Spy 100, #28: Black Book

Black Book (2006) is one of the first films I saw in the theater after moving to Los Angeles, and I remember quite enjoying it, but the intervening years have taken some of the shine off the apple. It’s still a beautifully produced film, and Carice van Houten is still superb, but perhaps bombarding myself with similar fare since then has somewhat inured me to its strengths. Or, perhaps on a second viewing, it just felt more like a Paul Verhoeven film.

Black Book tells the story of Rachel Stein (van Houten), a Jewish singer in occupied Holland during the latter stages of World War II. When a stray bomb takes out her hiding place, she’s forced to make a run for it, and joins a group of fugitives headed for Belgium. But a German patrol boat ambushes them, killing everyone but her. She’s rescued by, and comes to work for, the Dutch Resistance — and proves to be a natural at it, particularly when, by chance, she meets and charms the local Gestapo chief, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). Under a new alias, she poses as a collaborator to facilitate Resistance operations against the Nazis, but her romantic entanglement with Müntze and the unpredictability of war send her on an even more treacherous journey than she was anticipating.

It’s compelling, and very attractively produced. The period is convincingly realized, and particularly in the early stages, the plot is nicely structured, as Rachel’s simple, quiet life in hiding gradually propels her into intrigue and violence. But far and away the best reason to watch the film is van Houten, who is scintillating in a gutsy performance as a woman who throws herself headlong into a cause, with horrific personal consequences.

That said, Verhoeven’s proclivity for exploitation does rear its ugly head, with gratuitous nudity and glamorized violence heightening reality. These elements combine uncomfortably with its old-fashioned atmosphere and music to make it something of a tonal muddle. Is this a serious and harrowing look at the ugly sacrifices of war, or a slick, glossy piece of romantic entertainment. Awkwardly, it’s both. The film winds down with a few brutally dark twists too many, so that when van Houten — in a heart-breakingly raw delivery that really should be her finest moment — says “Will it never end?,” the impact is rather mitigated by the meta-thought it conjures. Definitely worth watching, but with some reservations. (And, side note:  an interesting film to compare against another list selection, Lust, Caution, a thematically similar film that is both more and less satisfying.)

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