Runstedler’s DVD Pick of the Month: Zwartboek (aka Black Book)

Paul Verhoeven’s latest film Zwartboek (aka Black Book) is a bit of a departure from his Hollywood films, returning to the roots of his Dutch culture to create one of his finest films in years. He still manages to retain the trademark violence that characterized his ultraviolent films, such as Total Recall and Starship Troopers, and the nudity is still gratuitous (a la Showgirls, though it’s not quite as graphic), but Verhoeven places a more sentimental and poignant focus on this particular film.

The lovely Carice van Houten stars as a young Jewish woman who spies for the resistance in World War II, infiltrating the German headquarters in the Hague. The version I watched lacked English subtitles, so I was able to practice my German and Dutch to fine degrees, but unfortunately I was unable to fully comprehend the rich dialogue of the film. However, Carice is a great actress. Her facial expressions convey so much emotion and strength, and it’s hard not to fall in love with her.

Verhoeven crafts the film meticulously, ensuring that all aspects of the war are included, yet manages to maintain a steady pace, leaving the viewer ultimately satisfied after the film’s two and a half hours. He illustrates the WWII scene in Hague with vivid portraits of hedonism and carnage. For every moment of decadence, resistance ensues, but Verhoeven weaves the story so wonderfully, creating a visual feast and stunning performances. Carice van Houten immerses herself into the role so well and becomes so realized within it that there are moments in the film that I was tempted to jump in there, fight off the Gestapo, and hold her in my arms. Verhoeven seems much more comfortable with the subject material here, and Zwartboek professes greater introspection and emotional depth than, say, Total Recall. Don’t get me wrong, Total Recall is an excellent film on all accounts (probably my favourite Verhoeven film), but Zwartboek seems much more meaningful and personal to Verhoeven.

As well, it’s wonderful to see the Canadian soldiers liberating Holland. From what I understand, Zwartboek was the most expensive Dutch film, made the most for a Dutch film, and was voted greatest Dutch film ever made. Paul Verhoeven and Carice van Houten deserve every accolade they received for the film. It’s enchanting to watch her on the screen, she breathes life into the world around her. As for Paul, it’s good to see that he’s getting the respect he deserves. He took a heavy hit after Showgirls was released and received with unfortunate scorn, but he certainly seems more comfortable filming in his native land. If his films continue to excel as Zwartboek does, then we can expect many more great films from him in the years to come.


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