The Black Book

Mark this film down in your black or red book as a must-see for 2007.

Like The Lives of Others, the absorbing European war thriller Black Book again certifies that massive FX need not be the major ingredient of a popular film?Hollywood take notice.

"So good is his re-creation that he forgot to infuse his leads with enough character to make me care. In fact, so intent is the director on re-creation that he forgot creation is the essence of successful art."

That's what I said about Steven Soderberg's Good German starring George Clooney and Cate Blanchette. I say just the opposite about Paul Verhoeven's Black Book, a similar WWII story about nasty Nazis but set at the beginning of the end of the war, 1944 rather than 1945. Verhoeven's set-design recreation is faultless, but unlike Soderberg's, this one's in the service of well-developed characterization and a humdinger of a plot.

Although Blanchette could be remembered as a wily woman surviving to get out of Berlin in Good German, the Dutch Carice van Houten simply cannot be forgotten as a Dutch Jewish singer, Rachel/Elis, trying to escape German-occupied Holland, a serious resistance fighter willing to sacrifice her body to stop the Holocaust. Along with her is the memorable Sebastian Koch from Lives of Others as Ludwig Muntze, a leading Nazi with a conscience. The ensemble reminds me of Casablanca's stellar quality in every character, major or minor.

The weaknesses of the film cannot overshadow its strengths: Plot twists are overripe, although I suspect people on both sides of the betrayal game trying to save themselves were not uncommon in 1944. Ellis's uncanny ability to survive in all the lurid carnage is surpassed only by Mata Hari, WWI's exotic dancer spy.

Black Book satisfies an audience's interest in a tumultuous past, its thirst for engaging intrigue, and its search for acting of the first order. Mark this film down in your black or red book as a must-see for 2007.