Paul Verhoeven's chequered career takes a new twist with his finest work to date as 'Black Book' ('Zwartboek') gives us a completely new take on the Holocaust in the Netherlands.
Having given us films varying from the entertaining ('Basic Instinct') to the awful ('Showgirl'), Verhoeven now brings us this excellent account of the trauma suffered by a young Jewish girl, Ellis (van Houten), as she attempts to avoid the attention of the Nazis. But this isn't a remake of Anne Frank's story - Ellis gets involved in escape attempts, resistance movements and assassination plots.
The story goes that Ellis' hiding place is destroyed by a stray bomb so she reunites with her family as they attempt to flee the Nazi-controlled country. Their attempted escape goes completely wrong and Ellis finds herself alone once more. She is put in contact with an underground group that gather information on the Nazis in Amsterdam by various means.
Ellis, formerly a professional singer, is put to work on the head of Hitler's regime in the Netherlands, Ludwig Müntze (Koch). As she infiltrates his life she finds herself becoming attached to him is a way she never imagined possible, with potentially disastrous consequences.
The story of Ellis is ultimately a tragic one and even the joy at the end of the war is tempered by great sadness in her personal life. Van Houten is absolutely stirring in the lead role and expresses the confusion and upheaval in the young lady to perfection.
There have been many fine war movies in the last two years; 'Sophie Scholl - The Final Days', 'Downfall' and 'Merry Christmas' stand out. However, 'Black Book' completely dwarfs these previous efforts. Verhoeven has delivered a work that is as much a thriller and true-life offering as it is a comment on the Holocaust.
In a time when Academy Award nominations depend as much on the pull of a production company as they do on the artistic integrity of a film, it would be refreshing to see Verhoeven and 'Black Book' named among the favourites for the big prizes. However, it is more likely that it will find itself among the nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. It will, no doubt, be overshadowed by Hollywood-based productions for the Best Picture award, though it's difficult to name anything that has warranted more praise in the last 12 months.
Verhoeven is currently working on another Dutch production about the life of a born-again Calvinist. If 'Black Book' is anything to go by we'll be in for another treat.