Hollywood-honed tech smarts and European character sensibilities mesh entertainingly in pacy WWII resistance thriller “Black Book,” helmer Paul Verhoeven’s first feature in his native Netherlands for more than 20 years. Fictional tale, about a young Jewish woman who falls for a Gestapo officer while seeking revenge for her family’s murders, moves like an express train across almost 2½ hours without any sense of rush and with strong, empathetic characters etched en route. Pre-sold to 50 territories (though so far not the U.S.), pic should easily slide into the black in non-Anglo territories, where the largely Dutch-German dialogue won’t be a problem.
Anyone expecting a return to the rough, socially transgressive pics that Verhoeven first made a name with in the Netherlands will be disappointed by “Black Book.” Film plays like a Euro version of his Stateside movies — a technically slick, mainstream production that toys around in subtle ways with the genre in which it moves.
This could prove a problem in the U.S., as the film defiantly doesn’t fall into the normal Hollywood-style, heart-on-sleeve template of nasty Nazis, persecuted Jews and unconflicted resistance warriors. It’s also many notches above his earlier WWII drama, the heroic “Soldier of Orange” (1977), in complexity and production values.
Reunited with Dutch scripter Gerard Soeteman, with whom he made cheeky early classics like “Turkish Delight,” “Spetters” and “The Fourth Man,” Verhoeven has seemingly rethought all the usual cliches of WWII dramas. And as usual, he decided to mess a little with his audience’s head.
There are no simple heroes or villains in the fast-paced, heavily plotted pic. And though there’s little out-and-out comedy, there’s still a sense of Verhoeven and Soeteman having some fun while keeping viewers on their toes and occasionally letting rip with gunfire and action. (Latter is always explosively staged, with granite-hard bullet play.)
Story is bookended by scenes on an Israeli kibbutz in 1956, where Rachel Rosenthal, nee Stein (Dutch thesp du jour Carice van Houten), accidentally meets former wartime friend Ronnie (Halina Reijn, spirited). This spurs one long flashback to WWII. The brief return to Israel at pic’s end contains one rapid visual trope that may pass many auds by.
Main story, starting in Holland in September 1944, plunges straight into the action, with Rachel hiding out in the countryside with a strict Christian family. From the off, Soeteman keeps the dialogue loaded — “If the Jews had listened to Jesus, we wouldn’t be in the state we’re in now,” quips the family’s sour-faced paterfamilias (Bert Luppes). But mostly he keeps the story moving forward in rapid brush-strokes.
Rachel narrowly escapes being blown to smithereens, is reunited with her family as they’re shipped south by mysterious resistance worker Van Gein (Peter Blok, ghoulish), and is the only survivor when their boat is ambushed by an SS craft commanded by leering Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus, earthy).
Assigned the name Ellis de Vries, she gets work in a food plant run by communist resistance worker Gerben Kuipers (vet Derek de Lint), and five months later is involved in undercover missions.
During one of these, she gets to know local Gestapo chief Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch), whom she first beds on resistance instructions and then falls for while working in his office. In the same office is Franken, whose sexual needs are catered to by co-worker Ronnie, an easy-come, easy-go girl.
That’s just the first hour of an incredibly dense plot that sees Muentze morph into a sympathetic character — and not through any simple conversion. Also, the loyalties of the resistance workers all come under suspicion when an opportunity to rescue Kuipers’ imprisoned son goes horribly wrong. When peace is declared, the story is far from over, with multiple twists in the tale.
Notably, film uses no docu footage or devices like newspaper headlines to bolster the ongoing sense of the war and Nazi power waning. 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.
Rarely off-camera, Van Houten, only 29, throws herself into the part of a lifetime, with a face that can spin on a dime between fear, defiance, caprice and caring. But for all of Verhoeven’s technical skills, the film still wouldn’t work without her on-screen chemistry with Koch (the writer in “The Lives of Others”), who makes Muentze a tragically flawed figure rather than simple villain.
All the film’s reported $22 million budget — largest ever for a majority Dutch-language production — is up on the screen, with costumes and production design having a convincingly lived-in feel. Anne Dudley’s big orchestral score is too generic and themeless, but, along with the trim editing, does keep the full-bodied widescreen lensing by d.p. Karl Walter Lindenlaub (“Independence Day”) moving.
Film will rep the Netherlands in the next Academy Awards’ foreign-language category.