Black Book AKA Zwartboek (2006) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - United Kingdom - Palisades Tartan
Review written by and copyright: Jari Kovalainen (21st October 2007).
The Film

***This section is taken from my earlier review of the R0 standard DVD-release from “Tartan Video UK”, which can be found HERE***

Dutch born director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven has now come full circle. After doing his WWII-film “Soldier of Orange AKA Soldaat van Oranje” in 1977, he’s exploring a similar subject in “Black Book AKA Zwartboek (2006)”. Before returning to work in his native country, he spent 20 years in Hollywood, where his reputation as a provocative filmmaker was sealed after the films like “RoboCop (1987)” and “Basic Instinct (1992)”. Sex and violence were often incorporated into his films in a stylistic and effective way, but there were times when it just got sleazy (“Showgirls (1995)” and “Hollow Man (2000)”). Hollywood can give, but it can also take away and Verhoeven wanted to get out of the system - to find his passion again as a filmmaker. The script had been circling in his mind for 15 years and it eventually took him back to his childhood town The Hague, in both the story and location wise. The Dutch resistance during the WWII is a subject near to his heart..

After the prologue, the story starts from September 1944. Roughly four years earlier the Netherlands was invaded by Nazi Germany. For the 140,000 Jews that lived in the country, this was a grim period and eventually only 30,000 survived the war. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten - e.g. “Valkyrie (2008)”) is a Jew, hiding under the false identity in the occupied Holland. She learns that the Germans are on her tail, which means that she has to flee from the area. Local policeman Van Gein (Peter Blok) offers help, which eventually leads to a dangerous boat ride in the middle of the night to the liberated Belgium. She borrows some money from Notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries - e.g. “Soldier of Orange AKA Soldaat van Oranje (1977)” and “The Fourth Man AKA De Vierde man (1983)”), an old friend of her father. Allied forces had finally landed in Normandy in June 1944 and are on the Dutch borders. Unfortunately their major “Operation Market Garden” had just recently failed, so the full liberation of Holland hadn’t materialised. Most of Belgium is in Allied hands, though, and that’s where Rachel - along with some other Jews, are headed. The trip to the safe haven turns into bloody carnage, when a German patrol boat ambushes them out of nowhere. Rachel barely escapes and watches from the distance SS officer Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus - e.g. “Stauffenberg AKA Operation Valkyrie (2004)”) and his men mercilessly kill everybody, including her family. From here on it becomes “personal” for Rachel. She joins the resistance movement in The Hague, run by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint - e.g. “Soldier of Orange AKA Soldaat van Oranje (1977)”), with energetic Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman - e.g. “The Fourth Man AKA De Vierde man (1983)”) serving as his right hand man. They have a bold plan; Rachel will have to seduce the SD (“Security Service”, intelligence service of the SS) officer, Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch - e.g. “The Lives Of Others AKA Das Leben Der Anderen (2006)”, Albert Speer in “Speer and Hitler: The Devil's Architect AKA Speer und er (2005)”-mini-series and the lead role in “Stauffenberg AKA Operation Valkyrie (2004)” TV-production) and infiltrate enemy territory. The dark haired Rachel will turn into a blonde femme fatale Ellis de Vries, doing what the legendary Mata Hari (allegedly) did in the WWI - to spy and gather information. Ellis is willing to do whatever her mission requires - even if it means having an affair with Müntze. Sexuality is her weapon of choice. There’s one thing she didn’t consider, though; What if she falls in love?

