At the time of release, it was the most expensive Dutch film ever made, and also the Netherlands' most commercially successful, with that country's highest box office gross of 2006. In 2008, the Dutch public voted it the best Dutch film ever.
In 1944, Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Dutch-Jewish singer who had lived in Berlin before the war, is hiding from the Nazi regime in the occupied Netherlands. When the farmhouse where she had been hiding is accidentally destroyed by an American bomber, Rachel manages to escape the area thanks to a local man, Rob (Michiel Huisman), and visits a lawyer named Smaal, who provides her with some of her father's money so that she can flee, helped by a man named Van Gein (Peter Blok). Rachel and Rob are reunited with her family and try to flee by boat through the Biesbosch with other Jews from the Nazi-occupied part of the Netherlands to the liberated southern part of the country. However, it turns out to be a trap. They are ambushed on the river by members of the German SS, who kill them and rob the bodies of their cash and other valuables. Rachel alone survives, but she does not manage to escape from occupied territory.
Using a non-Jewish alias, Ellis de Vries, Rachel becomes involved with a Dutch resistance group in the Hague, under the leadership of Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and working closely with a doctor in the Resistance, Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). Smaal is in touch with this Resistance cell. When Kuipers' son and other members of the Resistance are captured, Ellis agrees to help by seducing local SD commander Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), bleaching all of her hair blonde. Müntze invites her to a party at the local SD headquarters, and there, Ellis recognises Obersturmführer Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), Müntze's brutal deputy, as the SS officer who oversaw the massacre of her refugee party. She obtains a job as a secretary at the SD headquarters while also falling in love with Müntze, who, in contrast to Franken, is not abusive or sadistic. He realises that her hair is bleached and she is a Jew, but does not care. She also becomes friends with her Dutch colleague Ronnie (Halina Reijn), who collaborates with the Germans, working for them, being sexually available to them (particularly Franken), and accepting stolen gifts from them.
Thanks to a hidden microphone which Ellis plants in Franken's office, the Resistance realises that it was Van Gein who betrayed Rachel, her family and the other Jews to the SS in return for a cut of the profits. Against Kuipers' orders, Akkermans and others decide to abduct Van Gein to expose the suspected traitor. The plot goes wrong when Akkermans' chloroform fails to work; Van Gein begins to succumb to it, but suddenly fights back and is killed. Franken responds by planning to kill forty hostages, including most of the plotters, but Müntze, who realises the war is lost and has been negotiating with the Resistance, cancels the order.
Müntze confronts Ellis and demands that she tell him her story, which she does. On her evidence he confronts Franken with a superior officer, Obergruppenführer Käutner, who orders Franken to open his safe, in a search for the money, gold and jewels stolen from the Jews he had killed. (Murdering Jews was not against SS regulations, but personally stealing their wealth was a capital offense.) However, the safe reveals nothing, and Franken tells Käutner that Müntze has been negotiating with Dutch resistance "terrorists" for a truce. Müntze is condemned to death and imprisoned, along with the members of the resistance cell Franken was already planning to shoot as a reprisal for the killing of Van Gein. Ellis agrees to participate in a rescue attempt for the resistance prisoners only on the condition that they free Müntze too and, albeit reluctantly, the others agree. The plan has been betrayed by an unknown insider, and the would-be rescuers find the prisoners' cells to be filled with German troops. Only Akkermans and one other man survive the "rescue".
Ellis is subsequently arrested by Franken and taken to his office, which she had bugged. Franken has known about her and the bug for some time. Knowing that the resistance is listening in, he stages a confrontation to make the resistance group believe Ellis is the Nazi collaborator, responsible for the failure of the rescue operation. Hearing this, Kuipers and his companions swear to hunt her down and make her pay for her treason. Ronnie, having learned of Ellis's role with the Resistance, helps Ellis and Müntze escape.
When the country is liberated by the Allies, Franken attempts to escape by boat, but is killed by Akkermans who takes the loot Franken was trying to escape with. Suspecting Smaal is the traitor, Müntze and Ellis return to confront him. Smaal denies the accusations. He shows them the titular black book in which he had detailed all his dealings with the Jews he had ostensibly helped. However, both Smaal and his wife are murdered before they can leave the building. Not getting a good look at the killer, Müntze chases him into the street, only to be recognized by the triumphant Dutch and arrested by the Canadians. The Dutch also recognize Ellis and arrest her as a "collaborator", but not before she grabs the black book.
