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Going Dutch: Paul Verhoeven's Resistance Thriller Black Book

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Sebastian Koch and Carice van Houten in Sony Pictures Classics' Black Book (2007)

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Black Book (2007)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
(Sony Pictures Classics)

Reviewed by Lawrence Levi

Seven years after he disappeared with the whimper that was Hollow Man, Paul Verhoeven has returned with what may be his best film. His haters — those who thought Basic Instinct was misogynistic or homophobic, or who didn’t see the irony in Starship Troopers (“It’s spiritually Nazi, psychologically Nazi. It comes directly out of the Nazi imagination” — Washington Post) — aren’t likely to appreciate his latest: a slam-bang indictment of anti-Semitism and barbarity in which a Jewish woman and a Gestapo officer fall in love.

Though it’s critical, Black Book is no message movie. It’s a first-rate thriller. And, like most of Verhoeven’s films, it’s erotic, outrageously violent and deeply twisted. In occupied Holland in 1944, a young singer named Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) attempts to flee to the country after losing her hiding place in a farmhouse. When the Belgium-bound boat she’s on with her family and other desperate Jews is ambushed by the Nazis, she alone escapes and makes her way to The Hague, where she joins up with the Dutch resistance. When a resistance leader’s son is captured, she leads a plot to free him by seducing a man she met on a train while transporting goods for the cause: Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), the local head of the Gestapo.

Rachel is plucky and free-spirited. This being a Verhoeven movie, she’s also a hottie who frequently gets naked. Used to performing onstage in Berlin, she’s bored and restless waiting out the war in her hiding place, so living under an assumed name in The Hague is a kind of liberation. The script (by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman, who wrote all of Verhoeven’s Dutch films) calls for her to do crazy things — among them, sing a duet with the man responsible for her family’s murder — and van Houten endows her with a fully convincing fearlessness. Her fellow resistance members are equally courageous, but when push comes to shove, many of them value the lives of “good Dutchmen” over those of Jews.

Verhoeven says that Black Book — his first Dutch movie in 23 years — is a “correction” to his 1977 Soldier of Orange. In that film, Rutger Hauer and his aristocratic schoolmates become Dutch resistance heroes, and the story ends with Germany’s defeat. This time, the resistance fighters are flawed, a couple of Nazis are conscientious —Müntze is a gorgeous, sensitive, stamp-collecting Gestapo chief — and Holland’s liberation is followed by its despicable treatment of Nazi collaborators. Nobody’s clean: even the head of the farmhouse family hiding Rachel forces her to memorize Bible passages, and says, “If the Jews had listened to Christ, you wouldn’t be in this mess.” Verhoeven (who’s not Jewish, but who grew up in occupied Holland) has long been mulling this over; 20 years ago, upon the release of RoboCop, he told the Los Angeles Times that after World War II “people all over the world were forced to realize they were no better than the Germans and were capable of committing similar acts.”

But again, this is a thriller, one with a wonderfully slimy villain: Müntze’s second-in-command, Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), a decadent ogre whom we see shuffling naked into a bathroom after a night of drunken sex. It’s he with whom Rachel must sing (and dance!) — at Hitler’s birthday party, no less — and who helps give Black Book the feel of an old-fashioned adventure, yet one with a Jewish superheroine at its center. Van Houten’s performance is astonishing, and her strength keeps the film emotionally grounded during its looniest moments. And, since perversity is Verhoeven’s trademark, there is plenty of that, including a scene in which Rachel is drenched with shit. (Unless you’re a predatory ice-blond murderess, it’s no picnic being a woman in a Verhoeven movie.) As this long story races to its conclusion, after grisly killings, countless betrayals, and appalling injustices, Rachel finally breaks down and cries, “Will it never end?” It’s a line that’s hard to take seriously, but van Houten makes it heartbreaking.

I wonder if “anti-Semite” will be the next accusation Verhoeven’s detractors hurl at him, given his perspective of moral equivalence and that Rachel not only offers herself to a Nazi but placates him, when he guesses she’s Jewish, by saying, “Are these Jewish?” (putting his hands on her breasts) “And these?” (on her hips). It’s as if she’s dissociating herself from her own body. (Feminist film scholars, start your engines!) I see it as a reversal of Shylock’s “Hath not a Jew eyes?” — as in, “Yes, I’m Jewish, and I’m human, and I’m hot. Deal with it.” Certainly the movie’s final shot suggests a deeper sympathy for Jewish survival. As at the start of the film, Rachel’s on a kibbutz in 1956, haunted by her memories of the war. But as she’s joined by her children, the camera pulls back to show Israeli soldiers preparing for battle: the Suez crisis is under way. For Rachel, and perhaps for all Jews, war will never end.

 

 


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