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rating: (out of 4 stars)

The Netherlands, Germany, Belgium; 2006
Directed by Paul Verhoeven; produced by San Fu Maltha, Jos van der Linden, Frans van Gestel, Jens Meurer, Teun Hilte, Jeroen Beker; written by Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven
Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Derek de Lint, Frank Lammers, Johnny de Mol

'Zwartboek' is a thriller that uses every possible element from WW-II. It is a film like they used to make them, although sex, violence and visuals are updated for 2006. Paul Verhoeven, the director and co-writer, returned to his native The Netherlands to make this film and the result is one of his better and one of the year's best.

The chronological story starts in 1944 with a Jewish girl named Rachel (Carice van Houten), hidden from the Nazi's on a Dutch farm. In the first thirty minutes we see the farm bombed, Rachel being helped by a Ducth sailor, someone from the Dutch Resistance named Van Gein (Peter Blok) offering to help them both, and the group Rachel is traveling with being betrayed and killed. Only survivor Rachel joins the Dutch Resistance where, during a mission with Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), she meets Nazi SD Officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). Leader of their Resistance group Kuipers (Derek de Lint) wants to know how far she is willing to go with the clearly interested Müntze. "As far as he wants me to go," Rachel replies.

Normally all this would happen in an entire film and maybe the first part of its sequel. Here we are not even halfway. Although in this first hour things happen a little too fast you are able to understand the choices screenwriter Gerard Soeteman and director Paul Verhoeven have made. If they would have given this part more time the film would have played for five hours or so. Although it still plays for two and a half hours there was never a dull moment. As a roller coaster thrill ride the story unfolds before your eyes. I could go on about the story, which basically is a vehicle to find the person who betrayed Rachel's group early on, but I would confuse you. On the screen however, everything is pretty clear. Verhoeven plays the audience like he did in 'De Vierde Man' and his Hollywood blockbusters 'Total Recall' and 'Basic Instinct', but he does not cheat. We know what Rachel knows, which is not that much.

What Verhoeven basically has created with 'Zwartboek' is a European film with the entertainment values of one from Hollywood. We see both his Dutch background as his American, sometimes in the same scenes. As for the production values, you could see this coming from Hollywood. Everything looks and most of the time sounds very good, including the sweeping music by Ann Dudley which at times goes a little over the top. But Verhoeven avoids false sentiment to dramatize the story. In a world like this there is little time for emotions, at least for showing it, and some time for sex. Of course, we are still watching a Verhoeven-film here, and his fascination for sex and violence is always somewhere around the corner. There is a scene where children beat each other up for some food and you might be able to see the director's fascination.

In the end 'Zwartboek' is a thriller that never lets go. I like Verhoeven's direct, bold approach to this subject matter. Maybe from time to time he goes too far to make his point, including a much discussed scene that involves a large bucket filled with excrement, but he shows it as it might have happened without too much attachment. In another scene a character is put against the wall to be executed. A lot of directors would have pushed the tension with fast cuts, sweaty faces in close ups, underlining music and therefore creating a very long dramatized version of an execution. Not Verhoeven. The man against the wall, the order to fire, shots, and the body collapsing. There must have gone thousands of thoughts going through the mind of the killed character, but we are observers left to guess. Almost the entire film is like this. For some that will make it hard to sympathize with Rachel, but look closely to Carice van Houten and you might figure out what is going around inside that head.

Let that be the final thing to say about this film. Although Verhoeven created this terrific film, it is Van Houten who carries it the entire time. She is almost in every frame and I must admit it is one of the most extraordinary performances I have seen in a long time. International stardom would not be that strange for this splendid and gorgeous actress.


  Review by Reinier Verhoef