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Black Book

The Dutch entry for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Academy Awards was Black Book, which made the initial short list, but did not make the final cut. This is a film by Paul Verhoeven (Hollow Man, Starship Troopers), his first in a while. But Verhoeven is back in vintage form, creating a story that is entertaining and just a bit exploitative, especially with respect to how often leading lady Carice van Houten takes her clothes off. The best way to describe Black Book is a historical almost B movie, that moves surprisingly quickly given a running time of nearly 2 1/2 hours. The setting is 1944 Holland, where Jewish singer Rachel Stein (van Houten, Bonkers, Lepel), finding her family slaughtered in an attempt to escape to Belgium, joins the Dutch Resistance.

To hide her Jewishness, Stein changes her name to Ellis de Vries and dies her hair blonde. All of her hair, as Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman (Floris, Claim) teasingly show audiences. De Vries barely escaped with her own life, and is content to work in the factory. After a few months, Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman, Klem in de Draaideur, Dogville) and Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint, When a Stranger Calls, Superstition) enlist her help in a mission. During that mission, she meets Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, The Lives of Others, Amen), who is instantly smitten. Muntze is the leader of the Nazis in Holland, and Kuipers, sensing an opportunity, sends de Vries in to seduce him and obtain as much information as she can. De Vries agrees, having little left to lose.

Much of Black Book is pretty intense, with de Vries playing a dangerous game on both sides. She begins to fall for Muntze, which causes her fellow Resistance fighters to question her loyalty to them. Things all around are not what they seem, and de Vries finds herself caught between her loyalty to the Resistance and her sense of justice. The last sentence is a bit vague because important plot points which drive the second half of Black Book should remain unspoiled, as not to ruin one's enjoyment of the movie. Needless to say, Verhoeven goes in an expected direction, but there are still some surprises left.

The reason that Black Book works is that Verhoeven knows how to please his audience. This is a mix of intrigue and espionage, with a surprising amount of emotional depth, and of course, gratuitous nudity. De Vries has a modern sensibility that seems out of place, but is necessary for much of the plot. As she becomes closer to Muntze, her situation becomes increasingly dangerous. Things become a vicious circle as she becomes willing to go further, only to have things become more dangerous. The story often borders on melodrama, but Verhoeven manages to reign in some (only some) of his usual tricks to come up with what ends up being a rousing historical tale.

Mongoose Rates It: Not Bad.
2 hours, 25 minutes, Dutch, German, English, and a bit of Hebrew (whew!) with English subtitles, Rated R for strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality, and language.

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