Danny Boyle did it. John Woo did it. Fed up with the Hollywood system they went to their original country of origin and made a fantastic five-star film their way. This week we’re celebrating the genius that is the crazed Dutchman known as Paul Verhoeven and what a difference coming home can have – welcome to Forgotten Friday Flick! Straight from the Netherlands today’s selection is a classic dramatic tale filled with espionage, action and one kick ass female lead. (That’s Verhoeven for ya!) We’re continuing our foreign film affairs with the bold and beautiful…Black Book!
Rachel Stein is a Dutch-Jewish singer in 1944 hiding from the Nazi regime during WW II, but she finds her small sanctuary accidentally destroyed by an overhead American bomber and is forced to seek safety elsewhere. She trusts in a local man for escape and collects both her money and entire family in hopes of a new life. But when she realizes it’s a setup and loses everything precious to her, she decides to join the resistance to fight back. It leads Rachel to all sorts of dangerous and life altering situations, but ultimately asks the question of how far one is willing to go for freedom.
The best thing about Black Book is the return of the auteur Paul Verhoeven. Going back to his Dutch filmmaking roots where he made such memorable work as Soldier of Orange, Turkish Delight and The 4th Man, Verhoeven (this time without the creative constraints of the Hollywood system!) shows that he is indeed more than a guy who can wield nifty on-screen effects. Black Book is very much a character driven passion piece that’s about passion – the passions that ignite over war, revenge and life. It also proves once and for all that Verhoeven is indeed a master storyteller (during the time of Basic Instinct a lot of credit was given to writer Joe Eszterhas – I beg to differ!), as he infuses just the right amount of historical fact and his distinctive European sensibility to make Black Book his swan song. Plus nobody is more knowledgeable or well versed in this subject then Verhoeven and with his own rich personal connections to the material Black Book is thus given an extra layer of authenticity.
His cast is made up of relatively unknowns (at least for those unaware of his early work pre-Robocop!), though all fit the bill and flesh out the world nicely. But in true Verhoeven form the filmmaker elevates a single strong female as his cool character of choice (see Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Rachel Ticotin in Total Recall and Dina Meyer in Starship Troopers!) and for Black Book the magnetic Carice van Houten is his memorable muse of choice. Playing a driven woman out to get a little justice, Houten turns in a captivating chameleon-like character that’s easy to root for. (Plus it helps that the audience experiences all twists and turns alongside Houten!)
Don’t get me wrong – I’m not dismissing some of the savory work Verhoeven did while on American soil. Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers were not only huge blockbusters, but all elevated the action and effects genres like no other. (Showgirls and Hollow Man not so much!) But it’s rich more personal films like Black Book that have an even longer lasting effect for true cinefiles and if it requires a gifted filmmaker to head home to make the movie his way so be it. Part war epic, part espionage thriller, Black Book is nevertheless all Verhoeven – welcome home Paul, welcome home.