Director: Paul Verhoeven | 138 minutes | thriller, war | Actors: Carice van Houten, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Sebastian Koch, Christian Berkel, Waldemar Kobus, Michiel Huisman, Derek de Lint, Peter Blok, Ronald Armbrust, Dolf de Vries, Diana Dobbelman, Matthias Schoenaerts, Xander Straat, Frank Lammers, Rixt Leddy, Lidewij Mahler, Pieter Tiddens, Gijs Naber, Dirk Zeelenberg, Michiel de Jong, Jobst Schnibbe, Boris Saran, Jack Vecht, Jacqueline Blom, Seth Kamphuijs, Herman Boerman, Reinier Mulder, Bert Luppes, Marisa Van Eyle, Heleen Mineur, Bas van der Horst, Janni Goslinga, Wimie Wilhelm, Theo Maassen, Tjebbo Gerritsma, Timothy Deenihan, Nolan Hemmings, Garrick Hagon, Ronald de Bruin, Menno van Beekum, Marcel Musters, Hugo Metsers, Rian Gerritsen, Susan Visser, Maiko Kemper, Carsten Sasse, Liza de Weerd, Willem de Wolf, Oded Menashe,
Finally he is there: the new, long-awaited Verhoeven. The first Dutch film by this director since he left for America in 1983, due to disappointing responses and the narrow film climate in the Netherlands, to spread his wings there. The screenplay for ‘Zwartboek’ has been under consideration for at least twenty years and has now finally been edited into a film, with a top cast and high “production values”. And, the film may have a distinctly local character, but it has international allure, not least because of the “event” that forms ‘Zwartboek’. The fact that this, now internationally known, director returns to his homeland after such a long time for a production that is close to his heart, makes the film a true “event”, which explains that the film has already been sold to more than fifty countries before its premiere. ‘Zwartboek’ will also be the Dutch entry for the 2007 Oscar ceremony.
According to Verhoeven, ‘Zwartboek’ should be seen as a correction to the heroic ‘Soldier of Orange’ in the sense that a more realistic approach has now been chosen. More shades of gray now, instead of a black and white approach where the good and bad are clearly defined. There are heroes who do questionable things and “bad guys” who are not as villainous as we would like them to be. The most valuable example of these nuances is the central relationship in ‘Zwartboek’, that between Carice van Houtens Rachel Stein and Sebastian Koch’s SD chief Müntze. It is here where the emotional and intellectual anchor lies, that the viewer has to withdraw into the story, and then never let go.
This succeeds to a large extent, and this is mainly due to the great Carice van Houten. She knows how to carry the film with verve on her fragile, shapely shoulders. This is truly the Carice show, and it only seems logical that ‘Zwartboek’ will signify her international breakthrough, even if this is a Dutch film. Her ability to convey subtle emotions through her face and her eye-catching beauty simply cannot go unnoticed by all those movie buffs and producers from all over the world who will be facing ‘Black Book’. She impresses on many occasions. Like in the scene in which she coldly seduces Müntze when he realizes her true identity as a Jewess. “Yes, und?” she says, after a short shock reaction, when Müntze suggests that she pretends to be different in order to survive, and then puts his hands on her breasts and asks: “Sind die Jüdisch?”. For a moment a shock passes through the viewer and everything seems to be lost, but Rachel knows how to skilfully adjust the situation to her will. Also in a scene in the train, in which she has to play Thom Hoffman’s fiancé, she manages to escape the Germans by thinking quickly, with a few talking glances between the two to conclude. But she also manages to convince in a violent emotional outburst towards the end of the film, as in various scenes in which she has to sing for the Nazis. For a moment a shock passes through the viewer and everything seems to be lost, but Rachel knows how to skilfully adjust the situation to her will. Also in a scene in the train, in which she has to play Thom Hoffman’s fiancé, she manages to escape the Germans by thinking quickly, with a few talking glances between the two to conclude. But she also manages to convince in a violent emotional outburst towards the end of the film, as in various scenes in which she has to sing for the Nazis. For a moment a shock passes through the viewer and everything seems to be lost, but Rachel knows how to skilfully adjust the situation to her will. Also in a scene in the train, in which she has to play Thom Hoffman’s fiancé, she manages to escape the Germans by thinking quickly, with a few talking glances between the two to conclude. But she also manages to convince in a violent emotional outburst towards the end of the film, as in various scenes in which she has to sing for the Nazis.
