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We stopped reviewing foreign language films about two years back because, frankly, y'all weren't interested in reading about or seeing 'em. We sat for Paul Verhoeven's Black Book because we like Verhoeven's Hollywood output. That being written, over the last twelve years of writing as Cranky we've seen (probably) close to three thousand films. Of those three thousand . . .
IN SHORT: The best film we've seen as Cranky. Period. [Rated R. 145 minutes]
...and we nearly got into fisticuffs with another critic who, after watching a different screening, dismissed the film as a "laughable Holocaust movie." We didn't find much to laugh at in Black Book, and the Holocaust sits way off to the side of this WWII drama like an ultimate booby prize. With Oscar ten months off as we write this Black Book may or may not be eligible because of an international release last year ... but it's new to us Americans so here you go. Black Book is the story of one Jewish woman, a composite character built from the true stories of three, who gives a new meaning to the concept of "hiding in plain site."
There are many stories in my Tribe about the heroic and very Christian behavior of the people of Holland during the course of the Second World War. When all Jews were ordered turned in for deportation to the death camps, some good souls hid fellow citizens in attic hiding places. This is where Verhoeven's Black Book begins, with professional (and professionally recorded) singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) hidden in an attic room in the Dutch countryside. The price of safety? Daily religious instruction in the New Testament, and daily reminders from the head of the household that she wouldn't be "in this mess if Jews had listened to Jesus." Soon after Black Book begins, Rachel's hiding place is accidentally destroyed and she is forced to run. Thus begins the best film ever: the good guys are bad; the bad guys are good; the civilians in the middle aren't particularly thrilled with either side of the moral coin and there is a compelling look at the operations of the Dutch resistance and the Dutch Gestapo's inhumanity to the "terrorists" (aka resistance fighters) they capture.
The set up moves like a bolt of lightning and quickly puts Rachel into the protective arms of the Dutch Resistance, led by wholesale grocer Gerben Kuipers (Derek DeLint), Rachel adopts a nom de guerre -- Ellis de Vries -- and, posing as wife to one Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman -- we won't mention Akkermans again so remember the name when you see the film), smuggles guns and forged documents to other elements of the Underground. In course of events, she happens to meet one Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), head of the Dutch version of the Gestapo. The Resistance taking any course possible, Rachel/Ellis volunteers to seduce Müntze and mine him for information. She takes a job working for the man to do so. All you smart filmstudents out there say it along with Cranky: "And they proceed to fall in love." It only reads tacky. Müntze isn't stupid and sees Rachel for what she is almost immediately. He's already lost a wife and two children to a British bomb. He's lonely and the now blonde "Ellis" passes for Aryan cute. Go with it.
Meanwhile, "Ellis" is befriended at work by Ronnie (Halina Reijn), who is bedding Müntze's number two man, SD officer Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) a fat pig war thief who is getting rich ripping off the Jews he sends to the death camps. Other storylines reveal what happens to Rachel/Ellis' family and the kindly doings of the family lawyer, Wim Smaal (Dolf DeVries) and his wife (Diana Dobbelman) and what happens to Kuipers' son Tim (Ronald Armbrust) -- remember the name 'cuz it's a major plot twist. We'll say no more.
Actually we will say that we screened Black Book twice, a month before release. Frankly, we could sit a third time and still find it entertaining. It's that good. . . and long time readers know what the "Cranky saw it twice" bit means.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Ten Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Black Book, he would have paid . . .
With more twists to the story than you can shake a stick at, Black Book is one of the best WWII films we've seen. Period.
Don't bring a stick. Use the extra concentration for the subtitles. You won't regret it.
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