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Director: Antoinette Beumer
2010 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“I hate actors,” the cinephile said to me after a screening of a personal essay film that had no actors in it at all. I vaguely understood what he was saying, that actors are tricksters whose presence can take away from the sincerity of a film. As someone who treasures the films of Robert Bresson, the Neorealists, the Nouvelle Vague directors, as well as a slew of more contemporary films that use nonprofessionals, I find the unstudied spontaneity of the performances helps me appreciate the film as a whole rather than focusing on the accomplishments of a single performer.
And yet, condemning the acting profession seems like a act of self-hatred for a cinephile. Naturalism isn’t the only style of filmmaking that counts—indeed, high artifice has helped make the careers of such contemporary greats as Quentin Tarantino and Michel Gondry and defined genres such as film noir and science fiction. I’ve observed that when a project doesn’t quite come together, one often finds a triumph of the material over the performers or the performers over the material. In the case of the Dutch film The Happy Housewife, all I can say is that I’m very grateful that Carice van Houten was there to invigorate its sketchy script.
Van Houten, of course, was a revelation to all those who had the privilege of seeing her in Paul Verhoeven’s 2006 masterwork Black Book. She demonstrated that the ability to act is a skill we all need, and was a lifesaver for many Jews trying to evade the Nazi slaughter. Her ability to bring emotional depth to Verhoeven’s deliberate melodrama put meat on that genre’s flesh and elevated the entire film. Similarly, her work in The Happy Housewife is a tour de force that grounds a film that might come in for a drubbing because of its subject matter.
We meet Van Houten’s character, Lea, on an airplane. Harry Meyer (Valdemar Torenstra), a handsome architect we were introduced to at a construction site in the opening scene of the film has taken notice of Lea, a stewardess, on boarding the plane. He follows her with his eyes as she leaves his side in first class and bends over to attend to another passenger in coach, exposing her lovely legs and beautifully formed derriere. He asks her for another glass of champagne and follows her as she goes to fetch it. Just as the “fasten seatbelts” sign lights to signal turbulence, the pair goes into a toilet and makes love. Yes, that’s right—corny, corny, corny. Lea and Harry are married, naturally, and still extremely hot for each other after six years of marriage. Harry thinks the airplane toilet is the right place to suggest that he and Lea have a baby; he tempts her by promising to make love to her every day until she gets pregnant. And we get to see Van Houten’s magnificent breasts again in another sex scene, which Harry declares that he “can feel” is the one that made a baby as he lifts Lea by the legs to ensure his seed is firmly planted.
Lea was a bright and flirty woman before she got pregnant, and she remains one afterwards—going golfing with her friends and stealing a golf cart from an obnoxious coworker who constantly hits on her. When she’s about ready to give birth, she insists that she and Harry masturbate together because orgasm is supposed to bring on labor. And, again, another part of the plan of their life seems to work amazingly well.
Unfortunately, Lea’s labor is extremely difficult. The planned home birth with a midwife is 20 hours and counting before they decide it’s time to go to the hospital. The baby seems to have the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and a gynecologist is brought in to assist. Despite her desperate protests, Lea gets two, large episiotomies to allow the doctor to unwrap the cord and prevent tearing. When her son is born, she is so traumatized, she can’t bear to look at him. Lea is headed for a major postpartum depression that will see her try to kill her son and end up being committed to a mental hospital for several months until she is deemed no longer a threat to herself and others. During her stay, she will learn that the hallucinations and bad dreams she had immediately following Junior’s birth are related to a father whose death by suicide she was never allowed to grieve.
The Happy Housewife is a product largely created by women. Based on a book by a woman, it was adapted for the screen by two women, and directed by a woman making her feature film debut. It seems highly likely that the harrowing birth scene was lent its veracity and intensity by the familiarity of these women with the horrors of birth. Sadly, however, director Beumer’s background is in television—specifically Dutch soap opera. Truthful moments, like Lea screaming at her “dyke” midwife in the delivery room are undercut by a silly conversation between Harry and the gynecologist about their respective golf handicaps. A birth that could be fatal to the baby—not to mention Lea’s real agony—should not have brought out this kind of offhand, comic moment in either the doctor or the father-to-be.
