They’ve been making World War II movies for a long time now, in fact, they were making World War II while there was still a World War II. It’s almost enough to make you think that there’d be nothing left to tell, but I guess in a six year long war with theatres that covered about half the globe, the surface has barely been scratched. Another untold tale of WWII now comes to us from Danish filmmaker Paul Verhoeven, director of Robocop and Total Recall but also Basic Instinct and Showgirls.
Apparently based on true events, Zwartboek (as its called in German) is about courage and treachery against the backdrop of German occupied Netherlands in 1944. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houton), is a Jewish woman in hiding, but when her safe house is destroyed in an air raid, she’s forced to make an escape attempt to liberated Europe. While making the river crossing, Rachel is reunited with her family, but the boat is ambushed by Nazi SS officers who kill all aboard, save Rachel.
To this point, the movie so far is pretty standard Holocaust drama stuff, like Schindler’s List or Anne Frank: scenes of Jewish people in hiding, trying desperately to avoid detection and a one way train trip to a concentration camp. When Rachel escapes though, the film becomes a unique kind of espionage thriller. Rachel changes her name, dyes her hair blonde and begins working undercover with the Dutch resistance. At first she helps with smuggling weapons, but when she catches the eye of the local SS commander (Sebastian Koch), she puts her life on the line as a double agent.
Black Book is a dynamic and personal thriller without necessarily feeling like a thriller. Rachel is called upon to make huge sacrifices that are key to the success of the resistance but the movie never loses that personal touch, that despite the grander scheme, this is still Rachel’s story. And this isn’t some classic David versus Goliath story either, this is a brutally frank depiction of a war of attrition; the Germans know that the Allies are barrelling down on them and the resistance fighters are outmanned, outgunned and outclassed. Rachel’s fate is constantly in doubt as allegiances shift and the list of trustworthy allies continually grows shorter.
Adding to the depth of the film is the way that both sides are presented. Koch’s Müntze is basically a descent man that collects stamps and is as anxious for the conclusion of the war as anyone so that he can find some semblance of normalcy again, especially since his wife and children had been killed in an air raid. The film is also vivid in the way it shows the reaction of some of the Danish people to Nazi collaborators and the treatment they got rivalled anything the Nazis did to POWs in their prisons.
It would be simplistic to say that the lesson of the movie is “war is hell”, but really it’s more like “war: what is it good for?” Although the story is fictional, it has great resonance and makes for some compelling drama. This is Verhoeven in top form and simply put, this is one of the finest films of the year.