Zwartboek [Black Book] (2006)

(On DVD, August 2011) For a director who helped re-shape American popular cinema with four solid hits and one legendary failure in-between 1987’s Robocop and 1997’s Starship Troopers, Paul Verhoeven has been really quiet since the artistic failure of Hollow Man in 2000.  To see his only film since then, you’d have to find  Zwartboek, a World War 2 thriller in which a beautiful young Netherlander woman is stuck between the occupying Nazi forces and the local resistance movement during the last few days of the war.  While, at first, Zwartboek seems to be just another resistance film, the increasingly messy tangle of allegiances makes for a far more interesting narrative, and a striking statement on what happens after victory is obtained: Accounts are settled, resentment surfaces as aggression and accusations are more effective than doubt.  Produced with what feels like a decent budget by Netherlander standards, Zwartboek convincingly re-creates the period, and features more than decent production values.  There are even a few chases and explosions to reassure us that, yes, it’s that Paul Verhoeven.  But much of the film belongs to the actors, starting with Carice van Houten playing a merciless role as the heroine.  (WW2 cinephiles will also recognize Christian Berkel from other similar movies as Valkyrie, Downfall and Inglourious Basterds, among many others.)  Amusingly for a film featuring an unusual non-Anglo-Saxon viewpoint on WW2, Canadians get a fairly good portrait as the liberators toward the end of the story.  Weaker points include a framing device that robs the film of a bit of suspense, and a clunky first act that seems to run around in coincidental circles, meeting everyone twice in the small universe of The Hague.  Still, while the film’s solid European origins clearly show in the amount of casual nudity and the last act’s lack of moral certitudes, the overall result is an entertaining film that more than holds up to anything else in the world.

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