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BLACK BOOK

Director: PAUL VERHOEVEN

NETHERLANDS-U.K.-GERMANY-BELGIUM| 2006. SUBTITLED. COLOUR. ANAMORPHIC. DOLBY DIGITAL STEREO. 145 MIN.


Old fashioned in its storytelling style, yet ultra-modern in its ironic muddying of the moral waters, this is the first film Dutch-born director Paul Verhoeven has made his native country for more than two decades. Skilfully scripted by his long-time collaborator Gerard Soeteman (‘The Fourth Man’), it’s a handsomely mounted World War II drama, but with a twist.

Paced like a Hollywood thriller—with switch-back plotting, surprise betrayals, gun-play and explosive action—it also features some unusually complex characterisation. And running through the warp and weft of the narrative is an unsettling degree of moral ambiguity: there are no squeaky-clean heroes, cardboard villains or clear-cut motives here.

Forced out of hiding when her rural refuge is blown to smithereens and her fleeing Jewish family is wiped out during a Nazi ambush, nightclub singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) adopts the pseudonym Ellis de Vries, dyes her hair blonde, and joins the Dutch resistance. A chance meeting with handsome Gestapo chief Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch) turns her into a latter-day Mata Hari. Soon she has access to his bed, his social circle and his workplace. This last proves particularly useful when an operation involving smuggled guns goes drastically wrong, and resistance leader Gerben Kuipers’ son is taken prisoner.

Verhoeven combines high-gloss production values, melodramatic romance and tough action with a provocative examination of the vagaries of loyalty and betrayal. Sex and guilt loom large, not least in the increasingly tender scenes involving Ellis and her Nazi lover. But a craving for power and an instinct for survival loom even larger.—Nigel Floyd.

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