Black Book film review

This film review originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on July 12, 2007

Directed by Paul Verhoeven

Written by Gerard Soeteman and Paul Verhoeven

Starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, Halina Reijn, Waldemar Kobus and Derek de Lint

The Dutch Holocaust drama Black Book (“Zwartboek”) from Paul Verhoeven begins and ends in October 1956 with brief scenes on a desert kibbutz in Israel.  These are essential for understanding the true meanings of the story (so latecomers, be warned – wait for the next session).  In the opening scene, we learn that our heroine Rachel Stein (played by Dutch actress Carice van Houten) has survived the war, as has her wartime Dutch friend Ronnie (Halina Reijn), who in their chance meeting reveals that she had not known that Rachel was Jewish.

Flash back to 1944.  The winds of war are already blowing in the favour of the Allies, but Holland is still in the grip of a brutal Nazi occupation.  Rachel is a young woman in hiding with a conservative and decidedly antisemitic Dutch farm family (“If the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn’t be in such a mess now,” the head of the family tells her at dinner).  Over the course of quickly unfolding scenes, Rachel’s hiding place is accidently bombed by an Allied airplane and she is warned by a Dutch policeman that the Gestapo is about to find her.  She then goes to her family solicitor seeking help, and is in turn given details of how to escape on a barge to Belgium.  On the barge she joyfully meets her parents and brother, all convinced that freedom – together – is soon within their reach.  But the barge is ambushed by German soldiers, with all but Rachel killed.  She then finds her way to the Dutch Resistance fighters, and is given haven by Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), later joining the Resistance with the name Ellis de Vries” and peroxide-blond hair instead of her rich brown curls.  And Rachel’s journey of survival has only just started.

Paul Verhoeven is well-known for his extraordinary use of violence in science fiction films (Starship Troopers), with some pretty feisty female characters (think Sharon Stone in both “Basic Instinct” and Total Recall).  Working with Dutch co-writer Gerard Soeteman, here he has created one of the great Jewish heroines of modern film in Rachel/Ellis.  Carice van Houten – whose career will surely soon extend well beyond Holland with the extraordinary success of this role – inhabits this energetic, brave, nerves-of-steel character with aplomb and a strong central performance that carries Black Book wide-ranging story.  You name it, Rachel does it:  befriend and romance the local SS commander Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, who played the East German writer Georg Dreyman in The Lives of Others), work for Muntze along with Ronnie (“all of the German girls have gone back to Germany so they need us”), hide listening devices in Gestapo headquarters, and even sing at Nazi celebrations with the cruel Nazi officer Franken who commanded the group that slaughtered her family.  There is even a scene where Rachel dyes her pubic hair blond, oddly resonant of Verhoeven’s infamous “vagina scene” in Basic Instinct where Sharon Stone crossed her legs without underwear on.

At almost two and a half hours long, Black Book has enough going on to be a miniseries, and is so full of incident and a literal narrative exposition that it sometimes overwhelms the characters involved, shoving their motivations and feelings to one side.  Not content with just the main theme of remarkable Jewish survival (“inspired by true events”), Verhoeven includes enough sub-plots and topics to fill a number of episodes.  There is the Dutch Resistance, torn by arguments on strategies, personal loyalties and the nagging irritation that they need think of the plight of the Jews as well.  There is a developing romance with SS commander Muntze, who inexplicably turns out to be a sensitive stamp-collecting officer who does not want to order executions.  There are mystery thriller crosses and counter-crosses between the Resistance leaders and the Nazis and later the Allied occupation forces, and set-ups so that at one point Rachel is in fear for her life from almost everyone.  Not content to leave the heroine alone (“will it never end?” she asks towards the end of the film, referring to her non-stop trials and tragedies), there is also a wonderfully detailed portrayal of the anarchy and chaos that comes at the end of the war after liberation – clearly drawn from Verhoeven’s childhood experiences in Holland at the time.

Black Book is an extraordinary film, with non-stop action and rarely a breathless moment, but the action frequently operates to distance the viewer emotionally.  Unlike many stories of amazing Jewish survival during the Holocaust (think Europa Europa, Schindler’s List, Fateless), I was not particularly moved by Black Book – entertained, stimulated and frequently enthralled, yes, but no tears welled in my eyes.  Treatment of Jewish characters is very sensitively done, and this non-Jewish film-maker does not shy from pointedly showing the ambivalent attitudes that many Dutch had towards their fellow Jewish citizens.

Black Book will join the 1986 best foreign film Oscar winner The Assault (“De Aanslag”) as one of the best Dutch films on the Second World War, and most likely is the best Holocaust drama of its year.  Unlike similar American films, the languages used in this film – Dutch, German, English and Hebrew – are all spoken appropriate to their times and places.  This verisimilitude gives the film a power that American Holocaust films often lack, despite highly capable emotional melodrama.

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