One of the many facilities the Hollywood studios have lost over the years is the ability to make good World War II period pieces. Once upon a time they gave us “Casablanca,” but now all they can offer is inane rubbish like “Shining Through” (1992) or a homage—enjoyable but thoroughly artificial—like “The Good German.” Happily, European filmmakers have proven defter. Not long ago French director Jean-Paul Rappeneau produced the delightfully comic “Bon Voyage,” set during the Nazi invasion of France in 1940. And now Paul Verhoeven, returning to his native Netherlands from a stay in California during which the quality of his films declined precipitously—it’s a pretty sharp drop from “The Fourth Man” to “Showgirls”—has rebounded artistically as well. “Black Book” is a big, fast-paced World War II adventure, old-fashioned but with some welcome twists. It’s an immensely entertaining throwback to the kind of film Hollywood used to be able to serve up regularly but no longer does.
The picture is about a young Jewish woman, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), who’s recruited into the resistance after her family is lured to their deaths by a mysterious fellow eventually revealed as a man named Van Gein (Peter Blok) paid to sneak them out of the country. Escaping, she assumes the role of a singer named Ellis de Vries and uses her considerable charm (as well as intelligence, in both senses of the term) to worm her way into the confidence—and the bed—of local Gestapo chief Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch). But Muentze turns out to be one of those honorable “good Germans” who’s periodically appeared in movies (and whom Steven Soderbergh’s recent film took its title from), and in time he and Rachel/Ellis find themselves in an unlikely alliance against a not-so-good German, Muentze’s snarling underling Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus)—who just happens to have been commanding the boat that ambushed and killed the Stein family.
If that’s all the plot “Black Book” had, it might not justify a running-time of two-and-a-half hours. But the precis merely scratches the surface. The picture embraces a good deal more—bookending scenes set in Israel in the 1950s, a sharp introductory sequence portraying Rachel’s hiding with a Christian family before rejoining her family for their fateful attempt to escape, and multiple episodes involving the resistance fighters, including a tense attempt to rescue one of them who’s been captured. And looming over everything is the question of who sold out Stein’s family—and other Jews—to Van Gein and Franken. Could it be the notary (Dolf de Vries) to whom her father entrusted the family possessions? One of the resistance fighters? Or another of the girls working with the occupiers—as Rachel is—as a “secretary”? The matter isn’t resolved until the war is over, Germans and collaborators are marked for punishment, and hometown heroes are feted. The last reels of the film, rather than bringing a peaceful calm, actually ratchet up the excitement quotient with a chain of threats, escapes, chases, revelations and satisfying closures.
Carrying the film expertly is van Houten, almost constantly on screen, who captures the various facets of her character with surprising ease while remaining attractive and vulnerable even at the most difficult moments. She’s ably abetted by the supporting cast. Koch is especially fine as the gentlemanly, principled Gestapo officer who tries to negotiate with the resistance rather than simply battle them, to his own danger. Thom Hoffman makes an equally strong impression as the most charismatic of the resistance figures, a man of both energy and craft. And Kobus is the sort of villain you love to detest, just as Halina Reijn cuts a pleasurably sultry figure as the woman Franken takes as his personal property. Memorable faces fill out the still smaller roles, though you probably won’t recognize the names attached to them.
Verhoeven may have been revivified artistically by leaving America and returning home, but he brought Hollywood know-how back with him in the person of cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, who shot such big-budget blockbusters as “Independence Day” and gives “Black Book” a slick, expensive look. The production design (by Wilbert van Dorp) and costumes (by Yan Tax) are expert, and the editing (by Job ter Burg and James Herbert) keeps things sprightly despite the film’s length, but the score by Anne Dudley is a bit anonymous.
The result is a good-looking film, but more important it’s a strong one in terms of content as well as appearance—a traditional World War II drama played with old-style elan. Black or otherwise, Verhoeven’s “Book” plays by the established rules of cinematic storytelling, and it proves a winning hand.