Müntze is brought before the ranking Canadian forces and finds that they have enlisted the assistance of Käutner in keeping order among the defeated German forces. Käutner convinces a Canadian colonel that under military law the defeated German military retains the right to punish its own soldiers. He produces the death warrant he previously issued against Müntze for his negotiations with Ellis's resistance cell. Although initially opposing the idea of murdering a witness, the Canadian colonel finally agrees, and Müntze is immediately executed by a firing squad of German troops.
Ellis is imprisoned with other accused collaborators, and humiliated and tortured by the violently anti-Nazi volunteer jailers, but is rescued by Akkermans, now a colonel in the Dutch Army. Akkermans brings her to his medical office, and tells her that he killed Franken when the Nazi tried to escape. He shows her the cash and jewels stolen from Franken's Jewish victims. When informed about Müntze's fate, Ellis goes into shock, and Akkermans administers a tranquilizer which is in fact an overdose of insulin. Ellis, feeling dizzy, sees the bottle of insulin and survives by quickly eating a bar of chocolate. She realizes then that Akkermans was a traitor who had collaborated with Franken and had killed the Smaals. While Akkermans is distracted, waving to a crowd that cheers him, she jumps from his balcony into the crowd below and runs away. He tries to follow her, but is blocked by the very same people cheering him as a hero of the Resistance.
Ellis proves her innocence to Canadian military intelligence and to the former Resistance leader Gerben Kuipers by means of Smaal's black book, which lists how many Jews (including Ellis's brother) had been taken to Akkermans for medical help just prior to their murders. Together, Ellis and Kuipers intercept the fleeing Akkermans, who is hiding in a coffin in a hearse with the stolen money, gold and jewels. They quickly kill the driver, and while Kuipers drives the hearse, Ellis screws down the coffin's secret air vents. They drive to Hollands Diep where the SS trap had been sprung, and wait until Akkermans suffocates. Ellis and Kuipers are left wondering what to do with the stolen money and jewels.
The scene changes to Israel in 1956, and shows Rachel meeting her husband and their two children, and walking back into Kibbutz Stein, which a sign at the gate announces was funded with the recovered money stolen from Jews killed during the war.Carice van Houten as Rachel Stein, alias Ellis de Vries
Sebastian Koch as Ludwig Müntze
Thom Hoffman as Hans Akkermans
Halina Reijn as Ronnie
Waldemar Kobus as Günther Franken
Derek de Lint as Gerben Kuipers
Christian Berkel as General Käutner, superior of Günther Franken and Ludwig Müntze in the Sicherheitsdienst
Dolf de Vries as Mr. Smaal, attorney who keeps the black book
Peter Blok as Mr. Van Gein, policeman who betrays those trying to leave occupied territory
Michiel Huisman as Rob, sailor who helps Rachel Stein
Ronald Armbrust as Tim Kuipers, son of Gerben Kuipers, a communist, and a member of the resistance group
Frank Lammers as Kees, member of the resistance group
Matthias Schoenaerts as Joop, member of the resistance group
Johnny de Mol as Theo, devout Christian and member of the resistance group
Xander Straat as Maarten, member of the resistance group
After 20 years of filmmaking in the United States, Verhoeven returned to his homeland, the Netherlands, for the making of Black Book. The story was written by Verhoeven and screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, with whom he made successful films such as Turkish Delight (1973) and Soldier of Orange (1977). The two men had been working on the script for fifteen years, but they solved their story problems in the early 2000s by changing the main character from male to female. According to Verhoeven, Black Book was born out of elements that did not fit in any of his earlier movies, and it can be seen as a supplement to his earlier film about World War II Soldier of Orange.
Verhoeven has emphasized that the story does not show an obvious moral contrast between characters, for a theme of moral relativism:
Black Book is not a true story, unlike Soldier of Orange, but Verhoeven states that many of the events are true. As in the film, the German headquarters were in the Hague. In 1944 many Jews that tried to cross to liberated parts of the southern Netherlands were entrapped by Dutch policemen. As in the film, crossing attempts took place in the Biesbosch. Events are related to the life of Verhoeven, who was born in 1938 and grew up in the Hague during the Second World War.
