My wife did an excellent job reviewing Black Book yesterday. I can’t say I disagree with anything she said. The film (called Zwartboek in its native Dutch) didn’t work quite as well as it could have on a variety of levels. Danielle touched on a couple and I’d like to expand on them, mostly because I think a movie that comes close to working and doesn’t is far more interesting than one that either works on all sides or fails completely.
So, why doesn’t Black Book work?
As a World War 2 Movie
Neither Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan have anything to worry about here. While Black Book is aiming more for espionage than full-on warfare, the atmosphere of hope in the face of despair is better captured in Schindler’s List. There’s also some elements of Black Book that try to tackle how human nature, true human nature, is revealed in armed conflict. Saving Private Ryan does that better. This isn’t to say that Black Book is bad or inept in handling these things, they’re just not handled as well as they are in the other two films.
As an Ass-Kickin’ Jew Revenge Flick
Quite a few movies have come out recently featuring Jewish protagonists putting their kosher boots up the asses of those despicable Nazis. Munich, Defiance, Inglorious Basterds even You Don’t Mess With The Zohan, though that dealt less with Nazis and more with rednecks and terrorists. Anyway, I haven’t seen Munich and Defiance is similar to Black Book in that it’s a moody piece centered around a little-known aspect of the war. We all know about Normandy, the Battle of the Bulge, Stalingrad and Hiroshima – the struggle for Belarus isn’t as famous. Neither is the liberation of Holland, for that matter. However, the best one of these so far remains Inglorious Basterds. As both a realization of the ultimate retribution of God’s chosen against the Third Reich and a sprawling espionage epic, Tarantino handles his story and actors adroitly while Verhoeven keeps his focus squarely on Carice van Houten getting her clothes off as often as possible. Which leads me into my last topic.
As a Verhoeven Film
On the whole, I like Paul Verhoeven’s work. More often than not, the success of his films are directly proportional to the amount of tongue he has in the subject matter’s cheek. Starship Troopers, for example, takes the piss out of militarism and the sort of ultra-nationalist sentiment towards loyalty that’d make either the Nazis or the Tea Party blush. Total Recall plays with the notion of identity and memory, keeping that element from Philip K. Dick’s work if nothing else. RoboCop easily pokes holes in privatization, our obsession with the media and the nature of corporate greed while delivering some pretty powerful storytelling. But Black Book plays everything straight. While I respect Verhoeven for not making light of the plight or challenges of the resistance in Holland in the twilight of the war, it’s also missing some of the elements that make quite a few of Verhoeven’s films such a delight to watch. Black Book is what happens when Verhoeven is, in essence, too serious. He has gone entirely the other way before, though, if Showgirls is anything to go by.
In the end, I did enjoy Black Book but everything it does has been done before and better elsewhere. It’s not bad, at all, but it’s definitely not the best.