When the film turns dramatic, confrontation scenes Lea has with her mother (Joke Tjalsma), who demonized Lea’s father to her, and Harry, who wants her to be the same funny, beautiful wife she was before, seem shallow and forced. The mental hospital is filled with quirky types—the guy whom Lea mistakes for being a psychiatrist, the screamer who attacks anyone passing by because she wants a hug, the fat woman, the lonely guy who checks himself in and out of the hospital just to have some nonchallenging company, the young girl who writes on herself (humorously called “sketchpad”)—and Lea predictably comes to love them all. Beumer’s soap opera instinct to make everything bigger, both comically and tragically, is very unfortunate. She likes to scare us with red herrings like Lea carrying a pillow into her crying baby, making us think she is going to suffocate him, only to have her pick him up instead. And Lea’s cure comes about almost too easily by simply having a good cry over her father; unnecessarily, her mother has the tables turned on her by the script by being demonized as a wife who wanted her husband to kill himself long before he did.
What makes this film watchable is the incredible work of Van Houten. She is extremely smart in her witty humor at the beginning of the film and in her challenges to her doctor in the hospital (Marcel Hensema) and breaks down from a smiling, bubbly sexpot in a way that no one notices at first. Her complaints about being split open by the episiotomies, an obvious metaphor for the unleashing of her unresolved issues with her parents, mix the real and metaphorical subtly and effectively. Her confusion and distractedness, when she doesn’t have to interact with peers around her who don’t match her in skill, are frightening and disorienting for the audience. She is bathing her baby and absentmindedly lets go of him to try to remove something from her face in the mirror. This expression of her madness is a cliché of what crazy people do—like a later scene where she dresses like a tart to win her release from the hospital—but her commitment to it is complete, and the horror that the baby might drown is very real and well realized, even though the plastic baby we briefly glimpse floating face down in the water made for a cheap and completely unnecessary shot.
I thought Van Houten was well matched by Tjalsma, whose possessiveness of Junior after Lea is discharged expressed more than caution about Lea’s fitness to mother. Tjalsma has some very bad lines and scenes, but she really triumphs over them, not seeming the monster the script seemed to want to make her into. I liked Torenstra playing a doting father, but he just seemed all wrong as Lea’s husband, even during the happy opening of the film.
While the drama in the film leaves a lot to be desired, the comic dialogue is well written and well realized, and the pop 60s Coffee, Tea, or Me opening and bright music are well done. The quick happy ending of the film seems fit for a Lifetime TV movie. But because of Van Houten’s journey through one woman’s darkness, I actually felt happy and relieved.
The Happy Housewife will screen Tuesday, October 19, 3:15 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.
Previous CIFF coverage
Southern District: The decline of the Bolivian upper class gets a very personal treatment in this close examination of one La Paz family and the natives who work for them. (Bolivia)
Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)
Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)
On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)
Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)
The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)
Ten Winters: Emotionally honest and lyrical study of a man and a woman whose initial attraction goes through many changes as they experience 10 years worth of living. (Italy)
Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)
The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)
Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)
Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)
The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)
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Director: Jan Bosdriesz
CIMMfest: The Chicago Movies and Music Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It seems the older many of us get, the more we want to understand our own past. Most older people have become orphans, and like young orphans or adopted children, have to follow a trail of crumbs, searching out the rapidly vanishing family and friends of family to discover those hidden moments that might make the remainder of life more coherent and settled. Many Europeans who were children around World War II suffered cataclysmic dislocations in their everyday lives. Jan Bosdriesz, the Dutch director of Black Eyes, was born in 1941. His quest to discover something about his father led him throughout Europe and into lives he never expected to encounter.
The film opens with a slow, close-up pan of a shelf in Bosdriesz’s flat in Amsterdam. On the shelf are a variety of objects Bosdriesz collected in his travels and from his relatives—a flat iron, a reed dildo some Thai workers gave him when he didn’t want to visit a brothel, some woven sandals from South America. Bosdriesz muses that some of these objects will have utility after his death, but that most are meaningful only because of his associations with them; they likely will end up in the rubbish when he is no longer around to invest them with worth. At the center of his collection are some 78s his father listened to frequently, with enthusiasm. The apple of his father’s listening ear was Pyotr Leshchenko, a singer of songs that spanned the range of human emotions. Bosdriesz decided to pursue Leshchenko’s life and career as a way to understand his father better.
