Black Book (Zwartboek, 2006)

Director: Paul Verhoeven

Black%20Book%203.jpg

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I like Paul Verhoeven’s style. I like his exuberance, his technical mastery and eye for beauty, his clear-eyed, rather pessimistic view of human nature, and his subtle, but insistent, political viewpoint. The fact that his films are like a lightning rod, provoking extreme hatred or backhanded compliments, shows just how challenging Verhoeven’s point of view can be. Now, I’m sure there are plenty of people who will say I see things in, say, Showgirls, that just aren’t there. They are entitled to their opinion. I say there are things in Verhoeven’s films that they fail to see or refuse to accept. I say that approaching Verhoeven with an open mind—which the vast majority of the moviegoing population seems to be able to do—can yield great rewards.

Black Book, one of the most exciting, entertaining, and politically rounded films of the past year, achieved a respectable 75% approval rating from the critics on Rotten Tomatoes. But many of those critics still saw fit to jab him again as though reliving their reaction to Showgirls and Basic Instinct. For example,

Black Book does not aspire to historical accuracy. Instead, Black Book is pure entertainment, of the hollow variety. Verhoeven gives you your money’s worth of titillation.”

In fact, events in the films, including the murder of Jews and the theft of their property, Nazi collaborators and their humiliation following Germany’s defeat, anti-Semitism, and rationing are entirely factual. Whether the specific story of a Jew who kept herself alive and helped the Dutch underground fight the Nazis during World War II is entirely accurate in every respect, there is no doubt that the spirit of the day and details surrounding this tale are true. On the other hand, I find Steven Spielberg’s acclaimed Schindler’s List much less accurate in terms of the clean death victims in his film received, and a last-minute reprieve of Jewish women in a shower room that spews water instead of gas.

“Stout-hearted celebration of the Dutch Resistance or total smut? Try both.”

Try neither. In this film, the Dutch Resistance is shown to be fairly ineffectual and rotten from within, and smut is in the eye of the beholder. I was expecting very graphic sex based on comments about the film; it has nothing of the sort—just nudity that works in context to illustrate moral decay, degradation, and a survival mechanism.

So just what have we got in Black Book? A memory film in which Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), an émigré to Israel who is helping to build the infant nation comes face to face with her past when Ronnie (Halina Reijn), a woman she knew during the Nazi occupation of Holland, visits the kibbutz where Rachel lives. Rachel is taken back to the time when as a Dutch Jew from a rich family, she lived in hiding with a Dutch farmer who made her recite a verse from the New Testament from memory before he would feed her. He considered that Jews brought their current fate on themselves by not listening to Jesus in the first place.

blackbook20.jpgShortly after the story opens, we see Rachel spending some precious time outside, sunning herself near a lake and listening to American popular music on her portable victrola. Rob (Michiel Huisman), sailing on the lake, comes alongside her and chats her up. This lighthearted moment is shattered when a bomber flies above and drops a bomb on Rachel’s hiding place. This event sends her looking for a safe haven and in the process, becoming caught up in the Dutch Resistance.

I don’t want to give away too many details of how Rachel becomes Ellis de Vries and goes undercover, but suffice to say that greed for Jewish wealth lies behind it and most of the other events of this film. Once Rachel/Ellis does become involved in the Resistance at the behest of her employer Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), she dyes her hair blonde and parlays a chance encounter with Gestapo officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) into a job at SS headquarters in Rotterdam.

Black%20Book%206.jpgOnce inside, she befriends Ronnie, who is carrying on an affair with the odious Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), and becomes Müntze’s mistress. Müntze and Franken are at loggerheads over how to treat prisoners, with Müntze favoring a more humane negotiation with the “terrorists” to prevent mutual reprisals. He carries on these talks with notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who was entrusted with the Stein family fortune; Smaal, however, is a trusted member of the underground who gives Rachel/Ellis a bug to plant in Franken’s office. When a rescue of some of the resistance fighters, including Kuipers’ son, is planned, the bug is used to ensure success. Rachel/Ellis provides access to the building.
It is about this time that a series of crosses and double-crosses start making themselves apparent. We may have guessed some of them; others are more shrouded. Rachel/Ellis eventually doesn’t know whom to trust. What she needs is evidence of a conspiracy to prove that she is not a traitor, and this search leads to the denouement and a return to Rachel’s present life in Israel.

