Zwartboek (Black Book) is a Holland homecoming for director Paul Verhoeven, returning to the Netherlands from the United States after the technically accomplished but narratively conventional (for Verhoeven) Hollow Man (2000), which felt like Hollywood had managed to blunt the edges that made him so distinctive as an artist. Going back to his filmmaking roots with Zwartboek seemed to reinvigorate Verhoeven, freeing him from US studio shackles and reuniting him with screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, with whom he collaborated on early Dutch classics like The Sensualist (Turkish Delight, 1973) and De vierde man (The Fourth Man, 1983).
Set during 1944 in Nazi-occupied Netherlands, Zwartboek centres on Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a young Jewish woman in hiding. Attempting to escape with her family and other Jews on a boat at night, Nazis attack them and everybody except Rachel is murdered. She manages to slip away, joins a resistance group in the Netherlands and assumes a new identity as Ellis de Vries. After the Nazis capture some fellow resistance members, Rachel goes undercover in an attempt to infiltrate the enemy headquarters. Matters get more complicated when Rachel meets Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), a Nazi officer, and develops an attraction to him, which could compromise her cover.
Zwartboek is like an amalgamation of elements from Verhoeven’s early Dutch works and later Hollywood films, including the gutsy heroine in Keetje Tippel (Katie Tippel, 1975) navigating her way through a hostile hierarchy, the Second World War setting of Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange, 1977), the resistance group in Total Recall (1990) battling a powerful regime, and the violent conflict and fascist world of Starship Troopers (1997). The film also anticipated later Hollywood films set in the Second World War, including Valkyrie (2008), which also featured Carice van Houten, and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), whose character of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), another blonde Jewish woman resisting the Nazis, echoed that of Rachel. However, while Shosanna the character and Tarantino the filmmaker (and the Basterds) are merciless towards the Nazi occupiers, the character of Rachel and director Verhoeven wade into more morally murky and ambiguous territory, making people like Müntze sympathetic and portraying some resistance members in a less than flattering light.
Verhoeven’s films have frequently featured strong women at the centre of the drama and Zwartboek continues this trend. In fact, this film sees the return of what could be termed ‘the Verhoeven Blonde’, a reconfiguration of the iconic ‘Hitchcock Blonde’. Whereas Hitchcock’s films put his sympathetic blonde women in peril and appeared to punish them for their apparent ‘transgressions’ (particularly for asserting their independence), as in late period Hitchcock films like Psycho (1960), The Birds (1963) and Marnie (1964), Verhoeven seems to revel in showing the Blonde women in his films command the screen, dictate the narrative and overcome their persecutors. Rachel is in the tradition of Verhoeven femme fatales played by Renée Soutendijk in De vierde man and Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct (1992), and the strong, resolute women portrayed by Monique van de Ven in Keetje Tippel and Elizabeth Berkley in Showgirls (1995).
Zwartboek could also be seen as a reflection of Vertigo (1958), with both films being thrillers where a woman dyes her brunette hair blonde and assumes a new identity. However, while Kim Novak’s brunette Judy in Vertigo is at the mercy of powerful and obsessive men, and feels forced to change into the image of blonde Madeline order to please them, the brunette Rachel in Zwartboek is less manipulated by men and much more in control, presented as physically attractive but not as the almost untouchable romantic ideal like Madeline. Instead, Rachel is down-to-earth and pragmatic, changing from brunette to blonde by her own volition and understanding that she may have to sleep with Müntze to aid the resistance, and making that choice herself rather than being ordered by a man to do it.
Rachel starts the film as a carefree young woman with a rebellious, playful streak, as when she cheekily flashes her legs to admiring soldiers, but her rebellion is soon channelled into a more focused role for the resistance. Later, though, Rachel becomes a more haunted, troubled figure as the weight of events accumulate, as seen when she suddenly convulses with grief at a key moment, as if her supressed feelings about the tragedies she has suffered throughout the film finally erupt from her. It is a shocking moment for the character and thoroughly convincing performance from van Houten. Throughout, van Houten commands the screen, seeming to relish the dramatic opportunities afforded by the character and the material.
While the subject matter of Zwartboek may be serious, the impish, provocative side of Verhoeven is apparent in a number of scenes, none more so than the casual display of Rachel’s pubic hair being dyed blonde, a would-be contentious scene in an American film, perhaps, but played as light-hearted here, as well as being an act of necessity for Rachel’s undercover role. However, the earlier massacre on the boat at the film’s start shows Verhoeven’s more serious side, where he takes his usual uncompromising approach to showing violence. While gore is commonplace in many contemporary action films, Verhoeven depicts violence as sudden, random and indiscriminate, casual but causal, making it all the more shocking.
While Zwartboek does not shy away from the violence of the Second World War, this is less of a sombre drama like Schindler’s List (1993) or Saving Private Ryan (1998) and more a fast-paced thriller. This does not diminish the power of Zwartboek, only to observe that Verhoeven’s film is more like a gripping page-turner with sudden eruptions of harsh reality than a solemn treatment of the horrors of war. In this respect, comparisons can be made with Starship Troopers, a seemingly silly action film that was actually a satire on militarism and propaganda. Zwartboek may not have the satirical slant of Starship Troopers, but it shares with that film an uncomfortable observation that war is a recurring human trait. Starship Troopers begins and ends in the same way, with war as a machine in perpetual motion where the fresh meat of young soldiers is repeatedly fed into the grinder. This cyclical structure is also in Zwartboek, which starts and ends in 1956 Israel, with Rachel and her new family apparently at peace. However, there is a suggestion that a new conflict is not too far away, and Rachel’s story thus ends on a serious, unnerving and ultimately unresolved note.1
Zwartboek (Black Book) (2006 Netherlands/Germany/UK/Belgium 145 mins)
Prod Co: Fu Works/UMedia Scr: Gerard Soeteman & Paul Verhoeven, Prod: Jeroen Beker, San Fu Maltha, Frans van Gestel, Jos van der Linden, Teun Hilte Dir: Paul Verhoeven Phot: Karl Walter Lindenlaub Ed: Job ter Burg & James Herbert Prod Des: Wilbert Van Dorp Mus: Anne Dudley
Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus, Derek de Lint, Christian Berkel, Dolf de Vries, Peter Blok, Michiel Huisman
- For further details on the making of Zwartboek, see: Linda Ruth Williams, “Sleeping with the enemy,” Sight & Sound (February 2007, Volume 17, Issue 2): pp. 18-20; and Ginette Vincendeau, “Black Book,” Sight & Sound (February 2007, Volume 17, Issue 2): pp. 43-44. ↩