Black Book, or in the original Dutch Zwartboek, was considered by many at the time to be a return to form for director Paul Verhoeven after the very unfavourably reviewed big-budget Hollywood film Hollow Man. Verhoeven’s last Hollywood film may have its own charms as a darker look at what some men would do if they could become the invisible man, but its constant rapes would not go down well in Hollywood post-#MeToo—even though his latest film, the French Elle, was a pitch-black comedy about a woman who gets raped, it did seem to escape much of the backlash. Verhoeven has almost always had brutal rape scenes in his films, from his early Dutch movies to now.
Here, Verhoeven ditches the shocks that punctuate many of his films have to go back to Holland under German control, as he did in his most popular Dutch film Soldier of Orange (which is routinely called the greatest Dutch film ever made). Black Book can certainly be seen a companion piece to that film. However, he decides to switch the gender of his protagonist to focus on a Dutch-Jewish woman, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), who is captured by the occupying forces. She eventually escapes and joins the resistance and eventually can infiltrate the German service services by using her sexuality to seduce the senior office, which is a totally Verhoeven story. It’s all set during the final months of the war before the Americans and Canadians come in to liberate the Dutch.
It’s a gorgeously designed film with perfect period detail. Verhoeven with his screenwriter Gerard Soeteman had been working on versions of the script off and on since their Soldier of Orange days, so they had plenty of time to research the era. Unlike Soldier of Orange, which is a more black and white take on the war, everybody is painted with shades of grey, with no real heroics. The film really hinges on the performance of Carice van Houten, who was still a rising star in the Netherlands at the time. Verhoeven wasn’t even sure about her initially, he had only seen her in the cat-themed comedy Miss Minous. However, he was blown away by her audition, and it’s the film that gave her a career in Game of Thrones and many Hollywood films since. She is brilliant as well—you can totally get why all these Nazis would fall under her spell. The rest of the cast is a mixture of mostly Dutch and some German actors who you’ve all seen before in either well-known Dutch films or American films.
Black Book is definitely one of Verhoeven’s very best films, although a couple of his American films have the edge, and maybe Soldier of Orange as well. It almost seems one of the last epic WW2 films without too much reliance on CGI: there is a scene in The Hague with 1,200 extras alone. I would even go as far as to say it’s one of the best war films of the new millennium. Sadly, Verhoeven wouldn’t make another film (except the 55-minute Tricked, which got little to no distribution) until he made Elle, which became a showstopper at many a festival. I luckily got to interview the man when it came out.
The disc includes an excellent interview with Verhoeven, which covers a lot of ground in its 30-minute running time. The cinematographer, Karl Walter Lindenlaud, also was interviewed specifically for this new release. The rest of the on-disc features include archival interviews with Verhoeven and Houten and the trailer. The booklet that comes with the limited edition includes a new essay on the film and one on the scores for Verhoeven films.