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April 13, 2007

Moviegoing: "Black Book"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A fast posting to take note of the fact that I enjoyed watching Paul Verhoeven's WWII thriller "Black Book," which is currently in theaters. The film centers on a Dutch-Jewish woman in the closing days of WWII, and is basically a thriller for adults. It has plenty of scares, surprises, twists, and chills, as well as a big cast of good guyz and bad guyz. But it has a surprising amount of depth, moral ambiguity, and complexity too.

The film is an interesting challenge to digest. My impression is that we're used to adult thrillers being low-key -- detailed, thoughtful, and novelistic. I wrote here about "Enigma," an excellent WWII thriller scripted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Michael Apted; it's very much in the quiet, literary mode. "Black Book" surprises because there's nothing bookish about it. Instead, it's done in Verhoeven's usual intense, melodramatic, movie-movie way.

This description may make the film sound less appetizing than it is, but Verhoeven -- a Dutchman who had worked in Hollywood for 20 years (often in action or sci-fi) before returning to the Netherlands to make "Black Book" -- seems to have wanted with this film to blend "Schindler's List" with a Garbo espionage thriller. It's like a Hollywood version of a large-scale foreign film, in other words.

Some people might wince -- and apparently some critics have, finding the film over-the-top, artificial, even laughable. FWIW, I thought the approach worked great, and the audience I saw the film with certainly wasn't cringing or protesting either. But I'm someone who doesn't find melodrama and movie-movie-ishness automatically crass or degrading.

"Black Book" is a very impressive production in terms of scale, costumes, design, and effects -- who knew that the Netherlands had the resources and the skill to pull this kind of Great Big Thing off? Mucho fabulous acting, especially from Carice van Houten, the foxy Dutch actress in the lead, who is phenomenal. She makes her character chipper, gallant, brave, bold, and earthy, but with a tremendous current of need and sadness underneath. (I used to date a lot of Jewish gals who fit that description.)

One hyper-minor cavil: Many of the film's props -- the trucks, clothes, and magazines -- look old. I know that there's a movie convention that films set in the past should be full of things that look old. It seems to help set a mood. But, y'know, back in March 1944 a March 1944 magazine didn't look yellowy and wrinkly; it looked bright, snappy, and new. I remember an interview with Robert Zemeckis about his movie "Back to the Future" where he said something similar. He said that one of the things he wanted to do in that film was to make sure that everything in the '50s scenes looked gleaming -- because on that day in the past, those things were gleaming and new.

But that's really of no importance. "Black Book" gets my enthusiastic thumbs-up. It'll make a fine DVD watch, but those in the mood for a movie theater experience this weekend might want to consider it. I for one was very happy I saw it in a theater. "Black Book" is a real movie, not some media-thing that's being hustled through theaters on its way to what it has really been optimized for, the home video screen.

Interesting to read on Wikipedia that "Black Book" was the most expensive Dutch movie ever made, and that it has been the most commercially successful Dutch movie ever too. A note for film maniacs: "Black Book" is very reminiscent of Verhoeven's early WWII film "Soldier of Orange"; Verhoeven even worked on "Black Book" with Gerard Soeteman, his "Soldier of Orange" screenwriter. When will "Soldier of Orange" be made available on DVD? It's an excellent movie too. Or is it available on DVD (here, here)? I can't tell.

I'm often a fan of Verhoeven's movies. I think "Basic Instinct" was tremendous -- no kidding, I really do. (Can you come up with better sex thrillers?) "Starship Troopers" also tickled my fancy. Although many Robert Heinlein fans despise the film, lovers of midnight-movie-style satire and outrageousness (that'd include me) get a big bang out of it. And I really, really love Verhoeven's early Dutch movie "The Fourth Man," a kinkily wicked, malicious, and ingrown bit of bisexual S&M sophistication that should delight those who recall fondly Nabokov's dirtier scenes.

