Paul Verhoeven's Black Book Reviewed
by Barry Wurst
April 23, 2007
Paul Verhoeven's first film in seven years to be released in America (after playing to blockbuster business overseas last year) is, unfortunately, a big disappointment. Set during WWII at the rise of Nazism, Carice van Houten stars as a Jewish girl in hiding who witnesses and escapes a horrific war crime, only to resurface with a new identity years later in order to seek revenge on the Nazi party. The story, a cross between Notorious and The Diary of Anne Frank, with a big dose of Verhoevian excess, is elaborate and expansive; the former aspect is an asset, as the characters have depth and interest, but the latter quality is one of the film's biggest flaws. Verhoeven has made long films before, but never one this overextended. This is one of those films where you wonder when it will ever end, as the story has so many climaxes but still keeps going and going. The framing device that bookends the film doesn't help, either - it simply illustrates how long the film took to get from one end of the story to the other without any emotional resonance.
The biggest problem with the movie is that you're always aware that it is just that: a movie. Everything is so familiar, so cinematic, and so over the top, nothing feels entirely real. The ample explosions and gunplay, which are graphically depicted, are reminders of Verhoeven's tendency for ultra-violence and don't garner a fresh response. Even if you've never seen a Verhoeven film before, there's little here that you haven't seen in a WWII drama before, except for some typically outrageous moments, like the many sprinkled throughout Verhoeven's body of work. The film's low point begins with an unnecessary close-up of a large bucket, full of urine and feces. Only a minute or so passes before the heroine finds the contents of the bucket dumped all over her; it is truly a grotesque, needless scene. There's also some eyebrow raising moments of nudity - a male soldier lets his genitals dangle in one showy moment and another character shaves her pubic area on camera. These moments have nothing to do with the story, but are examples of Verhoeven's crass fearlessness in depicting showy, unblinking sexuality in film. Here in Black Book it adds little to the film, except for keeping the audience awake.
Van Houten's performance is excellent and the audience is in her corner through the entire film, even as her motivations become questionable. There are some moments of suspense that are nicely done (like when van Houten must escape her captor, who has tricked her into taking a poisonous drug) but little of the film is exciting, only passable. While well made and acted and certainly containing more ambitious subject matter than his last few films, this is Verhoeven's biggest disappointment since Flesh + Blood (you thought I'd say Showgirls, but really, what kind of expectations did you think I had for that one?!).