Probing Both Sides of the Dutch WWII Resistance

Maui Time | April 6, 2007

Paul Verhoeven Probes Both Sides of the Dutch WWII Resistance

Black Book (1103 words)

By Cole Smithey

Black Book is Paul Verhoeven's first film made in his native born Netherlands since 1985, and he brings to it valuable lessons learned from working for 20-years in Hollywood (see Robocop, Starship Troopers) to forge an unprecedented World War II-era masterpiece. The film's iconic title comes from a secret list of Dutch collaborators. Much of its success emanates from the nimble performance of leading lady Carice van Houten. In the role of a once wealthy Jewish singer, who joins a Dutch resistance group after escaping a massacre that claims the lives of her family, van Houten plays Rachel Stein with a naive blitheness that registers as a tour de force. Stein represents a quietly contained moral code wherein romantic loyalty is as much a part of her physiology as her determination to exact retribution from those responsible for her family's death. At once the most expensive and successful Dutch film ever made, Verhoeven created the fast-paced script with his well-aquatinted screenwriter Gerard Soeteman (co-writer on Soldier of Orange) based on historical events researched in the Dutch War Museum and in scholarly publications over a period of more than 20 years.

The story is bookended by scenes, circa 1956, on a Kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee where Rachel resides behind guarded barbed wire fences. A bus full of tourists momentarily reunites Rachel with a woman from her past that sends her into a reverie about an astonishing saga of survival. In September of 1944, a younger Rachel reads a bible while hiding inside a secret room in the rural safe-house of a Christian Dutch family. The gruff patriarch sets the tone for mealtime discussion when he announces, "If the Jews had listened to Jesus, we wouldn't be in the state we're in now." Rachel's poker face at the remark divulges her innate ability to disconnect emotions that might otherwise impugn her safety. Christian, Jew, Freedom Fighter, Nazi collaborator, traitor, avenging angel; Rachel will eventually take on all of these reputations while still maintaining her individuality as she shifts identities with effortless grace. At one point, a close associate calls her a "real Mati Hari" (the famous WWI Dutch spy) and Verhoeven revels in exploring this image by building up and shattering Rachel's many layers of personality.

An allied bombing raid kills the Christian family and sends Rachel into hiding with Rob (Michel Huisman) a young man she has only just met. Rob takes Rachel to meet a lawyer who secretly helps Jews escape into allied territory, and he hesitantly agrees to help them if they will to gather up all of their belongings and money for safe passage on a barge with other Jews. Rachel is briefly reunited with her family, but German forces attack the boat and she is left as its lone survivor after diving into the night water.

After being rescued by a Dutch resistance leader, Rachel is smuggled as a coffin-enclosed corpse to relative safety. Intent on avenging the murder of her family, Rachel dyes her hair blonde, changes her name to Ellis de Vries and proves her adaptive skills under pressure during an endangered gun smuggling mission that introduces her to Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) the head of the Dutch SD (sicherheitsdienst -- the Nazi intelligence service).

Her brief connection with Muntze gives rise to Rachel being assigned to seduce the Nazi officer, stationed inside the Hague, after another gun running mission leads to the capture of several resistance leaders. Rachel dyes her pubic hair blonde, and the scene allows for some signature Verhoeven sexual levity while detailing the character's carnal commitment to the resistance. It also prefaces glimpses of Nazi debauchery that Verhoeven accurately includes throughout. The assignment goes better than expected when Muntze accepts Rachel's tender bait, and goes so far as to give her a clerk job under his command. Muntze admires the degree of her deception when he notices the dark roots in her hair, and yet continues on with their affair knowing that she is Jewish. Herein lies the romantic twist that links a Jewish war orphan with a good German.

Rachel and Muntze are very different from the heroes and heroines of war-era and postwar propaganda movies. Their relationship exists in a pressurized bubble of ambiguity beyond each of their stated political goals. Stylistically, Verhoeven's trademark Hitchcockian influence comes through in suspense scenes that put a lump in your throat. When Rachel bugs Muntze's office so the resistance can plan a mission to release their comrade prisoners, Verhoeven takes full advantage of the situation to heighten suspense.

Nothing is black and white. Verhoeven told Sight & Sound magazine that "the whole story is revisionism," so he had to "revise the revisionism to tell the reality." The triumph of the Dutch resistance turns the victors into brutes as vile as the Nazis that they depose, and the Canadian liberators prove to be pushovers on procedure. Rachel's quest for revenge turns back on itself after she's branded a traitor by the guerrilla movement, and she realizes that the people she trusted most are her enemy. The film explodes the reality of war profiteers that lurk in the blind spots of both sides of the conflict. The film is far more judgmental than it seems. When a resistance leader rescues Rachel after having 40 gallons of feces dumped on her by a gaggle of fellow prisoners, it's only so he can get her alone to inflict a worse punishment. Only her lightness of spirit keeps Rachel alive, but when she finally exacts her long-delayed retribution, she no hero, no martyr, merely a solitary Jewish woman who will never be free.

At 68, Paul Verhoeven is an artistic and intelligent director on a scale with Bernardo Bertolucci (1900), and Black Book is the most dynamic achievement of the 25 films he's made. For detractors unable to see beyond Verhoeven's grand-scale failure Showgirls, or acknowledge the brilliant satire of Starship Troopers, Black Book might seem a bombastic flexing of narrative muscle. From composer Anne Dudley's thundering musical score to cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub's sensational camerawork, Black Book is a wartime movie that embraces irony, action, sex and tragedy as equal parts of a significant human struggle. Verhoeven uses theatricality to simultaneously balance the suffering without giving into sentimentality or preachy posturing. The Dutch director has learned from Hollywood how to better shape and pace a film, while still giving his characters room to breathe. The question is; what will Hollywood learn from Verhoeven.

Rated R, 145 mins. (A+)


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