When I contemplate the review of a movie, the first thing I have to get straight in my mind is: How can I let the reader know something of the film so that they can form an opinion without telling the story and giving away too much?
The movie begins and ends with Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) living in a kibbutz in Israel, mid-1950s. By accident, she encounters Ronnie (Halina Reijn) who is on a tour of the Holy Land and they recognize one another from their acquaintanceship during World War Two.
As Ronnie departs on her tour bus, the two old friends wave goodbye and the scene cuts to Holland, 1944. Rachel is in hiding. The Nazis occupy the Netherlands and she’s a Jew. She was a cabaret singer in Berlin before the war, but managed to find sanctuary with a Christian family in Holland.
Read the rest of the review after the jump!
Upon returning from a bombing run, some British B-17s have to dispose of undropped bombs and damned if one doesn’t fall right on Rachel’s hidey-hole. Now she’s on the run, for if the Nazis find her…well, you know the drill.
She hooks up with an attorney named Smaal (the keeper of the black book), who has been given instructions by her father (also in hiding) to help her out if she comes to see him. She has an arrangement to escape to Allied-occupied lands and she needs money.
Unfortunately, the boat on which she and the twenty or so other Jews, including her parents and brother, have booked passage never makes it. They are gunned down by a Nazi patrol, and everyone is slaughtered except Rachel. She manages to swim away, but she’s still in Nazi territory.
Eventually, she meets with and becomes involved in the Dutch Resistance, who are doing all that they can to sabotage the Nazi occupation of the Hague. Through a set of mishaps, the son of the Resistance leader and several other comrades are captured. Rachel, now named Ellis de Vries, is enlisted to infiltrate to the deepest levels of Nazi command in an attempt to rescue them.
Ellis befriends and seduces Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch), a Nazi officer with one of those titles with a million letters that always end in fuhrer. He’s a big shot and she falls in love with him. There’s loads of sex and intrigue. Ronnie is involved with an SS officer named Gunter Franken (Waldemar Kobus), a sadistic evil man who, if you don’t hate him right away, you are a holocaust denier. Ludwig, on the other hand, sees that the end of the war is near and is trying to defuse the hostilities between resistance and occupiers.
This movie was not made in Hollywood (thank God), and it shines with “real life” characters. The struggles and horror of war are shown in a way that are believable without shit blowing up in every other scene. There are foiled plans, traitors, and opportunists everywhere. It’s never exactly apparent who is doing what, and to whom.
It has English subtitles, as all of the dialogue is in Dutch or German, but the acting is terrific, and the emotions are evident, even though you can’t understand what they are saying. (Well, I was okay with the German, but the Dutch language, even though similar, is too full of umlauts and such to be familiar to me.)
There is no happy ending. Obviously Rachel makes it, because we saw her in Israel in the beginning, but many others do not. Some of the good guys make it, but most do not. Some of the good guys turn out to be something else entirely. Some of the bad guys don’t make it, but some do, and it’s infuriating. I always want good to triumph, but that is what Hollywood is for.
Just when you think the movie has come to its conclusion, and Rachel is poignantly safe, the scene cuts back to the kibbutz where she and her husband and children return from a day at the beach. Suddenly, bombs are going off and there are air raid sirens and much running around of soldiers. The early events of the Arab-Israeli conflict are set in motion. See what I mean? No happy ending, but here indeed, the film ends.
Someday I’ll give you a review of a film I hated, just to show you that I have balance, but I must give Black Book high marks. Just don’t plan to be uplifted at the end.
Did I give away too much?