Leshchenko was born in 1898 in Ukraine, a citizen of the Russian Empire. During World War I, his parents moved the family to Kishinev, now part of Moldavia. When borders changed, as they do with confusing frequency in Europe, Leshchenko found himself a citizen of Romania. After a short career as a dancer, he started his singing career. His passionate style in interpreting songs of love and loss, particularly the songs of Latvian composer Oskar Strok, brought him great success. But when World War II ended, Leshchenko’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. His songs were considered counterrevolutionary in Stalin’s Soviet Union, and his recordings were banned. Nonetheless, under the sponsorship of a powerful Russian fan, he spent a triumphal few years in Odessa, where he had many fans for his Russian-language singing, and later returned to Romania, a country that had backed Germany and that looked at Russians with suspicion. In 1951, he was arrested and disappeared into the Romanian gulag, where his story abruptly ends.
Bosdriesz travels through Eastern Europe trying to trace anyone who knew Leshchenko and what might have happened to him. He meets a small woman with a lovely, smiling face who married Leshchenko’s son Igor. She never met her father-in-law and, in fact, divorced Igor only a few years into their marriage. Yet, like Bosdriesz, she is looking back and feeling a longing to know this man whose pictures show her what emotion he must have had. She is touched by her familial closeness to him and how she imagines he might have been. “I’m 83,” she says. “I’ll meet him soon.” Perhaps she has listened to his interpretation of Rezső Seress’ “Gloomy Sunday,” which has the lyric: “Little white flowers will never awaken you, Not where the dark coach of sorrow has taken you, Angels have no thought of ever returning you, Would they be angry if I thought of joining you.”
Another person Bosdriesz interviews is Alla Bayanova, a 93-year-old singer who worked with Leshchenko. Unfortunately, the diva’s memory is as small as her voice is still lovely. Her helper, Natasha, tries to coax Ms. Bayanova’s first encounter with Leshchenko out of her, but that time has been wiped clean. In frustration, she twice breaks into song—truly the most articulate she can be until she pulls out a few photographs, one of which shows Leshchenko and his gorgeous second wife Vera surrounded by preening Russian soldiers. Vera and Pyotr were the “It” couple of Odessa, and now we can see why.
Another interviewee shows how Leshchenko’s banned records made their way to the admiring Russian audiences of Odessa and elsewhere. He pulls out a stack of disks made out of X-ray film with the tracks of Leshchenko’s songs etched into them. Bosdriesz places the disk of “Black Eyes” on a turntable, the image of ribs and a sternum spinning as Leshchenko’s voice rings out plaintively.
Bosdriesz’s journey of discovery leads him back to The Netherlands, where he tries to unravel the mystery of his mother’s first marriage to Jan Bosdriesz Sr., who died of typhoid in a work camp when Bosdriesz Jr. was only 15 months old. He interviews his sisters; looks at his mother’s journals; reads Bosdriesz Sr.’s poetry from prison, which his mother had copied meticulously into notebooks from letters he sent; and interviews people who had knowledge of the pacifist schoolteacher’s years in different Nazi camps. The father he never knew was an idealist, refusing to free himself with a couple of white lies.
Black Eyes is an odd document. It comes alive whenever Leshchenko and his music are in the forefront. Unfortunately, because his story after his arrest is unknown, the thread of that narrative goes nowhere, though it’s hard to care as long as Bosdriesz plies us with photos and music. What is more problematic is Bosdriesz’s search for his own meaning. We learn a lot about his namesake father, who apparently was not his biological father, but almost nothing about the man he calls his real father. Does the story of his mother’s first husband really shed light on his own history? I didn’t see the connection. In addition, Bosdriesz and Leshchenko’s stories are woven together without much skill or logic, leaving me confused for a lot of the film’s running time.
What Bosdriesz lacks in narrative force, he makes up for in visual intelligence. He juxtaposes images flawlessly, for example, zeroing in on a Russian officer listening with conviction and tear-filled eyes to the music and lyrics at a Russian Leshchenko festival—the perfect picture of the Russian spirit that helps us understand the deep connection Leshchenko made with the Russian people. He films a number of elderly women, and I simply could not get over how serenely beautiful and alive they were, the most stunning elderly women I’ve ever seen on screen. One of them is shown dancing like a young girl in love; it’s breathtaking to me. Images of Lenin, of drapes flapping in the wind, of shrouded cityscapes and abandoned work camps reveal Bosdriesz’s perfect eye and deep feeling. Whenever I felt particularly lost, I retreated into his wordless world and found coherence.
The film is available on DVD. I encourage people with a love of history, beauty, and music to experience this small treasure from a little-known corner of documentary cinema.
The trailer I had has been pulled from the Internet. You can view a short clip here (Dutch narration, no subtitles).
