Black Book (15)

Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Written by Paul Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman
Screening at FACT from 9th-14th February 2007

Reviewed by Adam Ford

'All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players', declared Shakespeare in As You Like It. Paul Verhoeven is clearly of the same opinion, so he bashes us over the head with it in this elegantly shot, but ultimately quite silly film about the tail end of World War Two in Europe.

When her safe house is bombed, Jewish singer Rachel (Carice van Houten) is forced to go on the run. Eventually she joins the resistance (or 'terrorists', as the fascists call them), and becomes ‘Ellis’, a very blonde undercover agent, who uses a high-ranking Nazi (Sebastian Koch)’s lust against him, and gains access to secrets about fighters who languish in the regime’s jails. But it’s not as simple as that, because no one but no one is reliable, and everyone is part of some hidden agenda or other.

Verhoeven may be best known for films such as RoboCop and Basic Instinct, but before all that he had a critical reputation for making picturesque ‘foreign language’ films. This is a return to that kind of thing, albeit with the power of a large budget behind it. Every detail of every backdrop and costume is gorgeously brought to life, and the excellent cast fit their roles perfectly. Special mention goes to Waldemar Kobus, who plays a particularly greasy and repulsive (and circumcised, interestingly) Nazi with glee, like he stepped out of a 1940s version of a George Grosz painting.

But a lot of this good stuff is almost forgotten, as the movie drags on so damn long, with more twists than a box of pretzels. Because you see, no matter how people seem, they’re actually not like that at all, and they’re all just trying to stab everyone else in the back.

Ok, so we’re biologically programmed to look out for number one. But there are different strategies for doing that. After all, what goes around is meant to come around. Some people – which includes many of those who resisted the fascists in their own countries – had the idea that if you act in solidarity with others, they will act in solidarity with you. We’re not all ‘evil’ because some woman ate an apple she got from a talking snake; we have the capacity for great acts of courage. Cheer up Mijnheer Verhoeven!

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