Verhoeven (Robocop, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers) went home to make Holland’s most expensive and most successful film, a tale of WW2 underground resistance. There’s sexuality (in the free-spirited character of Rachel/Ellis, based on an actual person), tension and duplicity aplenty, and with the story overlapping into the immediate post-war period, when pigeons came home to roost, Verhoeven appears to relish undermining a complacent reading of his country’s history. Critical reception in Holland was mixed. (145 mins)
Dir: Paul Verhoeven, Netherlands, Belgium, UK, Germany 2006
Netherlands/ Germany/ Belgium 2007 145 minutes
The film opens with a chance reunion of two Dutch women, Ellis and Ronnie, in a kibbutz in 1956. They had been colleagues in wartime Holland, during its occupation. The story of one of the two is then recounted, in flashback, from 1944 to the immediate post-war period.
In the opening credits we are told that the film is based on true occurrences, and the life of Ellis de Vrie is indeed dramatically eventful, which the film portrays at a driven pace throughout. A former cabaret singer, she witnesses her family being massacred in an ambush as they attempt to flee to Belgium. Surviving, having been left for dead, she becomes involved in the Dutch Resistance. During an operation on a train, while evading detection, she meets Müntze, the widowed Gestapo officer in charge of The Hague’s German HQ (played by Sebastian Koch, seen this season in The Lives of Others). When other Resistance fighters are caught and imprisoned there, her next mission is to set a honey-trap for the officer, become his secretary and plant a listening device in the HQ. A rescue is launched (with more than a few nods to L’Armée des Ombres) but, despite having inside information from Ellis and the bug, things go wrong. Someone is to blame and suspicion falls on Ellis. We follow her into hiding and the mob rule and confusion that came with Liberation.
Deftly plotted, the moral relativism we saw in the 1969 Melville film is again explored here. However, while the earlier film was shot in washed out tones, Verhoeven and Karl Walter Lindenlaub, his cinematographer, use more saturated colours: blue skies on bright days and bright gowns for Ellis and Ronnie. While Forties Holland is carefully recreated – no anachronistic yellow lines here – the film has a modern feel and perspective, taking a jaundiced view of the actions and motivations of many of the local population.
At $22 million, this is the most expensive Dutch language film ever made and Verhoeven’s first film made in Holland for over 20 years. It is his second Resistance film, following his Soldier of Orange after almost 30 years and a rather different take on the period. He began working on this film with his screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, 20 years ago.
Ellis de Vries / Rachel Stein – Carice van Houten
Ronnie – Halina Reijn
Wim Smaal – Dolf de Vries
Ludwig Müntze – Sebastian Koch
Hans Akkermans – Thom Hoffman
Günther Franken – Waldemar Kobus
Director – Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay – Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven
Cinematography – Karl Walter Lindenlaub
Producers – San Fu Maltha, Jens Meurer, Jos van der Linden, Teun Hilte, Frans van Gestel, Jeroen Beker
“Verhoeven uses his basic instincts to craft one slick, quick WWII thriller”, J. Hoberman, The Village Voice
“…essentially a thriller (and a rather good, if overlong one)”, Philip French, The Observer
“Focus is always on the (sizable) cast of central characters, and even Rachel/Ellis’ Jewishness becomes almost peripheral to the action. Both that and all the characters’ conflicted emotions are treated in an unsentimental, practical way as the tumblers in Soeteman’s tightly constructed script click into place.” – Derek Elley, Variety
“Extremely good film!”
“Brilliant. Seen it before but even better, second time around!”
“The best film I’ve seen for ages. No wonder the Dutch were ambivalent about it.”
“As a Dutchman, I think Black Book was brilliant.”
“Continuous tension for 2½ hours – absolutely believable – excellent.”
“What a powerful, moving film! Totally gripping and a terrifying reminder of what happens in war.”
“A well made film but very frightening in all aspects.”
“Extremely good. Staggering – I’m all wrung out after this!”
“Brilliant thriller – brilliant last remark and last shot.”
“Very entertaining from beginning to end. In parts, at the end, reminiscent of The Wind that Shakes the Barley.”
“Pacey and powerful. All these things happened – cf. Christabel Bielenberg’s 1968 (historical memoir), The Past is Myself.”
“Better than the usual Verhoeven!”