No, disappointments do not have to be found with Carice van Houten. It is mainly the script that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of emotional impact and compellingness. With ‘Zwartboek’, Verhoeven wanted to make a film that offers entertainment as well as shows a poignant and intense piece of historical drama, while the context reveals issues that have not really come to the fore before. However, the mixture of action, thriller, drama (on a personal and broader level), and humor is not always well balanced, and dilutes the mutual parts, which is most regrettable in the essential dramatic element of the film that focuses on Rachel’s personal dilemmas about her relationship with Müntze. Rachel’s inner conflict and the interesting dimensions within this relationship are not sufficiently elaborated for the viewer to empathize with the emotions involved. Difficult situations for Rachel, such as when she has to dictate the profiles of her captured resistance comrades, create painful moments on Rachel’s face. They make her difficult position beautifully clear and are important for the involvement of the spectator. The short scene in which Müntze talks about his own lost family and an interesting relationship develops between him and Rachel is also essential in this respect. These kinds of moments, which either show Rachel’s confrontation with her capacity as a resistance spy or show her ever-growing bond with Müntze, are not often present, however. so Rachel’s emotional outburst does not seem “deserved” later on. As a viewer you get the feeling that quite a few scenes have been cut from the film; scenes between Rachel and Müntze, but also moments of moral doubt or difficult decisions on Rachel’s side. This also means that Rachel’s remark that she is “afraid of liberation” because of her dealings with Müntze, her confrontation with cruel actions by Dutch citizens against (suspected) collaborators, and shows an actual humiliation scene in the film, are not as credible or intense. as they should have been.
Another related reason for the diminished involvement in Rachel’s situation is the externalization of her conflicts in the last act of the film. Around the time of the war’s end and the final decisive blows of our Resistance friends, Rachel flees from her former mates over a misunderstanding, and the film turns into an action thriller that too easily overlooks the real blame for Rachel’s behavior. and dealing with Müntze in favor of simple action and thriller mechanisms, in which chance encounters and discoveries reign supreme. This is unfortunate, especially since Van Houten is so good at communicating inner conflict and drama.
All of this results in just a solid screenplay that, however, could have been grand and compelling with a little more focus on character scenes and a more consistent dramatic tone. The action and thriller scenes, which mainly make their appearance in the last thirty minutes, are not very special and prevent ‘Zwartboek’ from retaining the strong, unique character that it shows in the first half of the film. The dialogue is sometimes a bit simple or obvious, and keeps the film from grandeur.
The production as a whole is very professional. There is atmospheric camera work and lighting, whereby the locations are effectively placed and characters are optimally framed. The camera (Verhoeven) is clearly in love with Van Houten, who gets beautiful close-ups and whose attractive (naked) body also regularly appears. But the villains also get their share. In an iconic introduction moment, SD officer Franken (Waldemar Kobus) is slowly portrayed from bottom to top as he lights a cigarette, complete with menacing, bombastic music. Here we already see that we are not just dealing with a serious drama, but that the tried-and-tested action movie laws are also applied. The locations are also nicely chosen, such as the streets of The Hague and Haarlem station.
The supporting actors are usually well cast, with an excellent Derek de Lint as the sympathetic communist Gerben Kuipers, who is one of the first persons within the resistance that Rachel is introduced to. Hoffman, although somewhat over-the-top, is a good combination with Van Houten, and is amusing as the somewhat wild, but accurate shooting resistance fighter. And it’s apparently so impressive that some Germans stand still, waiting for him to shoot them, like in a scene where our friends have just been surprised by a group of Germans. These sudden raids by the Nazis, which take place several times in the film, are always surprising and often particularly shocking in their violence. Usually such a situation takes place while a carefree conversation is taking place between two characters, so that you as a viewer do not think about possible danger. In this way Verhoeven knows how to surprise the viewer, together with the characters, in a very effective way.
Halina Reijn is good as the opportunistic loser, but has a role that is not very profound, just like most (side) roles by the way. Waldemar Kobus is a nicely wrong and repulsive bad guy, who especially beautifully depicts the contrast between his cruelty and ruthlessness in the “field” on the one hand, and his silliness in his private life on the other. When Rachel has to sing while he plays the piano, and we see him laughing sheepishly, it’s a world apart from the monster we met earlier in the movie. Christian Berkel perfectly plays the greatest Nazi villain in the film, SS General Käutner (in ‘Der Untergang’ he played a Nazi before, who was much more sympathetic than Käutner).
Although ‘Zwartboek’ has not become the masterpiece that everyone had hoped for and the gray shades intended by Verhoeven do not benefit the drama enough because they mainly serve as thriller twists in the story, it is a film that none of the makers envision. need to be ashamed. This – at seventeen million euros – most expensive Dutch film of all time is generally a fine example of film art and shows, in addition to an excellent Van Houten, a Verhoeven in excellent form. Let’s hope he decides to stay now, because this movie makes you hungry for more.