“Black Book” solid piece of craftsmanship and narrative by director Verhoeven, it stays intriguing and entertaining - even with almost 140 minutes of running time. The film is inspired by the true events, but I believe the main characters and the storyline is pretty much fiction. It’s important to know that even when the film is set to WWII and in predominantly historical places - including drama with many moving elements, the film is partly a “thriller”. It has also some action sequences that would fall under a “WWII adventure”. This means that it treats the subject matter a bit more on the “entertainment” side of the genre, even “pulp” occasionally. In that sense the film is a mixture of historical elements, Hollywood-influences and European filmmaking, all of which Verhoeven handles well. Most of the action sequences are rapid, explosive and violent, this is very much “Verhoeven style” in my opinion. Some scenes are reminded of Hollywood productions - for both good and bad, but once the general tone of the film becomes clear, you pretty much start to enjoy it as it is; an adventure-war film. Granted, some rather silly - even unconvincing, scenes are included. Eroticism is also present and the film has its share of nudity, this is another familiar aspect of his films. It still usually serves the story, either by being a part of the relationship between the “Ellis” and Müntze or just showing the hidden free-spirited lifestyle that goes on in the depths of the Third Reich. The latter is a familiar aspect in most modern WWII-movies; Russians are already in Berlin, but Germans still drink, dance and party. They try to alienate themselves from the reality. One could argue, that perhaps the film includes a couple of characters too many, since there’s no time to fully explore them all. Actors are still well chosen and Carice van Houten is definitely the actress of which we shall hear from. Sebastian Koch is a true professional, but in the end Müntze stays too one-dimensional, without any real edge. His superior, Obergruppenfuhrer General Käutner (Christian Berkel - e.g. “Der Untergang AKA Downfall (2004)”) is a good, but rather minor character. Ronnie (Halina Reijn) - the friend of Ellis, is a welcome addition and in a way is portraying one of the controversial women during war-time, that collaborated with the Germans. Many of them did that just to save themselves, but eventually paid the price for that after the liberation.

Like Verhoeven has stated, “Black Book” is a story where the Germans are not always the “bad guys” and the resistance the “good guys”. War brings out the worst from every side and sudden heroism can quickly turn into opportunism. In the end, many people want to save their own necks and money and power can be blinding. Fatal mistakes were made on both sides and innocents also suffered in the hands of resistance (where among the “heroes” were also pure criminals). The film introduces several characters from both sides (and some in the middle), there are many twists and turns, “cat & mouse”-games and plenty of scheming in the shadows. Essentially “Black Book” is still the story of one brave woman, trying to survive the hell that is war and to help the resistance movement, driven partly by revenge. Since the war is often uncontrollable, tides turn more than once for her, and not always in the desirable direction. The story is mainly fiction and often rather adventure-like, but it’s making some important points from that era and might serve as a minor “eye-opener” to some. In war, the tables can turn in minutes and that “good guy” suddenly becomes something else.

Video

The film is presented in 2.40:1 widescreen (1080p 24fps) and is using AVC MPEG-4 compression. I was very interested to see how the first Blu-ray-release from “Tartan Video UK” holds out compared to the bigger players and I´m glad to report: almost perfectly. By comparing the Blu-ray to the standard DVD, the Blu-ray-release shows how significant the difference between these two formats can be in some cases. The Blu-ray-transfer is sharp, detailed and clean, with solid black levels and strong contrasts. Colours are vivid (often quite “glamorous” even), really capturing the spirit of the film. The whole image is very pleasant and “film like”; I didn´t spot any edge enhancement, nor compression issues. There´s some minor film grain and perhaps some of the night scenes could´ve been a bit stronger, but generally this is a beautiful and very strong HD-transfer. “BD-50”-disc is used and there are 16 chapters. The film runs 145:29 minutes and the disc is confirmed to be "Region All".

Review equipment: Sony Bravia KDL-40W2000 LCD (1080p) + Playstation 3, via HDMI cable.

Audio

The disc includes three audio tracks, all in Dutch (with e.g. some German and English dialogue): DTS-HD Master 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 (at 640 Kbps) and Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (with Surround encoding - at 224 Kbps). I chose the DTS-HD-track, even when I believe only one player (Samsung BD-P1400, via new firmware) can fully decode DTS-HD Master-tracks (nor that many of the current receivers). This means that like the rest of the current players at the moment, Playstation 3 supports the 1.5 Mbps “core” from the DTS-HD Master-track (full track would use variable bitrates up to 24.5 Mbps on Blu-ray). As most film buffs know, 1.5 Mbps is equal to “full bit rate” DTS from the selected standard DVDs. Optional English subtitles are included (note that, like in the DVD, a few lines of dialogue in English are not subtitled).

