start by admitting from cradle to tomb isn’t that long a stay

Black Book (Zwartboek): One of those movies that the DVD case doesn’t do justice to. The plot feels like a cliche: Jewish girl in the Netherlands, separated from her family during World War 2, dyes her hair blonde and seduces a German officer to aid the Resistance. She finds herself torn between her affection for the officer and her desire to avenge her parents. The “seduction-and-betrayal” story has been told before.

What makes Black Book different is Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers) behind the camera. Verhoeven moves the film along at a breathless pace, catapulting our heroine from placidity to tension to danger to a temporary respite with little pause between. He doesn’t skimp on the gore, either, shredding civilians, partisans and Nazis with blizzards of automatic fire. Sex is frequent and graphic. These are bleeding, sweating, fucking human beings.

Verhoeven also assembled a hell of a cast. When telling a seduction-and-betrayal story, directors have to take special care to keep their heroines from looking like prostitutes or victims. Carice van Houten, as Rachel, has no such problem. Rachel is confident, opportunistic and, while capable of deep tenderness, also frank in her sexuality. When Mr. Kuipers, a resistance leader in Amsterdam, asks her how close she’d be willing to get to an S.S. officer, she asks, “You mean, am I willing to screw him?” After a pause: “I’ll go as far as he’s willing to go. Okay?”

carice van houten

The S.S. officer in question, Captain Ludwig Muntze, is played by Sebastian Koch (who was equally excellent in The Lives of Others a few years earlier). He’s not a reluctant Nazi: when he brings Rachel back to his apartment, he brags about having seized it from “the capitalists” (for which read “the Jews”). But it’s clear he believes in fighting a more civilized war than his comrades in the Gestapo do and has a touch of poetry in his soul. And the mercy and tenderness he shows Rachel leads the audience to, if not cheer for him, at least hold their breath when things get tense.

War makes monsters of us all, Black Book tells us; even the Resistance is full of betrayals and cruelty. The movie doesn’t end with the surrender of Germany. In fact, it’s the genius of Verhoeven’s tight, suspense-thriller plotting that the liberation of Amsterdam makes things worse for our heroine: once a Jew hiding among Nazis, she’s now an S.S. sympathizer hiding from vengeful Dutchmen. Verhoeven goes to deliberate excess here, as he is wont to do, subjecting our heroine to pornographic levels of melodrama. A world of shit rains on her head.

Spiritual and physical brutality aside, Verhoeven turns what could have been a cliched tale of victimhood and prostitution into a tense, compelling and innately real story of heroism. The heroes and villains keep surprising you and the plot twists unload like a Sten gun. The movie keeps you on edge until the very end, when the titular black book that one character has used to document all the others is finally revealed.

black book

(Postscript: I wonder if the subtitlers were having a bit of fun with the English-speaking audience. The German officers refer to the Dutch resistance as “terrorists” instead of a more contemporary term like partisans or guerillas. This leads to a few ironic scenes, like one German officer accusing Muntze of “negotiating with terrorists” when Muntze secures a cease-fire with the resistance. Muntze defends his actions as sparing German soldiers from danger behind the lines; his comrade accuses him of “defeatism.”

I don’t believe Verhoeven intended to compare the 21st century West to the Nazis; that’s a blunt, extreme analogy and the rest of the film doesn’t bear it out. And it may just be the choice of the subtitle editors. But if Verhoeven were making the point that monsters exist on both sides of a war, the film succeeds there)


One Response

  1. The Germans in WW2 did occasionally refer to partisans as terrorists, especially when trying to convince the civil population to side with their uniformed army. But knowing Verhoeven, he could’ve put that in the script deliberately.

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