Black Book (2006)
“To fight the enemy, she must become one of them.”
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffmann
Synopsis: In the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II, a Jewish singer infiltrates the regional Gestapo headquarters for the Dutch resistance.
In one ten minute sequence of Paul Verhoeven’s insanely entertaining but ever-so-slightly trashy The Black Book, our plucky heroine Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten) witnesses the murders of two ageing members of the Dutch resistance, sees her former Nazi officer lover captured by Dutch citizens celebrating the end of the war, and is hunted down and arrested herself under the mistaken impression that she is a Nazi informer. Imprisoned by fascists, she, along with her fellow prisoners, is forced to strip naked by her prison guards. When she refuses, she is forcibly stripped and then has a gigantic urn of human excrement tipped over her. And I mean gigantic — like one of those steel buckets used to transport molten metal across a foundry. Then she’s rescued by her former Dutch resistance lover who spirits her away to his apartment. When she goes into shock after he informs her that her Nazi lover has been executed, her former lover attempts to murder her by injecting her with insulin. Ellis saves her life by gobbling a bar of chocolate she just happens to have in her pocket and then jumping from the window balcony at which her former lover/failed murderer is receiving the adulation of the crowd below.
To capture the breathless pace at which large portions of The Black Book unfolds, I should really have written the above paragraph with no punctuation whatsoever. It moves so fast that it even outstrips those old movie serials which required a cliffhanger every twenty minutes in order to lure audiences back into the cinema the following week. The script was reportedly written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman over a period of twenty years, and is apparently based on true events. Truth, they say, is stranger than fiction, but when fiction is inspired by truth, then fiction pretty much blows truth out of the water. During his time in Hollywood, Verhoeven directed such salacious fare as Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Hollow Man (in which Kevin Bacon fondled women while invisible), and there’s no denying a misogynistic aspect to his work. As plucky and heroic as they might be, it seems important to Verhoeven that females in his movies get their boobs out at least half-a-dozen times.
Ellis is the daughter of a wealthy Jewish family who have successfully hidden from the Nazis in their native Holland, but who jump at the chance of escaping the country when a man called Van Gein (Peter Blok) agrees to smuggle them out of the country. However, the boat on which Van Gein places them together with a number of other wealthy escapees, is fired upon by a German patrol boat, and everyone but Ellis is slaughtered. She makes her escape and falls in with the resistance, with whom she begins smuggling in guns and rations from the British. While transporting some of these weapons on a train with Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), Ellis makes the acquaintance of German officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to prevent their stash of weapons from being discovered.
Muntze’s obvious attraction to Ellis provides her with a way in to the German authorities’ inner sanctum, and so she reluctantly agrees to resistance leader Gerben Kuiper’s (Derek de Lint) request to do a little undercover work under the covers with Muntze. Kuiper is especially keen to organise the rescue of three members recently arrested by the Nazis, one of whom is his son, Tim (Ronald Armbrust). She successfully charms Muntze into getting her a job as a secretary at the Nazi Headquarters, and it is while there that she encounters Gunter Franken (Waldemar Kobus), the SS Commandant who oversaw the slaughter of her family.
Apart from the nudity, violence and human faeces, The Black Book is enjoyably old-fashioned entertainment that rumbles along at a breathless pace. Plot twists and double crosses come along every ten minutes or so, but our plucky heroine — who, I guess, is most reminiscent of Jane, Norman Pett’s comic strip creation for the Daily Mirror — faces everything thrown at her (literally in the case of that poo) with heroic stoicism. The movie won a number of minor awards, and was even nominated for the Best Movie not in the English Language category and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. The tone of the movie perhaps precluded it from having a realistic chance of nabbing such lofty accolades, but the fact that it was nominated is an indication of its quality. Approach The Black Book with no expectations of high art or a meaningful message and you’ll probably be glad you did.