Writer/director Paul Verhoeven is known for pushing the envelope with his films, whether it be in the form of ultra-violent imagery ('Robocop'), graphic sexual content ('Basic Instinct'), or pure unadulterated trash ('Showgirls'). So when it was announced that the Dutch native had retreated from Hollywood and returned to the Netherlands to make an intimate World War II character study titled 'Black Book,' it posed an interesting question for critics and audiences alike -- would the pulpy director be able to balance his affinity for extremist behavior with the historical gravity of Nazi genocide?
The film itself tells the story of a Jewish woman named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) living the Netherlands during the Nazi regime. After her family is killed, she joins an underground resistance force run by a former surgeon named Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) and an older freedom fighter named Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint). After Gerben's son and several other militiamen are captured by the Nazis, Rachel is sent to save them by seducing a Nazi officer named Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), earning his trust, and then finding a way to rescue the imprisoned resistance members.
After successfully seducing the officer and infiltrating the Nazis, things get more complicated when Rachel begins to fall in love with the surprisingly thoughtful and good-natured Müntze. Although she manages to track down one of the men who massacred her fleeing refugee party, a series of events will lead both sides to determine her a traitor, resulting in repercussions and intrigue that will long outlast the war itself.
Given the general tone of Verhoeven's past work, I suppose it shouldn't surprise that 'Black Book' is far removed from the often staid approach of other European films with similarly themed subject matter. Indeed, while a synopsis of the film's plot might initially conjure up images of a smaller, Merchant-Ivory style romance epic, there's nothing small about this film, and I wouldn't call it particularly romantic, either.
In fact, perhaps the most striking thing about the film is the gravity of its subject matter doesn't seem to have quelled Verhoeven's penchant for taboo-breaking excess in the least. Using his plot as an excuse to put his lead actresses through a gauntlet of degrading scenes, the often depraved sexuality on display isn't offensive per se, but it feels staged and manipulative. A colleague blatantly gropes Rachel while she's preparing to infiltrate the German base. A nude officer dances around a urinal to the amusement of our helpless heroine. An angry crowd strips away Rachel's clothing and pours a conveniently placed vat of sewage on her. A woman pleasures herself on a piano to distract a room full of guards. The list goes on and on. There isn't any passion or meaning in these scenes -- instead, it felt like Verhoeven was staring at me, gleefully waiting to see if I would squirm or frown. I don't mind when frank sexuality is used to elicit emotion from a viewer, but I do mind when a director makes an obvious leap into exploitation simply to get a reaction.
Then there's the plot itself. Although clearly a labor of love for Verhoeven (he spent fifteen years co-writing it with Gerard Soeteman), the screeenplay is so riddled with twists and turns and apparent inconsistencies that ultimately it can't help but collapse under its own weight. Character traits, emotions and motivations seem to vary from scene to scene, loyalties shift without reason or provocation, friends betray friends without logical gain, and enemies form friendships without any basis. Is Gerben a bone-headed leader or a emotional father? Is Hans a decent man or a lecherous thug? It depends on what the script calls for at that moment. Perhaps most startlingly, Rachel's family is killed in front of her eyes, but it only takes a few scenes for her to fall for a man who orders the deaths of other Jews on a regular basis. I appreciate that Verhoeven takes some time to establish Müntze as a fairly decent guy, but -- come on -- are we supposed to believe that Rachel would overlook his participation in similar atrocities? Sadly, the only characters in 'Black Book' who are portrayed in a consistent manner are a group of cookie cutter resistance fighters, two initially-trustworthy traitors that have predictably sinister motives, and a band of evil-natured, one-note German soldiers.
Although it must sound by now like I have a vitriolic hate for 'Black Book,' the truth is I actually liked quite a lot about this film. The cinematography is gorgeous, the detailed period settings are exquisite, and the careful use of light and shadow often makes the film feel like a series of paintings. More importantly, the performances are excellent across the board, with each of the actors infusing subtlety and nuance to roles. Hoffman, Kobus, and Koch are in full control of their expressions and delivery, providing a glimpse into the complex minds of war criminals and rebels alike. Finally, in the pivotal role of Rachel, Carice van Houten is simply fascinating -- she brings an authenticity and vulnerability to her character that almost made me forget how much I hated so many of the developments in the story.
All in all, when Verhoeven gives his performers room to breathe, 'Black Book' has glimmers of triumph as an intriguing exploration of love, loss, and sacrifice in the dark shadows of the Nazi regime. Unfortunately, the debauched director can't seem to control his inner 'Showgirls,' and that (combined with an overwrought plot) robs 'Black Book' of a cohesive identity that could have made this much more than the simply average World War II drama it ends up being.
