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?!).
Reader Feedback - 4 Comments
First of all, Ellis resurfaced after only 5 months, not years, and begins her Resistance work after one year of working for the vegetable company. Next, this was based on an actual story, and is not simply fiction, though fictionalized. I thoroughly agree with your assessment of the bucket of feces! Finally, Ellis is not shaving her pubic area, but is rather bleaching her normally black pubic hair, and this little bit of information plays a part when her Nazi lover discovers her black roots...of course, despite the pubic hair being blonde, he still recognizes her Jewish heritage. Despite all your negativity, I found the movie to be excellent, though disturbing. Being of Dutch heritage, I have a special interest in the setting, and the story portrayed, and I am well aware that there is nothing black or white about war, but rather multiple permutations of grey. I loved the movie and will promote it to friends and family. -A
A Visser on Apr 29, 2007
I completely disagree with your review and your rating of the film. This is truly the best film that Paul Verhoeven has ever made and he truly has redeemed himself for Showgirls. Read my review. http://napiersnews.blogspot.com/2007/06/black-book.html#links
Napier's News on Jun 21, 2007
I most certainly disagree with Mr. Wurst. Black book is one of the best movies that Paul Verhoeven made in his career.. I really don't see why there is a need to give that many negative comments, which are not even well motivated.. A taste is not to be doubted because everyone has a different taste, but this true bullshit! I loved the movie and would say: One to watch!
Maki on Aug 27, 2007
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Location J on Jun 5, 2010
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