Black Book (2006)
Written by Gerard Soeteman & Paul Verhoeven
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Produced by San Fu Maltha, Jens Meurer, Teun Hilte, Jeroen Beker, Frans van Gestel, Jos van der Linden
Running time: 145 minutes
Should I Care?
At the age of 67, Paul Verhoeven got his filmmaking groove back by following the flight plan taken by so many Hollywood émigrés before him. He bought a plane ticket home — Holland, in this case — and made the Dutch/German language World War II action thriller Black Book, his first film outside the studio system in fifteen years. A similar approach worked wonders for the careers of Neil Jordan, Alfonso Cuarón and Mira Nair among others, but what Verhoeven comes back with needs almost too many qualifiers to work as a movie. “Yes, it’s got all the realism of a soap opera. No, it’s not meant to be taken as history. Yes, it’s ridiculous and laughable at times, but…” But this isn’t a very good film. A favorite among lovers of cinema and cable movie T&A alike, Black Book stubbornly refuses to take anything it pretends to be about seriously. The end product is watchable, but difficult to get hot and bothered about in any way.
To the credit of Verhoeven and his casting directors, Black Book boasts lead performances that make international stars out of Dutch actress Carice van Houten and Sebastian Koch, a German best known for his sympathetic performance in the Oscar winning The Lives of Others (2006). Van Houten & Koch spark a warm and sensual and adult dynamic that isn’t too far removed from the one shared by Jane Fonda & Donald Sutherland in Klute. They’re good enough to watch in just about anything, including a cheeseball action farce that makes The Dirty Dozen feel like a documentary. The problem with Black Book isn’t how much it resembles a comic book, but how it swerves between two completely different movies: a stylish historical drama exploring war, genocide and anti-Semitism, and a popcorn action flick with killings and boobies. Verhoeven aims for both dartboards and hits neither.
So, What’s This About?
In October 1956, a sightseeing bus reaches a kibbutz on the Dead Sea in Israel. Music draws a Dutch tourist named Ronnie (Halina Reijn) to a classroom, where she recognizes the songstress as a woman she knew during the war: Ellis de Vries (Carice van Houten). The discovery that Ellis is Jewish comes as a surprise to Ronnie and once she departs, “Ellis” — whose real name is Rachel Stein — returns in memory to occupied Holland of September 1944. Hidden from the Germans by a farmer who demands Bible study in exchange for room and board, Rachel loses her sanctuary when an American bomber dumps its ordinance on the farm. A Dutch police inspector with sympathies to the resistance tracks Rachel down and agrees to arrange passage for her across enemy lines. After visiting the family attorney (Dolf de Vries) to extract what she can in cash and jewels, Rachel is reunited with her brother, mother and father aboard a barge headed for Belgium.
Rachel’s party is intercepted by a patrol led by the Obersturmführer (Waldemar Kobus) whose stormtroopers gun down everyone on board. Rachel escapes and is spirited by the resistance into The Hague. She accepts work in a produce factory whose owner (Derek de Lint) leads a communist cell. He ultimately offers Rachel a different line of work: using her femininity to assist a valiant resistance fighter (Thom Hoffman) smuggling contraband across Holland. Evading capture aboard a train, Rachel meets Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), a handsome stamp collector who happens to command the S.S. in Holland. Making an impression on the benevolent German officer, Rachel is tasked with using any means at her disposal to gain his trust. Muntze awards her a clerical position at S.S. headquarters, where Rachel uncovers a plot between the Nazis and their collaborators to murder and rob Jewish refugees. Rachel finds herself entangled in loyalties to her country, her faith and her lover.
Who Made It?
Paul Verhoeven was born in Amsterdam one year before the outbreak of World War II. Spending a segment of his childhood in Nazi occupied Holland, he transitioned from studying mathematics and physics at the University of Leiden to the Royal Dutch Navy, where a hobby in filmmaking became his predominant interest. A career in Dutch television as creator of the swashbuckler Floris — starring Rutger Hauer — led to several acclaimed films in Holland: Soldier of Orange (1977), Spetters (1980), The Fourth Man (1983). Outgrowing his native land, Verhoeven immigrated to Los Angeles and found success juggling sex and violence with flashes of social commentary: RoboCop (1987), Basic Instinct (1992), Starship Troopers (1997). His experiences with the special effects extravaganza Hollow Man (2000) proved a career catharsis for Verhoeven, who turned to Dutch collaborator Gerard Soeteman to draft potential projects set in historical Europe.
During the research phase of Soldier of Orange, Soeteman & Verhoeven had amassed enough material for another movie on the Dutch resistance during World War II, but it took two decades for Soeteman to realize that what the story needed to gel was a female protagonist. Titled Zwartboek (Black Book), the script was the consensus favorite among investors Verhoeven had reached out to in Europe for his next film. Securing a budget of roughly 16 million euros (21 million dollars) through a myriad of financiers in Holland, Germany, the United Kingdom and Belgium, Verhoeven collaborated with a German director of photography, Dutch art designer, British composer and actors completely unknown to most Americans. The Dutch/German language action thriller drew some of the most positive critical notices of Verhoeven’s career and was even named official entry of The Netherlands for Best Foreign Film at the 2007 Academy Awards.