The film itself may be hit-or-miss, but the picture quality on this dual-layer BD-50 disc is an authoritative declaration of the benefits of high definition. Presented in 1080p using the AVC MPEG-4 codec, 'Black Book' has a striking filmic tone that features lush colors and an impressive level of fine object detail. The palette subtly alters based on the moods of individual scenes, but skintones remain natural and primaries retain their vibrance at all times. Detail is rarely obscured by darkness and shadow delineation is excellent, despite an abundance of potentially troublesome nighttime scenes and prison shots.
Regardless of how close or distant individuals are to the camera, their clarity and coloring remains realistic and their hair is a source of admirable detail. Topping it all off, stable black levels add depth to the three-dimensional photography and I didn't detect a hint of source noise. There is a light veil of grain inherent to the print, but it's unobtrusive and doesn't spike.
For a quick survey of this transfer's beauty, start with the opening scene in Israel -- every rock on the hillside is clearly defined, thin brush can be seen poking out of the sand, and the bus scatters tiny flecks of gravel with each turn. Wrap up with a look at the third act as the liberation forces gather in the streets for a parade -- notice the color saturation present in the crowd, the crispness of the clothing textures, and the intricate brickwork on the distant buildings.
Like their recent treatment of another wartime German import, 'The Lives of Others,' Sony has clearly invested some serious time into making 'Black Book' look as good as it can, and once again their efforts pay great dividends. From beginning to end, this is one of the most dependable high-def transfers I've seen on high-def yet.
This Blu-ray edition of 'Black Book' features two audio mixes -- a notably resonant uncompressed PCM 5.1 surround mix (48 kHz/16-Bit/4.6 Mbps) and an above-average Dolby Digital 5.1 track (640 kbps). Both mixes are presented in the film's original Dutchwith English subtitles, although portions of the film itself also include German and English dialogue.
The uncompressed track effortlessly handles the contrast between hushed scenes and violent outbursts. Quieter moments fill the channels with convincing ambiance and create a well rounded soundfield brimming with environmental presence and interior acoustics. Gunfights and explosions take good advantage of the LFE channel and the bass ranges hit with a palpable impact. Regardless of the onscreen action (or lack thereof), dialogue remains a top priority and each line is clear and stable. Voices are rarely relegated to the center speaker and instead inhabit multiple channels at any given moment.
To be honest, I wasn't expecting this mix to be as powerful as it is. The abundance of activity in the rear speakers gives the track an immersive quality that brings the war torn streets to life. The sound design includes innumerable layers that make each scene feel apart of a breathing world. The resulting depth of the film's soundfield is remarkable, only faltering when Verhoeven forces exaggerated sound effects alongside gory deaths (an intentional stylistic decision, rather than a problem with the PCM track).
The only major technical issue I had with the track is that channel accuracy is questionable at times -- effects sometime fill the speakers without much thought to the reality of the sound design. For the most noticeable instance of this discrepancy, listen closely during the prison-break scene -- the directionality of the blaring gunfire doesn't quite match the positioning of the guns in the soundscape. Still, this is an infrequent problem that most viewers won't even notice -- it hardly hinders this unexpectedly robust PCM track.
The Blu-ray version of 'Black Book' is being released concurrently with the standard DVD, and both editions feature the same supplemental content. Note that this package is entirely different from the movie's European DVD release, which included a 13 minute chat with Verhoeven, a 22 minute interview with Carice van Houten, a 4 page booklet, and a theatrical trailer. Instead, we get two new features produced explicitly for the US release -- an English-language director's commentary and a lengthy featurette.
I personally found Verhoeven's audio commentary a bit grating. While he does a decent job of documenting the trials and tribulations it took to make the film, he struck me as something of a braggart, with his comments suggesting that his work on this film is worthy of respect simply because of its subject matter. I wouldn't recommend this one to anyone aside from fans of the director himself and/or those curious about the more technical aspects of the film's production.
The "Making Of" featurette (25 minutes) is somewhat repetitive to the commentary, but is an improvement as it expands the field beyond just Verhoeven, including interviews with various cast members, who provide a nice overview of the project and the things that attracted them to it in the first place. (Note that this feature is presented in standard-def only.)
I had mixed feelings about 'Black Book' -- although I found the performances thoroughly engaging, I thought Verhoeven's style just didn't mesh with the seriousness of his subject matter. Even so, this release features a spectacular video transfer and a lush high-end audio track that makes this release worth a look. The only definitive downside to this disc is a relatively thin supplemental package that neither elevates the film, nor illuminates the reasoning for its off-kilter tone.