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Black Book

Paul Verhoeven's Zwartboek is an extremely regressive film, but successful withal. It is the Boy's Own version of a girl's own story, where the girl is the kind of girl that Boys dream about but don't intend to marry. The story opens in the Netherlands in 1944. Rachel (Carice van Houten) is a Jewish woman who, before the war, sang in night clubs under the name of Ellis de Vries. She has been hiding out at in a farmhouse, but the farmhouse is blown up by Allied bombing - the first of many, many ironies.

The next thing you know, she has retrieved some cash from a sympathetic lawyer  (Dolf de Vries) and reunited with her family on a barge that's bound for Belgium. Anyone who doesn't quickly realize that this isn't a scene from the last reel that has been incorrectly spliced into the first is in for a rude awakening.

But Rachel survives. We knew that she would, because the movie (as distinct from the story) opens in 1956 in Israel, at a kibbutz at which Rachel is teaching songs to schoolchildren.

Now Rachel joins the Resistance, and goes mostly by her stage name. The leader of her cell is an impassioned man named Kuipers (Derek de Lint), but its most dashing member is Dr Akkermans (Tom Hoffman). Akkermans is visibly jealous when Ellis takes up her new and surprising assignment: seducing the head of the Gestapo in The Hague, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch). Ellis really likes Müntze, which makes things more pleasant, but she would have plenty of reasons for loathing his adjutant, Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), even if he weren't a slobbering letch.

I think that I've got to stop there. Once the double-crossing gets started and guns begin going off in unexpected places, you wonder who the traitor is going to turn out to be almost to the point at which you've run out of living suspects. The dénouement is frightfully hair-raising.

Ms van Houten reminded me throughout Black Book of Una Merkel, whom I know best as the supporting lead in Roy del Ruth's Born to Dance (1936). She's prettier than Merkel, perhaps, but here at least she is as pert and somewhat hard, a thick-skinned child of the Depression. The reason Rachel/Ellis is the star of a Boy's Own story is not that she's stacked (although she is), but rather that she's plucky in a highly idealized way. Humiliations roll off her duck's back almost without a trace. She may be improbable, but you can't help rooting for her as the heavies and the sneaks fall all round her. Her final escape from the jaws of destruction is one of those great unexpected movie moments that haunt the memory. You'd be crazy to miss Carice van Houten's star turn.

Sebastian Koch, who also stars in the recent German film Die Leben des Anderen (The Lives of Others), is a reasonably handsome man whose specialty seems to be looking attractively bewildered. He makes Müntze into a very sympathetic character, but, unfortunately, Müntze is the Gestapo chief, and there are rules about that. He's not as lucky as Georg Dreyman at surviving betrayal.

For all its gore and derring-do, Black Book is a fun picture, a live-action cartoon. (I'm thinking Largo Winch here.) Halina Reijn plays Ronnie, a character who seems to warn against taking things too seriously. Although she's a collaborator - she's Franken's secretary and squeeze - she survives with aplomb and quickly finds a seat in a Teddy jeep. And thanks to the framing device, we know that she comes out thriving. So will you. (April 2007)

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