The initial estimate of the budget for making Black Book was €12,000,000. According to film producer Rob Houwer, who worked with Paul Verhoeven on previous films, it was not possible to get the job done for that amount of money. San Fu Maltha produced the film together with three other producers. He tried to economize on different parts such as the scenes in Israel, that could have been left out without changing the plot, but this was not negotiable for Paul Verhoeven.
Because of financing problems, the filming did not start as planned in 2004 but was delayed until August 2005. In this month it was announced that Black Book received about €2,000,000 support from the Netherlands Public Broadcasting, the CoBO Fund, and the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science. There were also several foreign investors, which made the film a Belgian, British, and German coproduction. With a final estimated budget of €18,000,000 the film was the most expensive Dutch film ever, at the time of its release.
In October 2006 twelve crew members and businessmen started a lawsuit in which they demanded the bankruptcy of Zwartboek Productie B.V., the legal entity founded for the film. Some of them were already waiting for more than a year to get their money, in total tens of thousands of euros. Production company Fu Works settled the case and promised to pay the creditors.
The shooting of the film was delayed in 2004 due to financial problems and Paul Verhoeven's health problems. Because of the delay there was a lawsuit regarding lead actress Carice van Houten, who had agreed to act in a play. When van Houten was forced to return to the set, the theater company sued over the costly delay to their own production. The outcome of the lawsuit was that the production company had to pay €60,000 for her unavailability.
Principal photography took place from 24 August until 19 December 2005 on locations in the Netherlands, including Hardenberg, Giethoorn, the Hague, Delft and Dordrecht, and in Israel, by Hocus Focus Films. In the opening scene a real pre-war farm was blown up in the municipality of Hardenberg. The farm had already been declared uninhabitable and ready to be demolished. Some underwater explosions were filmed in a lake near Giethoorn. In the centre of The Hague they built bunkers to cover up modern day objects such as the entrance to an underground car park. The former chemistry faculty building of the Delft University of Technology was used to film prison scenes. Great attention to detail was paid in the film. Several stage props were reproduced from the 1940s, such as signs, posters and the black book itself. Furthermore, in one of the liberation scenes in The Hague, up to 1,200 extras appeared.
During shooting, the general public were able to see making of scenes on their mobile phones and on the internet.
The screenplay by Paul Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman was turned into a thriller novel by Dutch writer Laurens Abbink Spaink. The book was published in September 2006 by Uitgeverij Podium and contains photos and an afterword by Verhoeven and Soeteman. Spaink says about the book: "'Black Book' is a literary thriller. Its form is in between the typical American novelization, only describing what the camera sees, and a literary novel. The novelization adds something to the film. It gave Rachel Stein a past, memories and a house. In the film she did not have a personal space."
The soundtrack was released on 2 October 2006 by Milan Records. The album contains four 1930s-1940s songs sung by Carice van Houten as she performed them as Rachel Stein in the film. Three are in German, one in English. The other tracks are written by Anne Dudley. The album was recorded in London and produced by Roger Dudley.
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reports a 76% "fresh" rating based on 150 reviews; the general consensus states: "A furious mix of sex, violence, and moral relativism, Black Book is shamelessly entertaining melodrama.". Metacritic reported the film had an average score of 71 out of 100, based on 34 reviews.
Black Book had its world premiere on 1 September 2006 in Venice, as part of the official selection of the Venice International Film Festival. Here it was nominated for a Golden Lion and won the Young Cinema Award for best international film. The film was also in the official selection of the 2006 Toronto Film Festival.
HRH the Prince of Orange and his wife HRH Princess Máxima attended the Dutch gala premiere of Black Book in the Hague on 12 September 2006. Other prominent guests at the premiere were mayor Wim Deetman, minister Hans Hoogervorst, minister Karla Peijs and state secretary Medy van der Laan.
The film was nominated for four Golden Calves at the Netherlands Film Festival in 2006. It won in three categories: the Golden Calf for Best Actress (Carice van Houten), for Best Director (Paul Verhoeven), and for Best Film (San Fu Maltha). Black Book was the most awarded film of the 2006 festival.
The United States premiere of Black Book was a gala screening at Palm Springs High School on 5 January 2007 during the Palm Springs International Film Festival. On 2 March 2007, Black Book was the opening film of the Miami International Film Festival.
The German premiere of Black Book was a gala screening at Zoo Palast in Berlin on 9 May 2007.