blackbook06.jpgBlack Book is a melodrama. As with all melodramas, our emotions are heightened through circumstance rather than character development. Rachel/Ellis—plucky, smart, and fatalistic—joins the Resistance because she has nothing to lose. She and the handsome and sympathetic Müntze fall in love because Müntze has lost his taste for war and victory. Both characters act on the horrible circumstances they have endured rather than truly make us feel them. The supporting characters play their parts like pawns on a chessboard, too. And perhaps this is part of Verhoeven’s plan. In war, individuals become “the enemy” or “friends” without necessarily earning either of those labels.

Black%20Book%201.jpgMelodrama is often maligned as somehow more manipulative than a more psychological drama, but I think this is extremely unfair. No films are “true,” and with this story in particular, the aspects of memory fused with the truly harrowing times through which Rachel lived create the heightened emotions that are best served by the conventions of melodrama. To go much deeper could invite a pornographic voyeurism regarding feelings most of us will never understand; Schindler’s List, unforgivably for me, allowed us to do just this. Better choice, in my opinion, to let us see some naked bodies than to subject these unfortunates to an emotional striptease.

There is perhaps a subversive commentary on current times as well. Black Book carries on in the tradition of Hollywood’s heroic war films. Yet the use of the word “terrorist” has a definite contemporary ring, and one that sounds hollow to the ears of Americans who think of terrorists as the bad guys. In this film, only Nazis use the word, applying it to the Resistance fighters. In addition, the Dutch all await the “Tommies” to liberate them, not the Yanks. When the occupying forces of the victorious Allies do set up shop in Holland, they are Canadian, not American or British. This “Hollywood” film in structure and gorgeous production values has cut America completely out of the picture.

Black Book is melodrama of the highest order, and one whose lack of prudishness is as un-American as its cast. Paul Verhoeven has done himself proud and told a story, in his native land, that is much more grown up than the films it seems to mimic. I hope one day that Verhoeven’s critics learn to look a little deeper, too.

  • Piper spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 3:35 pm

    Marilyn,
    This is a great write-up to this film. I’m coming to you fresh from the comments section at Only The Cinema.
    The first time I saw Black Book was yesterday (Sunday), so my feelings towards it are kind of up in the air. But knowing Verhoven’s career thus far, it makes complete sense that he uses melodrama to tell this story. And at no time did I feel that my feelings were manipulated because of this. In a way, I somewhat appreciate its more traditional storytelling.
    Where I’m a bit at odds is with the subject matter, and we’ve been over this at Only The Cinema. I understand what Verhoeven is doing and he’s doing a very good job at it, but I just wonder if he’s doing it with the wrong story. As was discussed, there are characters that are longing for some backstory. That shouldn’t be treated superficially. But that’s my opinion and I know we’re at odds at this.
    But then to completely talk out of both sides of my mouth, I will say “hat’s off” to him for doing what he has done. While I might see some limitations to it, what Verhoeven has done is taken a very sensitive subject and instead of milk it for every weepy moment, he’s turned it into entertainment. Entertainment that’s not without emotion. And it’s only when you delve into every aspect of the film (as we are known to do) that you start to see where this might or might not work.
    So anyway, the conversation going on about this film is a great one. And in the end, I’m glad I saw it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    20th/07/2009 to 4:11 pm

    Thanks for reading this and commenting, Piper. I was blown away by this thrill ride and found myself thinking about the implications of the film long after I saw it. I thought it was very unfairly slammed in the press – people just can’t seem to give Verhoeven his due for not conforming to the “progress” of cinema. He’s clearly a guy who loves old Hollywood and loves to work within its confines to tell his stories – but as a modern filmmaker, he knows how to inject subtext. I think he does melodrama better than Sirk, who always seems to be laughing at his characters. I always think melodrama gets a bum rap because it’s seen as somehow feminine. It’s really a delicate art in itself that can be merciless to sloppy filmmakers, of which there are many these days.

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