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Black Book
cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, and Waldemar Kobus

director: Paul Verhoeven

145 minutes (15) 2006
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
Tartan blu-ray disc retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Richard Bowden
Paul Verhoeven's latest film Black Book (aka: Zwartboek), reviewed on this site in its standard DVD edition, is a return to World War II, and local events in occupied Holland, which the director witnessed so vividly as a child. As the first film to be shot by Verhoeven back home since 1983, it was generally well received by critics there and here, perhaps relieved to have something positive to say about a director who has been less artistically successful of late. But despite some good things to be said about the film, this reviewer at least was slightly disappointed.

Although colourful and well done, retaining the air of verisimilitude which the director summoned up when he last covered this subject in Soldier Of Orange, Verhoeven's film plumbs little of the emotional depths, being less dramatically convincing and memorable than his earlier treatment of the time. This is surprising, as a good deal of the genesis for the present film sprang out of the original research done for then, before being mulled over for some 25 years more by the makers. But even with the advantage of hindsight it still seems less mature than that earlier work, as it ultimately exchanges the quiet heroism and national, alongside personal, ironies of Soldier Of Orange for some brash Boy's Own episodes of wide-eyed daring-do.

They are pleasing enough in their way, but there's no real sense of any wider national tragedy unfolding and the film ultimately substitute some unsatisfying character plotting to suggest the complexities of post war accommodations. A brief comparison between this Black Book and Polanski's recent The Pianist (2002), another war film informed by a major director's personal experiences (even if they were closer to the raw inhumanities of the holocaust), shows Verhoeven's work suffering further by comparison. Polanski's work has a gravity and pity that the Dutch filmmaker can only aspire to, even though both scripts were born from similar, firsthand witnessing of events.

Chief among the problems of Black Book is the character of the central SS hauptsturmführer, General Kautner (Christian Berkel) lover of the redoubtable heroine Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), who suffers an unconvincing volte-face to meet the broader plot necessities of the final reel. While the first third of the film is relatively uncomplicated and suspenseful, the last part, set after the occupation is ended, involves an awkward gear change of sorts - a process not helped by the telegraphing of the identity of one of the principal traitors from the start - which, far from being a red herring, turns out to be just a clumsy effort by the writers at prolonging suspense into peacetime.

For a film by Verhoeven there is not much violence to fill the screen either, a mutedness that's surprising in the context of such ruthless times, although the characteristic sexual latitudes are certainly present, creating predictable tensions as enemies find mutual attractions apparent off the battlefield. It's to the director's credit, as well as his actress' presence that Rachel does, overall, emerge as such a strong female lead as she does. She may not be exactly a role model, being exploited by the Germans (and, arguably, by the director as well to a certain extent), but still emerges with dignity and grace.

In heroine Rachel, like Hitchcock before him, Verhoeven has fashioned another of his blonde female characters in a favoured image, in this case the lithe temptress/ strongwoman of the sort which often appears in his Dutch films (think Renée Soutendijk from The Fourth Man and Spetters, or Monique van de Ven in Katie Tippel). In the present film, Jewess Rachel dyes her hair (and pubes) from brunette to be more convincing to her Nazi lover and by implication, to the director. That's not to say that the drama of the Dutch resistance, both in and out of bed, is never less than entertaining. Even at less than his very best, Verhoeven's European sensibilities, as filtered through the Hollywood system, are always watchable and Black Book is certainly recommendable to Verhoeven's admirers.

It's certainly a step up in his recent output, but one which still shows the director in something of a decline creatively, as it brings nothing distinctive to the genre other than, in what is probably the film's most unique moment (ironically the closest that the director ever gets in evoking the real human degradation of the holocaust) his naked heroine in a shower of shit. Van Houten's gamesmanship and professionalism as an actress arguably is what carries the film at this point, which also provides a striking reminder of how scatological some moments in the director's work can be.

The Tartan blu-ray disc, presents the film in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It offers as one might expect an improvement in visual quality over the standard definition release. Important for a film that offers some colourful production design, sumptuous costumes and vivid photography, this is a real advantage to the discerning viewer. Although it's arguable that the new generation of discs only really make significant impact when watched on the largest home screen formats, there is still a noticeable, if small, improvement even when viewed on televisions smaller than, say, 38 inches. All of the extras available from the standard release are present here, although (again to the disadvantage of those viewing in the small sized screens) there's just a small window on the extras menu instead of being displayed as one might expect full-screen.

The two main interviews are with the director and with van Houten. Unsurprisingly, there's some discussion of the notorious ordure dunking scene by Verhoeven, including an account of how, during a break from the long takes involved, he suggested to the exasperated actress that they splash in the filth together - a characteristic aside from an artist who loves to raise eyebrows. Given the extra storage capacity of blu-ray the lack of anything much else other than this is a disappointment, especially when one learns that the Sony release stateside more generously adds a director's commentary and behind-the-scenes documentary to the mix. If the public is to be expected to take the new format to its heart, then it will need to be shown working hard. Given the amount of potential of subject matter and director, the full package here is ultimately under-whelming. But for a colourful, well directed, and somewhat provoking war drama Black Book will be worth looking into.

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