Most of the Dutch press were positive about the film. Dana Linsen writes in NRC Handelsblad: "In Black Book, Verhoeven does not focus on moral discourse but rather on human measure, and with the non-cynical approach of his female lead and of love he has given new colour to his work." Belinda van de Graaf in Trouw writes: "Breathless we run along burning farms, ugly resistance fighters, pretty kraut whores, spies, traitors, and because the story has to go on the coincidences pile up until it makes you laugh. When Carice van Houten screams 'Will it never stop, then!' it is almost kitsch, and not surprisingly already a classic film quote." She compares this film to Soldier of Orange and explains why this film is not a stereotypical war film: "The war adventure is no longer based on the male character of the type Rutger Hauer, with his machismo and testosterone, but the small fighter Carice van Houten". Literary critic Jessica Durlacher, daughter of an Auschwitz survivor, describes the film in Vrij Nederland with the following comparison: "The reality of 1940–1945 as portrayed in Black Book compared to reality is like the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas compared to the original in Paris."
The international press wrote positively about the film and specifically about van Houten. According to Jason Solomons in The Observer: "Black Book is great fun, an old-fashioned war movie in parts, but with deep undercurrents about fugitive Jews, the Resistance, collaborators and the messy politics of war. This being Verhoeven, there's lots of sex and a scene in which the extremely attractive star (Carice van Houten) bleaches her pubic hair. That aside, hers is a star-making performance, putting even Scarlett [Johansson] in the shade." In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Dirk Schümer says Carice van Houten is not only more beautiful, but also a better actress than Scarlett Johansson. Furthermore, he writes in his review: "Europe's Hollywood can actually be better than the original. With his basic instinct sharpened in California, Verhoeven demonstrates here the cinema as a medium of individual tragedy." Jacques Mandelbaum writes in his review in Le Monde: "This lesson about humanity and about fear can be situated in the wake of several rare masterpieces, that are solemnly confronted by this story"; he also compares Black Book with classics like The Great Dictator, To Be or Not to Be, and Monsieur Klein.
TIME magazine's Richard Schickel named the film one of the Top 10 Movies of 2007, ranking it at #5, calling it a "dark, richly mounted film". While Schickel saw the film as possibly "old-fashioned stylistically, and rather manipulative in its plotting", he also saw "something deeply satisfying in the way it works out the fates of its troubled, yet believable characters."
Before the film was released, the rights for distribution had been sold to distributors in 52 countries. According to the production company Fu Works these sales made the film Black Book the most commercially successful Dutch film production ever, at the time of its release.
Black Book received a Golden Film (100,000 tickets sold) within a record breaking three days and a Platinum Film (400,000 tickets sold) within three weeks after the Dutch premiere. The film had its millionth visitor on 12 January 2007.
Black Book had the highest box office gross for a Dutch film in 2006, coming third overall in 2006 in the Netherlands, after the American films Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and The Da Vinci Code. As of 31 December 2006, the box office gross in the Netherlands was €6,953,118.
The film appeared on several critics' top ten lists of the best films of 2007.1st – Jonathan Rosenbaum, Film Comment
3rd – James Coleman, The 213
5th – James Berardinelli, ReelViews
5th – Richard Schickel, TIME magazine
8th – Nathan Lee, The Village Voice
9th – Scott Tobias, The A.V. Club
Nomination Golden Lion (2006)
Young Cinema Award for Best International Film (2006)
Golden Film for 100,000 visitors in the Netherlands (2006)
Platinum Film for 400,000 visitors in the Netherlands (2006)
Golden Onion for Worst Actor (2006) for Johnny de Mol
Nomination Golden Calf for Best Supporting Actress (2006) for Halina Reijn
Golden Calf for Best Actress (2006) for Carice van Houten
Golden Calf for Best Director (2006) for Paul Verhoeven
Golden Calf for Best Film (2006) for San Fu Maltha
Nomination London Film Critics' Circle Award for Foreign Language Film of the Year (2006)
The Hague Public Award 2006 for contributing to a positive image of The Hague
Nomination British Academy Film Award for Best Film Not In The English Language (2007)
Dutch submission for the Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film (2007), was on the shortlist, but not among the five nominees
Diamond Film for 1,000,000 visitors in the Netherlands (2007)
Nomination Saturn Award for Best Actress for Carice van Houten (2008)
Nomination Saturn Award for Best International Film (2008)