Netherlands / Belgium / UK / Germany, 2006
Review by Tom Huddleston
Posted on 26 October 2006
Source Sony Pictures Classics 35mm print
Features: The Times BFI 50th London Film Festival
War just isn’t fun anymore. Perhaps it’s the shifting cultural climate, the impact of political correctness, or simple financial practicality, but in the wake of Saving Private Ryan and September 11th it seems like all our war movies, even the historical ones like Troy and Alexander, are expected to take themselves and their chosen conflicts terribly seriously. Even the Second World War, long considered the most righteous and entertaining of wars (largely, I think, because of the villains), has become a bleak and terribly real affair.
And maybe this is a good thing. Perhaps it’s right that we recognise the consequences of violent acts, the inherent greyness of every conflict, the tragedy underlying every wartime fatality. But cinema as a medium was built on violent entertainment, and even during the war itself filmmakers like Michael Powell and Frank Capra recognised that the best way to engage a populace with the realities of battle was to give them something to talk about, something to relate to. Perhaps their films were propaganda—there’s no doubt that the climate in which they (and a thousand other, largely forgotten wartime romps) were produced was far more straightforward than today, the lines more clearly drawn. But is it not possible to tell a complex, conflicted story while still appealing to an audience’s sense of adventure?
Paul Verhoeven clearly thinks so. Long considered a director who trampled on notions of good taste, a Hollywood pornographer revelling in explicit sex and gratuitous violence, his early career in Holland was actually quite highly regarded in art-film circles (1973’s erotic drama Turkish Delight was recently named Greatest Dutch Film of All Time in a local poll). Black Book marks a return to his home country, and perhaps a return to respectability—this is the most expensive Dutch film ever made, a sprawling, epic, exquisitely mounted slice of historical fiction. But it’s also a gripping adventure, a mystery and a thriller, a war film and a love story, violent and sexually charged and riveting from start to finish.
Rachel Stein is a Jewish singer hiding out with a Christian family in occupied Holland. When her hideout is bombed she is forced into the open, trusting resistance man Van Gein to deliver her and her family across enemy lines to safety. But Rachel is betrayed, her parents and brother killed, and she is forced back into hiding, changing her name and (notoriously) her hair colour, taking up with a gang of gallant resistance fighters under the command of the elderly Kuipers, and handsome doctor (and expert rifleman) Hans Akkermans. When local Gestapo Haupsturmfuhrer Muntze takes a shine to her, Rachel (now Ellis) goes undercover, literally and figuratively, as a spy in the enemy camp.
There’s a lot of violence in Black Book, and a fair amount of nudity, but oddly for Verhoeven very little of it is actually gratuitous. The gun battles are almost tasteful—there’s the occasional spray of blood, but mostly this is old fashioned noise and smoke warfare, lots of people twitching and falling in heaps, never to move again. The sex, too, is fairly elegant, the nudity more practical than titillating—we have to get a sense of how Rachel seduces Muntze, how she gets her job at Gestapo headquarters. Even the already infamous hair-dying scene serves a purpose greater than mere shock value: we gain insight into Rachel’s dedication to her task, her willingness to do whatever it takes to serve the cause. It also serves as a witty, sideways seduction scene, with major implications for the plot.
But if it weren’t for the nudity (and one admittedly grisly death late in the film), Black Book could almost be a contemporary work—it has the clammy behind-enemy-lines tension of Powell’s One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing, the fatalistic romance and betrayal of Casablanca. The plot bears fairly close resemblance to Fritz Lang’s noirish Hangmen Also Die!, about the resistance murder of Nazi butcher Heydrich and the repercussions which followed, again viewed through the eyes of a Jewish girl. What all four films share is a willingness to use populist narrative and filmmaking techniques to tell a dark, complex story, letting the events onscreen speak for themselves.
Not that Black Book doesn’t have a deeper agenda. Verhoeven has always been a political filmmaker—there are few more savage critiques of American cultural superiority and isolationism than Starship Troopers, a film which explicitly tied US foreign policy to Nazism before Bush Jr. even took power. Here his strokes are subtler. As co-writer (with long-time collaborator Gerard Soeteman), Verhoeven has constructed a cautionary tale about the impossibility of long term occupation: the Gestapo repeatedly refer to the resistance as ‘terrorists,’ a word with very powerful connotations in the modern world. The imposition of an ideology onto an unwilling populace is shown to be an impossible task, but it’s not just the Nazis who are deluded and vicious—after the end of the war, the local people’s recriminations are depicted in graphic, humiliating detail. And again, Verhoeven puts female sexuality under the microscope, though his conclusions here (strong women use sex to gain power) are no more mature or insightful than they were in Basic Instinct or Showgirls over a decade ago.
Verhoeven saves his most surprising and subtle comment for the final shot of the film. After the war, Rachel has fled to Israel, where she has married and fathered two children. We see her sitting on the banks of the Dead Sea, gazing thoughtfully. Then her family appears, and they stroll back up the hill towards the kibbutz she built with war profits smuggled out of Holland. But this is no peaceful homecoming—the camera cranes upward, and we see that the compound is surrounded by barbed wire, army trucks pulling in and out, troops stationed along the perimeter. The kibbutz resembles nothing so much as a concentration camp, a prison in the desert. The film fades to black, and the intention remains clouded: is Verhoeven sympathising, lamenting the fact that Jews are still forced to live in dusty camps? Or is he saying that in this world, all occupations are equally doomed to failure, whether it be the Nazis in Holland, America in Iraq or Israel in the West Bank. The occupiers have once again become prisoners, locked inside their own compounds, their green zones, their kibbutzes. With this single shot, Verhoeven says more about the Israeli occupation than Hollywood has managed in the past thirty years, Spielberg’s Munich notwithstanding. It’s an extraordinary moment.
Technically, Black Book is predictably efficient, the historical recreation flawless, the tension maintained throughout. The script is similarly effective, if rather mechanical—plot takes precedence over character here, and a few of the later twists are a mite unconvincing, as is the central romance between Rachel and Muntze. But this is pure narrative cinema, rattling along at a breakneck pace, the flaws unnoticed until after the credits roll. Verhoeven uses all his old Hollywood tricks to draw us in—sweeping camerawork, high production values, jarring action and a sly, subversive humour. Let’s hope Black Book marks his reinvention as a serious (but not too serious) filmmaker.