How’d They Do It?
Hollow Man lifted off to the biggest box office of Paul Verhoeven’s career, but landed with a thud among critics and moviegoers alike. Waiting on Hollywood to send him material, the director lamented, “The scripts that have come to my office have all been, let’s say, pretty tame. The scripts that really interest me are a little bit edgy and have a little tension between the audience and the film itself. Those kinds of scripts have not been written much, or at least they didn’t get to me. There has been, mostly because of 9/11, an enormous amount of escapism. I mean, if you see the big successes of the last five or six years, they are all highly into fantasyland. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man — they’re all basically things that are not true and are not dealing with the reality of the world.” He added, “American movies in the last years have gone in the direction of non-confrontational, easy on the audience, pleasant to the audience, escapist, not confronting reality much, or not integrating reality to a strong and harsh degree, like life is.”
Screenwriter Gerard Soeteman had labored over three projects for Verhoeven to direct and each was set in the Old World. An adaptation of Boris Akunin’s bestselling 19th century detective novel The Winter Queen was at the top of the list, while a return to the grounds Soeteman & Verhoeven had sowed in Soldier of Orange was stuck in neutral. The director recalled, “That material was already there in 1978 and we thought it was great, but it showed more the shadows than the light. We could not solve the script immediately. It took us twenty years to solve it! Soldier of Orange brought us this material, and we couldn’t use it.” He added, “We put the material aside and thought about it for twenty years. And then we changed protagonists. The original protagonist of the movie was the young boy in the sailboat. It’s a very small part now, but it was the main part. We could never figure out how he would be able to infiltrate the German headquarters. Whatever we came up with, it seemed contrived. When Gerard changed it around, well, she uses her sexuality to get inside.”
Verhoeven elaborated on the collaboration. “Gerard sets out the structure and the general drift. He monitors story development and character development. He writes the first draft and the next drafts. I then add things and change things, scenes as well as characters. If my memory serves, I came up with Ronnie, as I did with Maja in Spetters. The scenes at the end in the prison camp are mostly mine. I have made a significant contribution to the script. For most films I made with Gerard, the script was mostly his so I didn’t get a credit. But this time my contribution was such that Gerard and I both felt that we should share the writing credits.” He added, “Gerard and I have always clicked. We are from a similar background, even though our characters are very different. Gerard is only two years older than me. We were both children in the war, we went to grammar school, studied at Leiden University, and both did our national service. And then we met on the TV series Floris. With such similar backgrounds it’s easier to work together than when you are from different worlds.”
By Verhoeven’s estimation, between 700 and 800 documents were referenced to form the basis of the script, notably a report by a member of the Dutch Nazi Party named H.W. van der Vaart Smit, who was imprisoned after the war. “We have weaved some of those stories into Black Book. This is what makes the film so provocative, because nobody has yet shown how we treated our prisoners in 1945. But that wasn’t our only source of inspiration for the film. Picture archives were another. For instance pictures of the camp guards. Members of the provisional army and resistance people. After all, after the war everybody claimed to have been in the resistance. There were lots of dubious people there. If you look at those pictures, you wouldn’t have wanted to be at their mercy. They way they strut when they had arrested a Dutch Nazi, makes you fear the worst.” Rachel Stein was modeled after three Dutch women who lived under Nazi occupation: resistance fighters Esmée van Eeghen and Kitty van der Have and singer Dora Paulsen.
With a script for Black Book in hand by the end of 2003, Verhoeven reached out to Jos van der Linden, production manager on Spetters. Van der Linden introduced the director to San Fu Maltha, former head of acquisitions for Polygram International who’d launched Fu Works, an Amsterdam based production company. Verhoeven enthused, “San Fu felt right immediately; because of his collaboration with Jos, because he’s increasingly putting himself on the map as a producer, and because he’s got this international air about him. He’s got lots of contacts abroad, and that was important for this film. After all, Black Book is a big international production. And I my intuition didn’t lie, because San Fu has made some excellent financial deals.” By the closing of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, Verhoeven’s next film was lined up with Maltha and producers Jens Meurer (for Berlin based Egoli Tossell), Teun Hilte (London based Clockwork Pictures) and Jeroen Beker & Frans van Gestel (Amsterdam based Motel Films). German private media fund VIP Mediafonds came on board as majority financier.
Verhoeven mused, “Financially, a disaster, getting money from all these different sources, about fifteen, and with the distribution deals, then you have thirty deals or something like that. But it’s a co-production with Germany, England, Holland, and Belgium, and all the post-production had to be done in England. In Babelsburg, we used all the interiors there, and there was a lot of extra German funding because there were three very important German parts. Then, of course, we had the Dutch funds, television funds, and then there is this European fund, situated in Strasbourg, I think, so to keep that money going parallel to how much money you’ve spent is — well, it’s not parallel at all. So from that point of view, the United States is ten times easier. Certainly if you work for a studio, that’s not a concern in any way. Artistically, of course, it was paradise, because nobody told me ‘This is too violent or too sexy, too many breasts, too much this, too much that, morally too ambiguous.’ Or ‘That’s not possible — a Jewish girl and a Nazi officer — it’s morally unacceptable,’ et cetera. None of that. We had the script, and the producers said, ‘Good, let’s shoot this.’”
