Lord. The Holocaust was messed-up.
After just barely escaping her death, young Rachel Rosenthal (Carice van Houten) goes on the run from the Nazis during WWII and soon realizes that it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to stay alive when literally everyone you know is either dead, or missing. That’s why Rachel decides that it’s best on her to become a part of the Jewish resistance and going undercover, assuming the name Ellis de Vries. One of her first and perhaps, most important mission, is to seduce a Gestapo officer named Ludwig (Sebastian Koch), someone who is dangerous and possibly maniacal, as most Nazis at that time were. While Rachel/Ellis is perfectly fine with carrying out the mission, taking down the Nazis and assuring that no more Jews are wrongfully killed, she also can’t help but bring herself to feel a little something for Ludwig who, over time, turns out to be a whole lot sweeter and kinder than she ever expected. Now, Rachel/Ellis is left to think fast about what she wants to do: Either accept the Nazi and not kill him, therefore, risking the Resistance’s plan, or taking him out and achieving what she and the Resistance wanted?
Everyone knows by now that when you get a Paul Verhoeven movie, you’ve got to expect the trashiest, craziest and wildest movie around. It doesn’t mean that the movie itself has to be good (see Showgirls), but what it does mean is that you’re going to get a movie that knows what it is, doesn’t make excuses for itself, and may, or may not, possibly offend you. If it doesn’t, then there’s surely something wrong with you.
That’s why a tale about the Holocaust, coming directly from the likes of Paul Verhoeven, already calls on controversy before the first scene is even shot. And honestly, that’s where some of the genius comes from with Verhoeven – he isn’t afraid to do what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants, regardless of what those around him may feel, or think is “politically correct”. It also helps that Black Book, for better or for worse, is a pretty fun and wacky Holocaust tale that probably didn’t even have to take place during WWII, or deal with Nazis and Jews; it could have literally been a movie about gangsters or cowboys for all we know.
However, Verhoeven sticks with the WWII-setting and well, it works.
Verhoeven doesn’t settle down one bit with this material and that’s where some of the real fun and joy with Black Book comes from. While movies like Basic Instinct and Showgirls love to take their time and harp on the fact that there’s some sort of story being told and built-up to, when in reality, they’re really not, Black Book shows Verhoeven at his absolute peak – never slowing down, pinpointing every plot development, and just always moving. In a way, it’s very fun to watch, but it can also be a bit tiresome; so much moving and running about, for nearly two-and-a-half-hours can really wear a person down, regardless of how many energy drinks are involved.
That said, I’ll take a quick and fun movie, over a slow, brooding and boring one, which is why Black Book works. Verhoeven doesn’t feel the need to settle, or appease anyone, but instead, just tell this movie with as many twists and turns as humanly imaginable. Sure, there’s probably a few too many, but the movie doesn’t really seem to rely too much on whether or not you believe in them – it more or less depends on being able to follow along with the constant action, lies, deception, and lies that take up the whole, entire movie. If you’re able to do that, then yeah, Black Book is a good time.
And if not, then well, I don’t know what to tell you. Watch something else.
Where Verhoeven gets most of his criticism from is how he handles his female characters and the actresses in said roles. For one, he isn’t particularly nice to them; every time it seems like he’s got another lethal, smart and conniving femme fatale, he’s always got another dumb female character, making silly mistakes and always letting her emotions get the best of her. With Carice van Houten’s Rachel/Ellis, I’m torn – on one hand, I believe that she’s the heart and soul of the movie, but at the same time, Verhoeven does sort of treat her like garbage. She’s constantly yelling, running about and making silly mistakes, but at other times, she’s doing quite the opposite.
It’s a weird mish-mash of aspects to her character that don’t always gel together well, which makes van Houten’s performance all the better; she’s more than willing to stand up to Verhoeven’s sometimes crazy style and go with whatever pace he needs her to. Same goes for just about everyone else around her. Sebastain Koch is good in a role that, unsurprisingly, caused a lot of controversy for playing a Nazi with a heart of gold, which is odd, but hey, it actually works for a Verhoeven movie.
Consensus: For all of its twists, turns and craziness, Black Book is quite fun and exciting, even if, at times, it can feel like too many wheels are spinning at one time.
7 / 10