The track is very good in every way, but outside the “action scenes” it tends to be a bit front heavy. In the various action bits the audio still can be quite bombastic, especially when the plane crashes down in the first part of the film - and later on when the various guns are rattling. There´s also more subtle surround activity in the film, but “louder” scenes are the ones that really kick in. A clean, lively and dynamic audio track.

Extras

Blu-ray includes all the extras from the Tartan Video´s DVD-release, but this time they´re a bit surprisingly presented in the smaller “window” that opens within the extras menu. The menu is in 1080p, but the extras are shot in Standard Definition. While I would´ve preferred the normal approach presenting these extras, at least they´re all ported over.

-“Paul Verhoeven interview” -featurette runs 13:07 minutes and is in English (no subtitles). Director/co-writer Verhoeven tells about his roots in Holland, where he has some strong memories (e.g. how the WWII ended). It was also an experience for him to come back from Los Angeles to Holland after many years, since everything had changed - also the film industry. After “Hollow Man (2000)” he had made a promised to himself that he would only do films he would care about and this was one reason why he left from Hollywood. Since Verhoeven was pretty much “out of the loop”, he had to get familiar with the Dutch actors. There was a lot of casting (Verhoeven brought back his old casting director) and after 6 hour from one of them, Carice van Houten stepped in and quickly convinced the director. He also talks about the more difficult scenes in the film and states that director has to set an example if that’s needed. The film (the most expensive Dutch film so far) had gotten a good reception by the viewers (no “old wounds” were torn when it comes to history), but the critics were not that kind (he states that he has never been “a darling to the critics”).

-“Carice van Houten interview” -featurette runs 22:48 minutes and is also in English (no subtitles). The actress tells about the casting process (he heard that the “master is back”) and despite the reputation of Verhoeven, the director was almost like a father-figure for her in the set and with clever humor guided her through the difficult scenes (take a pick; coffin, s*it, nudity, water and bubbling under - cutting the fishes heads). Singing (she performs some songs in the film, being very good, I might add) wasn´t very difficult, since she had took many singing and dancing lessons in the “theater school”. She also studied 6 years of German language in the school and like most already know, now lives with German actor Sebastian Koch (yes, “Müntze” in the film). Houten also tells that she learned something from the history during the production, since like many other from her generation, she always had learned that the Germans were always those “bad guys”. Houten tends to ramble a bit, but this is still quite interesting piece.

-Dutch theatrical trailer is included (2:23 min), with “forced” English subtitles.

*UPDATE: Blu-ray-release is actually a "combo" 2-disc Edition (our review-copy included only the "Blu-ray"-disc), including also the R0 SD DVD-release (on "Disc 2") of the film. Specs are as follows and the full review can be found HERE;

R0 SD DVD

Extras:
"Director/co-writer Paul Verhoeven interview” -featurette (12:36 min)
“Actress Carice van Houten interview” -featurette (21:53 min)
Dutch theatrical trailer

Anamorphic 2.35:1 PAL

(Optional) English subtitles

Dutch DTS 5.1
Dutch Dolby Digital 5.1
Dutch Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo

Overall

It’s nice to see that Europe can challenge Hollywood when it comes to WWII-films and find their stories from the wider perspective (let’s hope that “Leningrad (2006)” arrives also soon at least to DVD - “Tartan”, take note). “Black Book” is an entertaining and adrenaline packed war-thriller, which shows that Paul Verhoeven is far from finished from the movie business. It might not follow history in the strongest sense of the word, but you’ll have a good time. Nobody blamed “Guns of Navarone (1961)”, now, did they? This Blu-ray-release is one of the best transfers I´ve seen in HD and audio is also at a high level. Extras are quite informative, but perhaps that longer, “in-depth” documentary or audio commentary is missing. If you want to see this film in your home theatre in the best possible way, make sure it´s the Blu-ray-release.

For more info, please visit the homepage of Tartan Video (UK).

The Film: Video: Audio: Extras: Overall:

 


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