Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book aka Zwartboek when it came out in 2006 and absolutely loved it. That was four years before I started this blog. If I wanted to review it, I had to rewatch it. It does happen that a movie we liked a lot doesn’t hold up as well when we watch it again. Unfortunately this was the case here. It’s not a bad movie, it’s very entertaining, but I think a resistance movie must be a bit gritty. Black Book most certainly isn’t gritty, it’s so flashy and glossy, it could be an US production. Sure, you’re going to argue, that it’s logical, after all Verhoeven’s not only the director of Soldier of Orange but also of Starship Troopers and Total Recall. Although his first European movie in 20 years, Black Book has written “Hollywood” all over it (apart from the nudity, that wouldn’t go down so well in a US production).

The movie starts in Israel in 1956 and then rewinds to 1944. The main story is set in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is in hiding when a bomb falls on the house of the people who hide her. A policeman who works for the Dutch resistance helps her, her family and a lot of other Jews to escape. The boat on which they should be brought to Belgium is attacked by Nazis, and everyone, except Rachel who manages to escape, is killed and all the money and jewellery is stolen. Rachel watches all this and sees the men responsible for this attack from her hideout.

There isn’t much she can do and so she eventually joins the resistance. During one of her missions she meets Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, she seduces him, becomes his mistress and starts to work at the Nazi headquarters. It’s easy for her to seduce Muntze because she is very pretty and used to be a well-known singer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough not to see through her disguise.

Unfortunately her disguise is also discovered by others and she’s lured into a trap and henceforth suspected by the Resistance to be a double-agent. Things get even more dramatic when Muntze is arrested as she has developed feelings for him. When the Netherlands are finally liberated, Ellis/Rachel gets a chance to uncover who betrayed her.

Black Book is visually appealing, it’s well structured and well-paced and a really entertaining watch, but overall I didn’t find the anti-war message all that pertinent. It seems Verhoeven wanted to show that there were good and bad people on both sides and that the Dutch, like many other European people had ambiguous feelings.

Black Book is entertaining and worth watching but I think Soldier of Orange is far better and when it comes to other Resistance movies I can think of many better ones. These are just a few, which I have all reviewed here as well:

Army of Shadows,

Roma, Città Aperta-Rome Open City,

The Army of Crime,

Flame and Citron,

Max Manus,

Lucy Aubrac

I’m particularly fond of resistance movies, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d be very glad.

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13 thoughts on “Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

  1. nem baj says:

    The more I see it and the more I like it, though I’m a tad disappointed in the visual department.

    As a (misanthropic) study in betrayal, it is masterfully scripted and well executed. It’s not that ‘there are good and bad people’, rather than our ability for dissimulation and treason is immense – and nobody is who he seemed to be. Though I don’t think the film should be considered as giving a ‘global vision’ of the Dutch underground – there’s also Soldier of Orange – it isn’t often that we’re offered such a grim side of human behavior in the period.

    Yet betrayal, double play, corruption were incredibly common – it is perhaps the worst consequence of clandestinity and fear. But in this case, the clandestinity and the fear are forced upon dissenting people (or designated victims like Rachel) by the occupation itself. I think the film makes this point very clear, and for that reason this isn’t an exercise in political relativism at all, which I find quite commendable.

    This idea that such a situation required extraordinarily strong moral standards (and lust for life) which are unfortunately quite rare, was also a central theme in Army of Shadows, although the treatment was of course very different.

    • I thought it was glossy but that deosn’t mean i thought it was anything special visually.
      Just having watched unsee Väter, Unsere Mütter with a similar singer theme, made me like a lot of this less. It’s such a cliché theme after all.
      I found the way hthis movie illustrates that nobody is as they seem rather a bit gimmicky than really convincing.
      For sure, this isn’t about the Dutch Resistance, or I hope it isn’t but about elements. But even from apsychlogical point of view, it’s not that convincing and it’

      • nem baj says:

        Soeteman and Verhoeven struggled with that script for more than twenty years, and for most part of it ‘Rachel’ was supposed to be a man! However Rachel/Ellis ended up as a typical Verhoeven heroin: at the same time well aware of her seduction power – and not alienated, or fooled, by it. She’s the opposite of the singer in UMUV, and a very strong character (reminiscent somehow of some of Fassbinder’s women).

