Film Review #96: Black Book
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Cast: Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman
Even in a post-Children of Men cinema, the capture of the young Dutch Resistance gun smugglers in the marketplace in Black Book is an impressive piece of movie-making about war. Set mostly in 1944 Nazi-occupied Holland – the “mostly” is key, because there’s a frame around the main story whose precise date suggests we should pay attention – this film has a slew of exciting skirmishes that pull us through its 145-minute running time. They all erupt during momentary lulls, steadily eroding our hope that any moment of peace could be other than passing and provisional.
Opening with an aerial dog-fight among Allied and Axis fighter planes that shatters a sunny afternoon sail, Black Book then turns a midnight boat trip of grateful, relieved reunion into a massacre shrouded with plumes of frozen breath, features several zero-to-sixty blazing shoot-outs, an underground prison break-out, a stairwell assassination, and the drugged heroine’s daring escape by stepping off a balcony into a seething crowd. Black Book closes with an Israeli kibbutz springing into lockdown siege after another reunion rich with evoked memories and what we thought – foolish audience! – looked like closure.
But the marketplace catastrophe stands out for the ways in which Verhoeven blends riveting, deftly-shot action with visual exposition of the story’s basic dilemmas. This scene occurs fairly early in the film. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish cabaret singer formerly of Berlin, has landed under Dutch Resistance fighter Gerben Kuipers’ protection following the murder of her family. Kuipers (Derek de Lint) has some kind of unspecified shop near the marketplace. People come and go and women in head-scarves sort piles of things. Its real purpose in the movie is its perfection as a setting – a warren of shabby hallways and rooms, sliding doors to duck behind and views of the street.
On this crucial day, a pick-up truck crosses the crowded marketplace carrying rifles hidden in straw and Kuipers’ son Tim (Ronald Armbrust) in its cab. There’s a mishap. The truck crashes against a building’s doorjamb, half-overturned. For agonizing moments, the trapped passengers struggle with the doors as rifles spill into the street, the marketplace crowd raises a cry and Gestapo thunderously arrive. Kuipers and his crew run from window to window, watching things fall apart in the street. Realizing they must not endanger their larger operation, Rachel helps others hold Kuipers back when Tim is arrested, beaten and hauled away.
Throughout this scene, Verhoeven’s cameras cut rapidly back and forth among these shifting points of view, embodying war’s messy, split-second contradictory demands and the competing, sometimes paralyzing human impulses they call forth. As the film goes on, Tim will reappear periodically – as a prisoner with bloody feet hustled down a hallway, as a tortured scream behind a door, finally as a just-identified corpse in a killing field. He is the contradictory symbol of all a Resistance fights to protect (or avenge), what trauma and helplessness an occupation imposes, how love can skew and undermine judgment as surely as greed lead to betrayal. It’s the elder Kuipers who suggests Rachel sleep with Gestapo chief Müntze (Sebastian Koch), and Kuipers himself who’s ready to risk Jewish lives and his own comrades to save Tim.
Verhoeven hasn’t made a Hollywood feature film since the fairly awful Hollow Man six years ago. Instead he returned to Holland after two decades to make a film about war’s slippery moral landscape – a Dutch Resistance now seen as less than thoroughly heroic, widespread Dutch collaboration with the Nazi regime, and barbaric treatment accorded those same collaborators after the war in Dutch prison camps.
Verhoeven was particularly inspired to make this film now by the recent Abu Ghraib prison scandal and surrounding events. He also lived through the Nazi occupation of Holland as a child and in 1977 made the film Soldier of Orange about those years. With his long-time screenwriter Gerard Soeteman, he’s been researching documents and photo archives since the late 60s regarding the murky histories of Dutch collaboration and resistance alike. In that decade rumors surfaced of a missing “black book” like that in the film, listing individuals who made fortunes trading in Jewish lives. The marketplace is an apt metaphor.
Often ignoring uniformly fine performances from an international cast, a ripping good war-time intrigue, terrific editing and cinematography, some US reviewers have dismissed Black Book. For example, some decry the sympathetic portrayal of Gestapo chief Müntze as calloused on Verhoeven’s part and somehow historically impermissible. Quite a few assume Verhoeven lamely copied the movie Carrie’s bloodbath for one extreme scene in which Rachel is doused with a vat of excrement. But Verhoeven’s knowledge of the Dutch prison-camp practice of dumping feces on collaborators dates from the 60s too. Apparently able to take in and integrate Verhoeven’s shades of gray about their collective past, the Dutch movie-going public has rewarded Black Book with the largest box office in that country’s history (besides significant honors from the Dutch film community).
The bracket surrounding the film’s main 1944 story is also persuasive of a more thoughtful look at Black Book. Curiously, hardly any US reviewer has bothered to remark upon this bracket as other than a routine plot device that deprives us of suspense about Rachel’s fate. But Verhoeven gives us a bridge between the Second World War and the present day that does two things.
First, Rachel’s discovered alive in the Israeli kibbutz by her war-era friend Ronnie (Halima Reijn), a Dutch woman who lived through the occupation with Rachel by attaching herself to a Nazi officer – the gross, murderous Franken. Upon liberation, Ronnie immediately found herself a Canadian protector, and she shows up on the kibbutz tour having married him. This encounter triggers Rachel’s memory. As the story winds down and returns to Israel circa 1956, Rachel’s been sitting alone by water, thinking about things. While Verhoeven has filled in events Rachel didn’t see – she learned about Müntze’s execution afterward, for example, while we do see it onscreen – the tone of the story fits the tone of a flashback she might have. Some scenes are dizzying, a bit surrealistically tinged with neon around the edges. When Rachel next encounters Franken in Gestapo headquarters at a glittering party – having last peered through marshy reeds as he ransacked her family’s bodies for money and jewels in the riverbank mud – the room whirls. Recognizing him literally makes her sick. Black Book isn’t strictly a first person account, but its story is filtered through Rachel’s eyes, including how she may be able to tolerate recalling her own behavior and others. This certainly includes how she would recall both Münzte and her sometime Dutch lover, the dashing doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), subject of the film’s most shocking reversal.
Secondly, the front-loaded notation “October 1956” provides a context for the sudden gunfire at the end. This is an Israeli kibbutz defending itself at a very specific moment. Verhoeven asks us to use the Nazi occupation as a starting point to reassess a vaster swath of history. He certainly references the complex cluster of events and international power shifts that we call the Suez Crisis. In October 1956, Israel invaded the Sinai in response to Nasser’s nationalization of Egypt’s Suez Canal; the UN responded by sending the first modern peace-keeping force, proposed by (Ronnie’s husband’s countryman) Canadian Lester Pearson. At that time Europe had been importing about two-thirds of its oil via the Suez Canal, a short-cut that saved ships 11,000 miles around Africa. Quite a collision in the marketplace.
Black Book opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on April 4th, heading for release in 28 US and Canadian cities by the end of April. This review appeared in Stylusmagazine.com on 4/17/07.