Tuesday, January 09, 2007

BLACK BOOK/ZWARTBOEK - provocative war-time thriller

BLACK BOOK is a Dutch film that deals with the tricky business of Dutch collaboration with the Nazis. Much like the history of Vichy France, this is a vexatious issue, and BLACK BOOK does much to chip away at the image of the Netherlands as the country that attempted to save Anne Frank. There are no comic-book evil Nazis and brave heroic Resistance leaders: everyone is complicit to a greater or lesser extent. In this sense, it is a movie with a very important message.

The movie is at its best when it shows the real vulgarity and mob-violence of the Nazis. We see fat, decadent Nazis singing kitsch songs as prisoners are executed beneath them. And then, in the final act, we see so-called freedom fighters carrying out vicious punishment beatings and petty humilations on alleged collaborators. The Dutch are seen as sometimes heroic, sometimes anti-semitic - always self-interested.

It is full credit to Paul Verhoeven's instincts as a mainstream entertainer than despite it's flashes of sociological and political insight, BLACK BOOK never bows under the weight of its subject matter. Despite a run-time of two and a half hours, the movie rips along at a rollicking pace thanks to its structure as a thriller, or whodunnit. Our charming, beautiful heroine quickly moves from her hide-out with an ironically anti-semitic family, to a botched rescue attempt, to working for the Dutch resistance. She infiltrates the Gestapo headquarters and seduces the man in charge. She is stitched up by a Dutch traitor who is shopping rich Jews to the Nazis in return for a share of the loot. In the final act, she must clear her name with the aid of a certain lawyer's Black Book.

The film works well as a thriller, although the final half hour, with a chase through the countryside and a painful exposition of whodunnit seemed a little bit Scooby Doo. (If it weren't for you pesky kids....) The orchestral score is hammy and patronising and there are just a couple of scenes - notably the use of a pendant near the end of the film - that teeter over the edge into sentimentality.

In the final analysis, while this is a Dutch independent film, it is still a Paul Verhoeven flick, and to that end the best and worst of Hollywood are evident here. Slick production values, yes, but also that tendency towards emotional manipulation. Nonetheless, BLACK BOOK really is a thrilling thriller, featuring a great central performance and a provocative political agenda.

BLACK BOOK/ZWARTBOEK premiered at Venice, where it won the award for Best International Film, and showed at Toronto and London 2006. It has since been released in the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Israel. It opens in the UK on January 19th 2007. It opens in Italy, Spain and Switzerland on Feb 9th and in LA and New York on March 9th. It opens in Argentina on April 5th.

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