        Most resistance movies toy with betrayal as a secondary matter. They generally focus on rather simple, if not simplistic questions, such as ‘would I risk my life’, ‘would I resort to violence’, ‘would I risk the life of others’, ‘would I speak under torture’ etc.

        Black Book is quite different, it paints a world where deception, which rules supreme as a consequence of clandestinity, knows almost no bounds… Once you successfully deceive the enemy and the bystanders, what’s keeping you from deceiving your comrades?

        I like to think of Black Book as the gritty companion to Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, where comedians are forced to literally ‘play for their lives’ – and as we laugh a lot, we realize the inhumanity of their situation.

        PS: Sorry, I replied to the wrong comment below, if you would be so kind as to delete my former posting…

      • The two singers are very different but It just shows that watching one film can infkuence the recption of the other. I thought the story of the singer was the weakest part of UMUV, while it works here.
        Les femmes de l’ombre works almost exclusively with this seduction theme, if I remember correctly. How did you like that one?
        I don’t find it logical, just because you can, doesn’t mean you would deceive everyone. It’s possible of course, still . . .

      • nem baj says:

        I haven’t watched Les Femmes de l’ombre yet.

        I really think that betrayal was very common (I don’t see why the Dutch resistance should have been very different from the French one in that department). However, I don’t think it lessens the commitment: it’s only one of the main risks of clandestine action.

        By the way, inciting your opponents to betray is a basic counter-insurgency technique, and totalitarian regimes of the XXth Century demonstrated they were very good at it.

      • I’ll be interested to hear what you think. I reviewed it a while back. I think I was not too keen.

  2. Bulletskill says:

    Thank you, an interesting review as ever. I bought the DVD when it came out a few years back and enjoyed it at the time. I haven’t watched it for several years so I wonder if a second viewing would have the same effect on me as on you?

    I remember it as being full of intrigue, lots of double crossing and plenty of action – much of it pretty graphic (it is Verhoeven after all!). And it was far from predictable. Often you can watch a movie and know within the first few minutes who will live and who won’t. Not in this one you don’t. The young man who saves her after her hideout is bombed at the beginning of the movie for instance. You think a relationship is going to build between them, and then he’s killed on the boat with everyone else but van Houten’s character Stein. I didn’t see that coming! It’s interesting to see you compare it with ‘Soldier Of Orange’ which I’d heard a lot of, but ended up finding a little disappointing when I bought it just before ‘Black Book’. Maybe I should give it another look?!

    ‘Max Manus’ by the way was an excellent movie and I’d recommend that one to anyone, as I would ‘Black Book’ – though that’s from the memory of watching it several years ago. Perhaps I need to watch it again?!

    • It would be interesting to see whether you’d still like it. I find it’s a bit of a dazzler. Maybe it’s not all that predictable but I think it tries too hard to be surprising.
      I don’t know, I just liked it far less. Soldier of Orange is so highly praised that it almost has to disappoint. It’s quite good but it’s not perfect either.
      I saw that the reception of Blakc Book in the Netherlands wasn’t too favorable. It’s very flashy and that’y why I think it’s immensely entertaining, but a bit dubious.

  3. Guy Savage says:

    I saw this and liked it. I wasn’t expecting a lot–was it the cover? So I ended up being pleasantly surprised.

  4. the war movie buff says:

    I tried commenting and for some reason it didn’t go through. I remember watching this movie when I first started my blog and I watched it on your recommendation. I enjoyed it a lot although it has some major implausibilities like the miracle chocolate bar and the dubious execution of a main character. However, it is entertaining in a Verhoeven sort of way and Van Houten is hot.

    I would put it in the middle of the pack of Resistance movies. Here are my rankings:

    1. Army of Crime
    2. Flame and Citron
    3, Black Book
    4. Rome, Open City
    5. Soldier of Orange
    6. Army of Shadows

    • Sorry about the comment problem. Not sure why that happened.
      I remember I suggested it, I really liked it a great deal then. Carice Van Houten is very good in this.
      You still need to watch Max Manus.

  5. […] not as flashy as Black Book, this is another highly watchable Dutch movie. It certainly works well as a companion piece. While […]

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