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Director: Nanouk Leopold
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
I really want to be fair to Wolfsbergen. I saw it late last night after viewing the superb 1983 Charles Burnett feature My Brother’s Wedding (more on that in another review). I’ve been fighting a cold, and my throat was sore. The film started about 15 minutes late. It was Sunday night, and I had work the next day. These are circumstances that don’t lend themselves too well to slow, nearly wordless expositions on the meaning of life, which is sort of what Wolfsbergen seems to want to be. OK, so now you know my backstory, so to speak. I still don’t like this movie.
Wolfsbergen focuses on a dysfunctional upper-middle-class family with an unusual problem—the patriarch of the family, Konraad (Piet Kamerman), in the throes of grief over the death of his wife Lara, intends to commit suicide at the end of the summer. He announces his decision in letters sent to his immediate family: his middle-aged daughter Maria (Catherine ten Bruggencate) and her husband Ernst (Jan Decleir); granddaughter Sabine (Tamar van den Dop) who is married to Onno (Fedja van Huêt), has two daughters, Haas (Merel van Houts) and Zilver (Carmen Lith), and is having an affair with Micha (Oscar van Wounsel); and his other granddaughter Eva (Karina Smulders), whose letter he actually never posts.
Maria reads her letter on a plane she is taking to a European Union conference in a French-speaking country, maybe Belgium. She reacts to the news by going to a doctor and having her thighs liposuctioned and then refusing to let her husband see her body when she comes back home. Sabine won’t talk to Onno about it; she prefers to visit Micha. Eva cries a lot, just on general principle it seems, since she doesn’t know about her grandfather’s plan. Rejected by Sabine, Onno becomes close to Eva, who is extremely life-challenged and needs him. They fall in love. Sabine is furious, even though she’s been carrying on with Micha for years (he’s her ex-lover), because Onno takes up with her sister. Haas breaks things and eventually ends up chewing the lip off a water glass. Ernst goes to Konraad’s house and tends to him as he carries out his plan by refusing fluids. Eventually, the whole family shows up and says their good-byes.
This film has some very lyrical shots in it. I particularly loved the opening shot, a lingering look at a pine forest with birds chirping in its limbs. The interior shots are very revealing of the characters who inhabit them: the upscale homes of Maria and Ernst, of Konraad, of Onno and Sabine, for example, contrasted with the provisional bachelor pad of Micha and the barely livable loft of the ego-depleted Eva. We understand from these settings why, for example, Sabine married Onno—for material comforts she always knew with her dentist father and government official mother. When Onno asks her if their whole life—I assume including their two children—has been a lie, it’s hard not to think it has. But then Sabine doesn’t like to face unpleasant truths. None of Konraad’s blood relatives—including Konraad—like to do that.
But so what? I felt nothing for these over-privileged, self-indulgent ciphers. Their pain, while certainly worthy of consideration as human beings, was presented in such an arthouse cliché that I thought they should have all hired shrinks and stopped wasting my time. Why “serious” directors seem positively averse to giving audiences some dialogue and action to keep them engaged, why we are constantly challenged to look below the surface to characters who are internalizing everything is a mystery. The actors are supposed to be using The Method, not the audience.
I’m not a lazy viewer, nor do I need constant movement. One of my favorite films, A Brighter Summer Day, is four hours long and unspools its story in the natural rhythms of life—which sometimes has a little speed to it. If the intent is to numb the audience to match the emotional numbness of these repressed characters, then Leopold has succeeded admirably. A good-looking, artfully composed film, which anyone with some film school training can achieve these days, and lots of empty spaces “pregnant” with meaning are classic rookie conceits. This film is a pretentious bore.
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Director: Jiska Rickels
2007 Chicago International Film Festival
By Marilyn Ferdinand
There doesn’t seem to be much on this earth that human beings haven’t wanted to conquer or exploit. It is both a testament to humanity’s unquenchable spirit and often insatiable appetite that many strides in science and industry have been made. This Dutch documentary, an astonishing achievement in cinematography, takes on man’s (and this is a film of men) encounters with fire, water, earth, and air by focusing on four dangerous and grueling occupations: forest firefighting, commercial fishing, coal mining, and space exploration. The film traverses three countries and brings viewers so close to the experiences the men who work in these arenas face that you can practically breathe the coal dust and feel the G-forces of a flight simulator.
