Fearful Symmetries

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22 May, 2007

Black Book (Zwartboek)

This past weekend, The Dulcinea and I made our first trek to the shiny new Sundance 608 for a showing of Paul Verhoeven's latest, Zwartboek (Black Book). Honestly, I was surprised that The Dulcinea wanted to see it considering that she abhors violence in stories, her affection for Dexter not withstanding.

Black Book marks Verhoeven's return to his native Holland after a decade and a half of making films here in the States. His American output was heavily weighted towards (often satirical) sci-fi shoot-'em'-ups with RoboCop, Total Recall, and Starship Troopers to his credit. He also reveled in matters sexual with Sharon Stone (and her vulva) in Basic Instinct and Showgirls, now a midnight movie staple. His final film made in the States was Hollow Man which was disappointing for fans as well as the director himself. Unable to get any new projects off the ground, he returned home.

Black Book is a companion piece of sorts to his 1977 film Soldaat van Oranje (Soldier of Orange). That movie concerned the Dutch experience of World War II through the eyes of a group of young men who go from being students to resistance fighters with the occupation of Holland by the Nazis. Black Book gives us a female protagonist and takes place in the last year or so of the war.



Black Book begins in October 1956 with a tourist bus stopping at an Israeli kibbutz. One woman takes a snap of a class which prompts the teacher to approach the woman and tell her that the school is off-limits for tourists. It turns out the two know one another from the days of the war in Holland. The teacher is Rachel and the tourist is her old friend Ronnie. Their brief reunion prompts Rachel to sit on shore and recall those fateful days.

Back in Holland in 1944 Rachel Stein is hiding from the Nazis. The Tsjempkema family has given her refuge but the kindness shown to Rachel is tempered a bit by the father's grim insistence that she learn the Bible and recite passages before dinner. This is the first time the anti-Semitism of the Dutch, ostensibly the good guys here, rears its ugly head. In addition, this scene begins to lead the viewer through a labyrinth of moral ambiguity. There are good guys and bad guys but they each share some qualities of their opposite.

Rachel's safe house is destroyed accidentally by an Allied plane which was indiscriminately dropping its payload in an effort to become lighter and escape a German plane that was in pursuit. This scene takes place on a lakeshore and Karl Walter Lindenlaub's cinematography here is quite beautiful. Kudos to Sundance 608 for having a screen large enough to accommodate the widescreen photography.

Helped by a young man named Rob, Rachel flees to the city in search of a lawyer named Mr. Smaal who has secretly been helping Jews flee from Holland. He sets up an escape for her, duly noting the details in a little black book which gives the film its title. Things are looking up for Rachel as she is reunited with her family and on a boat headed for southern Holland which is held by the Allies. Suddenly the small barge is set upon by a brilliant light. A German patrol ship is before them and opens fire. Rachel watches in horror as her family is brutally mowed down. The soundtrack during the slaughter was absolutely bracing. The machine guns were very, very loud and I noticed The Dulcinea out of the corner of my eye as she covered her mouth with her hands. Rachel's survival instincts eventually kick in and she dives into the water. She escapes and makes her way to the shore where she sees that the Germans have brought the barge. Like a pack of vultures, they are looting the corpses under the self-satisfied gaze of Günther Franken, pictured here.



Gerben Kuipers, a leader in the Dutch resistance, rescues Rachel and offers her refuge. With her family having been killed, she joins Kuipers' band of fighters. Her first mission is to accompany fellow resister Hans Akkermans on a train and smuggle guns and papers. On the journey, Rachel briefly encounters Ludwig Müntze, a high-ranking German officer who is also a bit of a philatelist. (Müntze is played by Sebastian Koch and The Dulicinea now swoons at the site of his Teutonic good looks.) Their meeting would prove fortuitous after Gerben's son, Tim, is captured when the produce truck used to smuggle weapons that he is in gets involved in an accident. This prompts the elder Kuipers to convince Rachel to infiltrate the Dutch SD headquarters and help free Tim from the Nazis. (The SD was the security service.) To do so, Rachel dyes her hair blonde and gives the same treatment to her pubes. With the appropriate costume, she changes adopts the name Ellis De Vries and moves ahead with her womanly wiles.

Rachel endears herself to Müntze by bringing him a gift of stamps. Not only does she become his paramour, but he also gives her a job as a typist. She meets Ronnie here who is in the same position as her but she labors for Franken. As Rachel's relationship with Müntze goes on, we learn that he isn't a typical Nazi bad guy. The character is rather sympathetic as we find out about the death of his family and that he has been in secret contact with the resistance trying to negotiate a small peace whereby the Dutch fighters stop killing the Germans and, in turn, the Germans stop retaliating by killing innocent civilians. Plus he susses out that Rachel is a Jew when he notices the dark roots of her hair yet he continues his involvement with her, lets her keep her job, and follows his affectionate feelings towards her.

As an aside, Carice van Houten, who plays Rachel, gives a fantastic performance. I loved how she changed her facial expressions when she was at the SD HQ or at a party. For her Nazi employers it was all smiles but, turning away so that only the audience can see, she flashed sullen expressions. van Houten is not just a pretty face. She did a great job of imbuing Rachel with strength, resourcefulness, and anger. Rumor has it that she's the next Bond girl.

Getting back to the situation at SD headquarters, Franken has nary a hint of conscience. He has been profiting from a little subterfuge on the side. He learns of the attempts to smuggle Jews to Allied territory and ambushes them for their possessions, making a tidy sum for himself. By portraying the foibles and moral imperfections of everyone, Verhoeven is able to make Franken even more evil, as if just being a Nazi and a murderer wasn't bad enough. He's crooked as well.



Anti-Semitism returns powerfully during a scene in which Gerben hatches a plot to free Tim. Rachel objects that this would detract from stopping Franken and his gang who are hyper-cruelly leading lambs to the slaughter. Gerben's impassioned retort intimates he feels that, not only is his son more important than strangers, but also that Dutch people have more worth than mere Jews. It is Rachel alone that seems to have any sense of moral clarity as she keeps a vigil in a wilderness of mirrors. The confusion and betrayal deepens when it becomes apparent that it's Mr. Smaal and his little black book which give Franken the information he needs to perpetrate his misdeeds.

At one point, Rachel angrily asks, "Will it never stop, then?!" The ultimate answer comes at the end of the film when she comes back to the present (of 1956) as she sits on the shore. Her husband and family greet her and they walk back to the kibbutz. Entering the gates, they are followed by Israeli security forces who are on high alert owing to the Suez Crisis. Perhaps some things never end.

Black Book is a thriller at heart with its tight, forceful story and suspenseful twists. But it also transcends mere entertainment by being laced with more than enough food for thought. Verhoeven finds a good middle ground with Black Book. He honed his narrative skills here in America and so the film is an engaging and entertaining story. But he also returned to his homeland and explored a part of its history here that he remembers from his youth as Verhoeven was 7 in 1944. Black Book is more personal than anything he's done in many years. The story is based on true events and characters are based on real people. Plus there really was a black book. Instead of a Dutchman chewing up American culture and spitting it back at us, here the director looks back at his youth and the people and events from his own country to illustrate something bigger for the viewer something to chew on as the credits roll. Good and bad, right and wrong – they're not clear cut absolutes here. Instead these notions are more like fluctuations in a continuum of human morality. War carves out an ethical terrain that's difficult to traverse and such circumstances bring out the best in some and the worst in others but, more importantly, it brings out all points in between in everyone.
|| Palmer, 3:02 PM

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