless and dreadful as those during the occupation.
Verhoeven doles out his customary boobs, bombs, and blood, but the tension between thrills and serious consequences splits Black Book's difference. Just when you think there's no point in taking the Flying Dutchman seriously, Verhoeven gilds his willy with a coat of political commentary. The film's final shot expressly underlines a theme the film has had on its mind all along: the fine line between enemy combatants in a world he knows to be dog-eat-dog, a neverending Darwinian cycle of violence. The bad guys aren't all heartless monsters, and the good guys get their hands equally dirty. With that mature consideration, Verhoeven narrowly redeems his comic-strip adventure.
On Sony's special edition of Black Book, the film looks and sounds great, and it's accompanied by a special treat. No one does audio tracks like Paul Verhoeven, and here he is again to take us through the film with a screen-specific audio commentary explaining his personal connection to the material and his decades-long effort to bring it to the screen.
"Black Book: The Special" (25:17) rounds up Verhoeven, van Houten, writer Gerard Soeteman, producer San Fu Maltha, supervising art director Cornelia Ott, cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, art director Wilbert Van Dorp, extra Suzette van Boxtel, and actors Thom Hoffman, Derek de Lint, Sebastian Koch, Halina Reijn, and Waldemar Kobus for interviews interspersed with clips and generous behind-the-scenes footage that illuminates the film's production.
Rounding out the disc are previews for Molière, Interview, Youth Without Youth, The Lives of Others, Angel-A, Jindabyne, Paprika, Offside, The Valet, Driving Lessons, The Jane Austen Book Club, and Sleuth, as well as a promo for titles coming to Blu-Ray.
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