The first segment, and for me the least compelling, features firefighters trying to put out a 100-hectare blaze in a Siberian forest. The segment opens rather undramatically on the men cooking their meals, climbing out of their tents, washing, and smoking. This “waiting” portion of the segment is, frankly, boring, but then I suppose that’s the point. There’s nothing much to do until they get the call. Finally, they get the word that a helicopter will be coming to get them. They pile their gear in—simple rucksacks filled with axes and shovels, hand-operated water pumps, bottles of kerosene for setting backfires—and board the plane. All looks well from the air until a gray-white smoke becomes visible along the treetops. We watch the firefighters dig a trench for the backfire, chop and push down burning trees, and wet remnants of the blaze they successfully pushed back. A drenching rain comes down to finish the job.
The fascinating water segment takes us to Alaska, where a fleet of crabbers set off for a long, wet tour of setting traps, waiting, then pulling them up and unloading their catch into a holding tank in the bowels of the ship. Once again, one of the main activities of these men seems to be smoking. The rolling waters look inviting, but their icy temperature can kill a man in 5 minutes. Nonetheless, as the men don their dayglo orange slickers and go about staging the large traps, they seem fairly matter-of-fact. One fisherman has to climb on the edge of the deck to free a trap that has slid the wrong way; I was frightened to the core at this risk he was taking.
Then they wait. The swaying of the ship is familiar to the men. An object that looks like a cleat has swayed back and forth so much, it has worn a dent in the wooden paneling of the room where it hangs. Drawers open and close slightly. Lanterns sway. The entire effect is very hypnotic.
Then, it’s time to reap the fruits of their earlier labor. The men pull up the traps laden with king crabs, measuring and tossing the smaller ones and grabbing the spiny legs of the larger ones and tossing them down a chute. In the end, they learn they have made a great catch, and all the men cheer. This is lucrative seasonal work, but I felt after seeing the dangers involved in feeding the world’s gourmands that I might never eat crab again.
The third segment opens poetically, showing trees falling and explaining how layer upon layer of plant life has been built up over the eons, turning itself into fuel that men will later unearth. We are taken to a coal mine in Germany, where the men board a transport and elevator to get to their destination—a world of midnight, dust, and dynamite. The miners seem to have fun as they ride the automated chutes, currently devoid of coal, to their work site. We watch as they fuse sticks of dynamite, use their pick axes to work loose some lodestones. A sprinkling of white dust falls, and the men wipe their dust-encrusted eyes. No one wears a mask.
Finally, the work day is over. The men assemble in a warehouse-sized locker room. They remove their work clothes, affix them to lines on pulleys, and pull them up to the ceiling for storage. Then the group shower takes place, pairs of miners scrubbing the stubborn coal off each other’s back. When the men emerge, the day is ending. They are greeted by a glorious sunset, but we are reminded by this breathtaking sight that the men rarely see the light of day.
The last segment, filmed in Russia, is perhaps the most grueling. Conquest of the air can only mean outer space in a documentary of such extremes. We experience the first extreme by seeing the first few minutes of the sequence completely upside down. Then we realize that the female technician—the only woman in the film—is running tests. Finally, the cosmonaut, strapped to a table and wired with electrodes, is turned right-side-up. More tests await the cosmonauts, including one in which the man is spun in a chamber with a striped wall. An extreme close-up of the man shows his eyes moving to follow the stripes. The flight team simulates an underwater recovery of the cosmonauts after their capsule returns to earth. High-speed lift-offs are simulated, with one of the test crew telling the men to let him know if their ears start to pop—he’ll pause briefly in a small concession to comfort. Finally, the day of the launch arrives. Everything happens very slowly, from moving the propulsion engines into place to transporting the cosmonauts to the top of the rocket for lift-off. When the engines ignite in what has become a fairly familiar sight, the sense of both the grandeur of what is being accomplished and relief that the exhaustive preparations are over is overwhelming.
This film is nearly wordless, but it is far from soundless. The ambient noises of drilling equipment, crashing oceans, licking flames, and a metallic clang—and a musical score by Horst Rickels that closely resembles that singing voices in the psychedelic sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey—put my nerves on edge as often as they led me to a sense of peace. This film is both mesmerizing and tedious, a true reflection of the work these men do. How the cinematographers (there were four units) managed to get some of the shots they did would be the first question I would have asked the director had the festival brought him in. This is a miraculously beautiful film that shows just how far humanity’s striving has gone, and yet, how primal our struggles with nature still remain. l
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Director: Paul Verhoeven
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.
Shortly 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.
Once 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.
Black 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.
Melodrama 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.