It leaves us punch drunk in thought.
ďBlack BookĒ is a World War II movie about the Dutch resistance that moves at a
furious clip for two and a half hours. You can watch it as a story (based on a
true one), but you will also grapple with your own feelings about torture, war,
power, greed, cruelty, betrayal, and survival. Thatís a lot for one movie to
trigger, and this one does it well. It leaves us punch drunk in thought.
It would be easy to level criticism at director Paul Verhoeven for cranking the violence and noise up to Hollywood levels, but that becomes irrelevant in the face of the two outstanding central performances. Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch play a Jewish victim and an SS officer with extraordinary subtlety. They and the supporting cast are asked to interpret layers of complexity - not a common component of most interpretations of good vs. evil.
Rachel Stein/Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten), is a young Jewish woman reunited with her family on a barge carrying Jews from Holland to Belgium. In the short, misty crossing, a boat of SS officers appears and machine guns all the passengers except Ellis, who escapes in the reeds to join the Dutch resistance. With her family gone and little to lose, Ellis volunteers for dangerous operational work by working her way into a relationship with Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch), the head of the local SS.
For everyone, deceit is the only path to survival or death. Which it will be is mostly random, and the emotions and values called up from the characters come from an intricate pattern within each of them. This complexity makes big demands on the audience. We need to keep track of things, and we need to understand why things happen in ways we donít like. Paul Verhoeven is asking us to think.
When the tables turn with the German surrender, you may decide never to trust a celebration again, particularly a victory celebration where the cruelty of the victors often equals that of the vanquished. You are asked once again to witness the power that one with weapons has over one without. You will surely writhe at the brutal innovations of torture when hatred is unleashed.
Whatever effect this film has on you as an individual, you may not see two better performances this year than those of Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch. Bathed in her own tragedy, van Houten must carry out Ellisís missions for the resistance while feigning gaiety with the enemy. In a marvelous scene in a train compartment, the two meet for the first time under the threat of revelation of Ellisís identity. Itís everyoneís favorite memory of World War II movies, beautifully done. The feeling that develops between them is authentic, understated, and, considering the often bewildering nature of good and evil, profound. But then, thatís the nature of this whole fine film
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