Year Released: 2007
Directed by: Paul Verhoeven
Starring: Carice van Houten. Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Waldemar Kobus, Halina Reijn
(R, 145 min.)
"Man’s inhumanity to man / Makes countless thousands mourn!" Robert Burns
This visceral account of a Jewish beauty’s time in the Dutch Resistance is not for the faint-hearted. It exposes almost all seven deadly sins in riveting detail, assaulting our senses with a world where depravity and decency, heroics and humiliation, loyalty and betrayal mock each other.
Paul Verhoeven, the iconoclast who brought us Basic Instinct, Total Recall,, and Robocop, is still the voyeur behind his lens, but there is a passion and conviction in Black Book not seen in his Hollywood efforts. Certainly his Dutch childhood, where he was forced to see first hand the atrocities of the occupying Nazis, fuels his creative force. Verhoeven remembers well the random civilians put up against a wall to be shot in retaliation for a successful Resistance attack, as he had to “walk along these dead people on the ground.”
His film is based on true events, although his spirited Resistance spy, Rachel Stein, is a composite of three women. And actress Carice van Houten puts the passion, strength, and feminine guile of at least three women into her performance.
As the action of the film opens, Rachel is a raven-haired survivor, acquiescing to the rules of the Dutch Christian patriarch farmer who hides her in his attic. She works hard to memorize the Bible verses he requires as the price of his bounty, but reverts to her frivolous self in between meals. On one occasion, she suns herself beside a lake, listening to a record on the gramophone she has lugged down there. It is this whimsical act that saves her from the bomb that sets the farmhouse up in flames before her eyes.
Luckily for Rachel, this is the first of many times a gallant gentleman comes to her rescue, but the friendly police inspector who offers to arrange for her to flee is not so gallant. Rachel and all the other fleeing Jews on the open boat are gunned down ruthlessly and them robbed of their jewels and cash by a crew of Nazis. Only Rachel survives, but she has had to witness the death of her entire family.
Rachel remains the coquette, but her feminine wiles now serve a greater purpose when she joins the Dutch resistance. Promoted from chopping vegetables to acting as a train courier, Rachel’s quick thinking rescues the mission from certain failure when she sidles into the booth of a shy Gestapo officer (Sebastian Koch), feigns interest in his stamp collection, and thus evades a luggage inspection. He turns out to be Ludwig Muentze, the highest-ranking officer at The Hague, and Rachel, now going by the name of Ellis de Vries, a fake passport and peroxided locks to go along with it, is asked to use her fatal charm to work herself into the innermost realms of the Nazi command via Muentze’s bed.
Much of the film recounts their sexual trysts, as well as the parallel ones between Ronnie (Halina Reijn), the Dutch secretary who does quite a bit more than take dictation from her boss, Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus). The camera never blinks – whether it is full frontal nudity or the almost comical sound effects of Ronnie and Guenther’s lovemaking as they are broadcast to the Resistance group via a hidden microphone Rachel has installed in the office. And certainly there is an almost adolescent fixation of the sexual and scatological, causing New York Timescritic Manohla Dargis to label it “the pulpiest of fiction, a supremely vulgar romp,”
But perhaps Verhoeven is just working in his comfort zone, using sexual passion as a metaphor for the degradation and deception everyone somehow underwent to survive in that final chaotic year of World War II. At any rate, these very acts transcend the mere physical as Rachel and Muentze actually fall in love, and even Ronnie’s most debauched paroxysms serve a heroic purpose.
Black Book has neither the muted leanness of Army of Shadows, nor the lyrical perfection of The Lives of Others, but it is a totally engaging and stirring full bodied brew that breezes through its over two hour running time with nonstop thrills, turnarounds, and surprising insight.
Like so much else cut short by the war, so too the fresh fish dinner that Rachel is about to prepare for herself and the gallant young man who has rescued her after her hiding place has been destroyed. Her knife is poised to render the tender fillets when a stranger arrives to warn them of imminent capture.
Since Rachel is not permitted to enjoy this delicacy, we will have to do it for her. If you can, select a white fish that has never been frozen, and I’m sure that this dish will please even those who are not fond of fish.
To honor Rachel’s Jewish heritage, you might want to cook up this Israeli recipe to go along with the Dutch fish. It’s called Zucchini Pritti.
Dutch Fish with Edam Cheese
1 lb Fish Fillets
4oz Edam Cheese
4oz Sliced Ham
Salt and Pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 350°F
Slice the Edam cheese.
Place a layer with half of the cheese slices into an oiled ovenproof dish add a layer of half of the ham. Arrange the fish fillets on top, sprinkle with lemon juice and season with salt.
Add a layer of the remaining cheese slices followed by a layer of the remaining ham.
Grate the Parmesan cheese.
Beat the eggs with the milk, add paprika and pepper, to taste.
Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.
Recipe Source: The Foody.com