With the new high definition DVD war in full swing, a number of companies are choosing to take sides. Currently Blu-ray appears to have the edge in terms of industry support, and Tartan have decided to throw their weight behind the format by exclusively releasing several of their most popular titles, the first of which is “Black Book”, the latest offering from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven. The film seems to be a fitting choice, being one of Tartan’s higher profile hits, having won a number of awards and nominations around the world and representing a return to form and indeed to his roots for the maverick director who had been absent for some years since his 2000 Hollywood effort “Hollow Man”. Certainly, as a war epic with impressive production values and strong visuals the film would appear to offer the opportunity to show off the potential and power of the new high definition format, which apparently provides a picture quality six times that of current generation DVDs.
Set during the World War 2 Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, the film follows the true story of a young Jewish woman called Rachel (Dutch television actress Carice van Houten) who joins the underground resistance. Driven by revenge for the killing of her family, she agrees to infiltrate the local Gestapo, where she seduces high ranking officer Ludwig (Sebastian Koch, also in recent Oscar winner “The Lives of Others”) in order to gather information. Despite everything, she finds herself falling for the oddly sympathetic man, and finding corruption and betrayal on both sides, is faced with a harrowing choice.
“Black Book” sees Verhoeven returning to the style of his early films such as “Soldier of Orange”, eschewing the camp hysteria of his Hollywood works in favour of properly drawn, fascinating characters and actual dramatic substance. Packing in plenty of action and suspense, not to mention explicit sex and bloody violence, the film works well on a number of different levels, skilfully managing to cover some engrossingly tricky moral ground while avoiding any kind of heavy handed angst and entertaining through a sense of old fashioned, two-fisted adventure. As such, it stands as one of the best war films of recent years, and is a timely reminder that Verhoeven is a genuinely talented director with a deft touch not only for the visceral, but for gripping human drama.
The main question here is to how big a difference the Blu-ray format makes, and whether or not this is enough to justify the extra expense. Here tested on a 42″ LCD screen, the improvement in picture quality is immediately obvious, with the vistas of the opening scenes in Israel enjoying far greater detail and depth than with a regular DVD. This continues throughout, with an impressive image clarity which not only makes the most of the high production values and adds impact to the many action scenes, but more subtly draws the viewer into the film by bringing the faces of the actors and actresses into sharper focus, showing more expressions and imperfections (whether they like it or not). It is this which is arguably at the heart of the new format’s true potential – not to offer a revolution, but a far more immersive viewing experience. The sound quality is also noticeably higher than with normal DVD, being clearer and more defined, something which really benefits the film’s many battle scenes in particular.
Of course, no new format is without teething problems, though “Black Book” is among the better of the first wave of Blu-ray releases, being a genuine attempt to harness its strengths and suffering from none of the problems such as washed out colours or digital noise which have been seen in other films. Sadly, there are only a handful of extras, including interviews with Paul Verhoeven and Carice van Houten, though these are nicely integrated and provide a touch of background detail. Interestingly, Tartan are providing the original DVD along with the Blu-ray disc, in order to tempt viewers still wavering over whether or not to invest in the new technology. As well as showing a great confidence in the format, this allows for comparisons between the two to be made more readily, something which nicely serves to underline the superior Blu-ray picture.
As a result, “Black Book” makes for a great package, not only due to the quality of the film itself, but due to the fact that it should appeal to anyone new to Blu-ray and looking to make the most of the new technology. Since the majority of titles to emerge on the format thus far have tended to be Hollywood blockbusters or lazily transferred older films, it comes as a very welcome release, and one which serves well as a flagship for Tartan’s future intentions.
Paul Verhoeven (director) / Gerard Soeteman, Paul Verhoeven (screenplay)
CAST: Carice van Houten … Rachel Stein aka Ellis de Vries
Sebastian Koch … Ludwig Muntze
Thom Hoffman … Hans Akkermans
Halina Reijn … Ronnie
Waldemar Kobus … Gunther Franken
Derek de Lint … Gerben Kuipers