Arts & Events

Moving Pictures: ‘Black Book’ Beyond Repair

By Justin DeFreitas
Friday April 13, 2007

Dutch director Paul Verhoeven made his mark in 1977 with Soldier of Orange, a film about the German occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. Now, after a 20-year-stint in Hollywood making films such as RoboCop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct and Showgirls, Verhoeven has returned to Holland to make another World War II epic, Black Book. But unfortunately the director took home with him every unpalatable and hackneyed trick he’d picked up in his travels.  

Is there not enough drama, enough tragedy, enough evil and nobility and pain and sorrow in the story of the Holocaust? Apparently not, as Verhoeven and fellow screenwriter Gerard Soeteman have fashioned the raw material of history into a trite melodrama, attempting to merge the all-too-real horrors of the Nazi march across Europe and persecution of the Jews with the twists and turns of a swashbuckling thriller.  

Every overwrought and cliched B-movie device is use. It’s a veritable glossary of cheap and simplistic filmmaking: The suffering but enduring heroine, who has seen so much, suffered so much, that she cannot even cry...until she can; the milquetoast resistance-fighter sideman for whom the firing of a gun into a dirty Nazi Jew-killer would mean going against every Christian moral fiber in his body...unless that Nazi Jew-killer should heap insult upon crime against humanity by taking the Lord’s name in vain. Every symbol is underlined and in bold, used, overused and repeated in close-up: Witness the prized locket containing portraits of martyred Jewish parents, employed once as a key to gain admittance to the office of a sympathetic gentile, and later used, in dramatic close-up, as a tool to quite literally seal the fate of a traitor and—once again all-too-literally—for the beset-upon heroine to find locking the traitor in a coffin where he will suffocate along with the jewels and cash he looted from his victims.  

The score too adds to the mess, descending more often than not into camp Hollywood edge-of-your-seat spectacle. Villainous acts are underscored with ominous, Darth Vader-esque chords; suspense is heightened with blasts of the horn section and the staccato thrusts of plaintive violins. Every five minutes you get the feeling Indiana Jones himself is about to burst into the room, and what a welcome relief if he did.  

The villains of Black Book would be worthy of him. They dish out a wealth of sexualized cruelty in graphic scenes that have become a Verhoeven trademark. The head of the Dutch Gestapo doesn’t merely hold our heroine at gunpoint, but waits until she’s topless and points the gun at her exposed breast. And when an unruly mob assails her in a prison camp, they again make sure she’s half-naked before dumping a steaming cauldron of excrement over her head.  

There may be talent and skill at work in Black Book, but unfortunately it has been applied toward unworthy material. For no amount of directorial talent or photographic competence can make this film work; no cast of polished, handsome actors—no matter how lovely their period costumes—can rescue the turgid dialogue. Nothing can save Black Book from itself. Not even Indiana Jones.  



Directed by Paul Verhoeven. Written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman.  

Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Kock, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn.  

145 minutes. In Dutch, German and Hebrew with English subtitles.  

Rated R for strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.  

Playing at Shattuck Cinemas. 


Photograph: Carice van Houten stars as a Jew infiltrating the Gestapo in  

Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book.