April 28, 2007

Black Book (Verhoeven, 2006)

Much praise has been lavished upon Paul Verhoeven’s extraordinarily entertaining WWII thriller, his first film in six years (since the reviled Hollow Man), and his first Dutch language film in twenty-three years, and for the most part this acclaim is well deserved. However, contrary to what Verhoeven’s decision to leave Hollywood might suggest, Black Book is far from a rejection of that high gloss approach to filmmaking. Instead, it represents a return to form for the director in much the same way that The Departed was considered a return to form for Martin Scorsese. To watch Black Book is to experience a director in complete control of his craft.

The film explores moral ambiguity during (and more interestingly after) wartime through the eyes of Rachel Stein (played with sensual vulnerability by Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman who joins the Dutch resistance, and manages to be a finely crafted and intelligent work. For the duration of its nearly 2 ½ hour runtime, it clicks on all cylinders and honestly feels about half as long as it is. This is primarily due to Verhoeven’s expert ability to manipulate audience expectation. The film is a thrilling collection of revelations, and it keeps one guessing until the end.

And yet, despite (or perhaps because of) the sheer entertainment value, a feeling of weightlessness pervades the film. Verhoeven’s ultimate concerns pertain to the films surface, to creating and sustaining a mood of uncertainty, to advancing the plot. As a result, the film lacks a certain depth. Character and subtext are not satisfyingly explored. Rather, Verhoeven seems content to flirt with complex moral issues, leaving them at the surface for us to contemplate abstractly, apart from the film itself.

Nevertheless, the lack of depth, while regrettable, doesn’t hurt the film as much as it should. Perhaps this is because Black Book is a damned entertaining film and about as smart a piece of pure entertainment as one could hope for.

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