When it came to casting, Verhoeven found himself out of sorts on native soil. “I had lived for twenty years in the United States so when I came back to Holland I had to catch up a little bit on the Dutch film industry. I used some of the actors I worked with before I came to America like Derek de Lint and Thom Hoffman. But the movie was mostly about younger people. I had seen a movie called Minoes where Carice played a cat. So I must say that I dismissed her immediately, but my casting director felt that that was probably not representative of her and brought her in on the first day of the auditions. Even though we did auditions for two months after that it was clear that on the day we met her that she was right for the part. She is phenomenal. She’s a real big talent. She does all her own singing. Often I was forced to back off as director and say to her, ‘Forget my instructions. Do what you want.’ She is probably the most talented actor that I’ve ever worked with.” For Black Book, Verhoeven reunited with his Dutch casting director Hans Kemna.
Filming was underway in The Hague, Netherlands by August 2005, with director of photography Karl Walter Lindenlaub lighting sets designed by Wilbert Van Dorp. Verhoeven explained, “I was never sure that I would shoot the next week because the money would not come in. You’re working with a crew that has not been paid for months and they do it because they like that I did this movie and that it was a big movie and a European movie so they stayed. Otherwise they would have left. Now that is not a pleasant feeling, to work with a crew that is partially not paid, and to go do it. So I felt that was a bit nightmarish and I feel it’s the case with every independent movie, and there are many of them that you start and they fall apart.” After wrapping interior scenes at Studio Babelsburg in December 2005, Verhoeven lobbied producers for a prologue in Israel. “I tried to convince them that it was absolutely necessary that this way: Israel at the beginning and the end what happened to her. How did she evaluate the situation with the Dutch? And of course, she evaluated it by turning her back on Holland and going to Israel.”
Screened at the Venice Film Festival and Toronto Film Festival in September 2006, Black Book opened later that month in The Netherlands. Arriving April 2007 in the United States, critics seemed shocked how much they enjoyed it. Manohla Dargis, The New York Times: “Mr. Verhoeven’s cartoon realism, accentuated by the sitcom lighting, the primitively staged gun battles, the gnashing teeth, whizzing bullets and thundering score, has its hard-surface appeal. Designed for distraction (the frequently timed gunfights suggest as much), Black Book works only if you take it for the pulpiest of fiction, not a historical gloss, its stated claims to ‘true events’ notwithstanding.” Marrit Ingman, The Austin Chronicle: “The action set-pieces, double crosses, and narrow escapes are handsomely mounted and suspenseful as a Saturday matinee. In the production notes, Verhoeven cites David Lean as an influence, and the film has Lean’s epic scope and crackerjack timing, if not his mannerly refinement.” Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com: “It’s a messy, colorful big-screen entertainment that veers from sober period piece to outrageous melodrama, which is to say it’s a Verhoeven movie.”
Rounding up $4.3 million in the United States, Black Book sold $22.3 million in tickets overseas. Hailed as a comeback for Verhoeven, Black Book was submitted by The Netherlands to vie for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. The director reported, “The reviews in Europe have been very positive in general. Well, except in Holland. Many reviews in Holland were negative. It’s been the biggest R-rated hit there in twenty-five years, the audience has embraced it. The last one that was that successful was my own movie, Spetters. But the critics have been very tough. Some of them feel I have been Americanized, and I think it’s true that I have used my American experience to create a more driving narrative. Which is often absent in European films, even the greatest ones. In La Dolce Vita, a classic of European filmmaking, the story is nearly zero. There is no compelling narrative. Working in the American film industry has made me want to make movies with compelling, driving narratives. But Holland has always been, well, like it says in the New Testament, no prophet is honored in his own country.”
Where’d You Get All of This?
“A Conversation With Director Paul Verhoeven” By Bill Hunt. The Digital Bits, 29 December 2000
“Verhoeven’s Black Book Cranks Up In The Hague” By Robbert Blokland. ScreenDaily.com, 29 August 2005
“Director Paul Verhoeven Discusses Black Book” By Rebecca Murray. About.com, 31 March 2007
“Paul Verhoeven” By Scott Tobias. The A.V. Club, 3 April 2007
“Paul Verhoeven Gets Real”By Andrew O’Hehir. Salon.com, 6 April 2007
“Verhoeven’s Dutch Comeback” By Karl Rozemeyer. Premiere Magazine, April 2007
“Back To Basics: Talking to Paul Verhoeven” By Damon Smith. Bright Lights Film Journal, August 2007
“Paul Verhoeven Interview” By Daniel Robert Epstein. UGO.com