Here's the official site for "Black Book." Emmanuel Levy talks to Carice Von Houten. You can enjoy the many moods of the beautiful and talented Carice on this slightly NSFW page. Daniel Robert Epstein talks to Paul Verhoeven about the film.



posted by Michael at April 13, 2007


What are the criteria for calling a movie the most succesful commercial film ever? Zwartboek got nowhere near the most viewers ever, even though it drew a substantial audience. It isn't the most profitable one, and it isn't the one with the most awards [several Dutch movies won an Oscar, Zwartboek didn't even get a nomination].

I call bullshit here. Or maybe: successful marketing by the producer, which often is the same thing.

As Verhoeven's movies go, this one wasn't his worst. Though the last hour had far too many plot changes, and therefor plot holes, to suspend my disbelieve.

However, should this movie have pictured a country that isn't mine, my verdict may have been different.

Posted by: ijsbrand on April 13, 2007 12:57 PM

I don't really know why so many sci-fi fans disliked "Starship Troopers" so much. It managed to make most of the same libertarian and pro-military points as the book, and as a nudist and believer in sexual freedom, I'll bet Heinlein would have liked what many detractors called the "soft-porn" aspects of the movie. Heinlein certainly never regarded his work as some holy canon, and was a good example of the sort of talented genre writer that so many 2 Blowhard readers admire.If nothing else, RH had a fine sense of humor - too bad so many of his fans don't. As for Verhoeven, I'll certainly see "Black Book" if only for Carice Von Houten.

Posted by: tschaferedu on April 13, 2007 1:09 PM

I love Paul Verhoven's movies too! At least Basic Instinct, which is one of the coolest sexiest works of art that I've ever seen. I think a work that truly shows off Sharon Stone's talents can be construed as a work of art. I also do not mind melodramatic visual images, and because of this review I'm seeing Black Book this weekend.

Posted by: David Brown on April 13, 2007 10:05 PM


Moral ambiguity is a good thing? That's a controversial position among many conservatives, isn't it.

This got me thinking about the Blue Dog Democrats and the political spectrum towards which we seem to be working our way. Blue Dogs are social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and political liberals. They're sometimes a swing vote between the Republicans and Democrats.

Your immigration ideas are conservative, and some of your philosophical ideas are conservative, although some that might be called conservative, like traditional art and architecture are increasingly coming to be non-political, not-conservative-only issues. Progressives are staking out positions on issues that conservatives had made theirs. Members of the Congress for the New Urbanism, for example, tend to be progressive Democrats who make traditional places, often with an emphasis on social diversity.

I'm not trying to pigeonhole you Michael. You present many conservative ideas here, obviously, and you also like sexual experimentation and moral ambiguity. (No?) What I'm saying is that we're moving away from the left-right, black-white positions that the Republican think tanks and voices like Fox and Limbaugh have tried to present, in which the Religious Right was often the moral voice of the movement. It's not clear how much you embrace conservatism, but it seems pretty clear Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell don't speak for you.


Posted by: john massengale on April 14, 2007 7:20 AM

At least part of the whole "pigeonholing" problem was the fact that, from about 1932 up until about 1992 or so, everything that could have been more accurately labelled "not in favor of or tending towards socialism" was branded "conservative" by liberals. In much the same way, (and during much of the same time) the entire non-Communist world was labelled "capitalist", including third-world kleptocracies and Islamic fundamentalist societies that had nothing to do with capitalism, properly described. Today, with the collapse of Communism, and the evident failure of socialism, this dichotomy is breaking down, and about time too. After all, why should a person's attitude toward big government or free-market economics have anything to do with their sexual attitudes, or taste in art? We've lived under the tyranny of binary thinking too long...

Posted by: tschafer on April 14, 2007 9:08 AM

I netflixed Soldier of Orange not that long ago, so at least it was available on DVD.

Much of Verhoeven's early dutch work is worth seeing. Along with The Fourth Man, I'd also recommend Turkish Delight and Spetters.

Posted by: Rick on April 16, 2007 10:02 AM

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