Rachel Stein aka Ellis de Vries: “It is their intention, that for the queen and my fatherland, I have to hook up with a powerful SD’er… Sleep with him…”
Notary Smaal: “Well you’re on your own then. I can’t help you with that.”
This and last year, besides having less time than usual, found myself rather stumped at selecting a film for Memorial Day viewing and celebration. Luckily, unlike last year I’ll not miss my annual habit of watching war films in remembrance of the men and women who died serving this country. As done before, World War II-based movies have dominated my picks, many involving the Pacific Theater since they tend to draw action both above and below the water-line.
However, this time felt the need to look elsewhere in the titanic struggle of the 20th century; pointing toward another aspect that involved no less battle for those involved.
Something I thought about was how the war was experienced differently by those not in uniform, but still having it everywhere around them. And as a result, fighting the enemy in their own homeland, which was now occupied territory. What is termed as “Resistance” war films. The most famous featured in this category being Casablanca, the other well-knowns include Is Paris Burning?, The Train, and among the most recent of the fare, Defiance. Most in the European theater of operations.
As the Memorial Day holiday is always the last Monday in May, what ultimately held my attention turned out to be a film that continues to fascinate me. Made by a filmmaker-screenwriter-film producer who made quite a name for himself in Europe and by the box office-minded in Hollywood. Producing a war film that seemed a culmination of his previous work from other genres that blended an intriguing story, along with the graphic violence and sexual content his films have become known for.
All aspects on par with Dutch director Paul Verhoeven and applied to surprising effect via his subsequent look back at his home country’s struggle to ward off Nazi invasion in 2006’s, Black Book; or as it is known in the Netherlands…
Brief synopsis: Upon unexpectedly meeting an old friend at a kibbutz in Israel where she’s working as a teacher in 1956, Rachel Stein (a simply wonderful Carice van Houten) finds it triggers memories of her experiences in The Netherlands during the war. Not only for the hardships faced by Dutch Jews back then, those not yet captured by their German occupiers, but by their fellow countrymen who’d exploit them and the situation for profit late in the war.
That being occupied Holland, circa 1944, and triggered when the farmhouse Rachel has been hiding accidentally destroyed in Allied bombing. Forcing contact with the resistance, thus rejoining family and other Jews hoping to be smuggled across the Biesbosch by boat to the freed south. Only to have a German patrol boat murder them all, Rachel barely escaping the slaughter. Ultimately, rescued by a resistance group under the leadership of Gerben Kuipers.
Hence, Zwartboek draws action both above and below the belt-line.
So, when Kuipers’ son is later captured smuggling weapons, she’s asked to seduce the SS-hauptsturmführer in hopes of obtaining intel; but soon learns the attack and the other betrayals to come aren’t a coincidence.
Review: Once again1, Paul Verhoeven cinematically revisits a turbulent period in Dutch history. One that is fraught with conflict, heroics, and in the end treachery. Yet, this remarkable film manages to keep the scale of its panorama all on an intimate, exposed level. It doesn’t get much more personal when the one doing the resisting ends up fighting their own countrymen, on top of having to bed down with her Nazi enemy. I know what you’re thinking, shades of Showgirls, am I right?!?
All joking aside, if you’ve seen any of his European or US efforts, you know Verhoeven is rarely a “by the numbers” type of filmmaker. As the story plays out, he throws open an insightful window to the former’s motives — laying bare antisemitism with capitalistic aims and survival at any cost rationale, plus stripping off much of the clothing while he’s showcasing it. Even adding levels of gray to the full-frontal nudity2, and like 2002’s The Pianist, stating not all Germans were entirely monsters.
Just being human is enough.
Much of Black Book is clandestine in nature, with our heroine using her wit, guile, and let’s be honest, female anatomy3 to gain information from the enemy (read, horny German soldiers). But her actions, because she’s a Jew, place her in greater danger every day she’s in German proximity than the Dutch women collaborators she befriends along the way. The story is one of being crossed (deceived and shtup’d), doubly and triply, but being quick enough on her feet to be alive at the end to tell the tale.
Via fortunate circumstance, Rachel manages to transform herself into Ellis de Vries. A blond bombshell who infiltrates the German command in Holland where no Dutchman could. Using her marvelous singing voice and feminine charm to stunning effect and making her way into the arms of Herr Müntze (Sebastian Koch). The film was daring for showing the dark side of his country’s history along with its repercussions on those caught up in it when the war ended.
Balancing thrills to captivate and but also sharpening the audience’s focus for the misery that entailed — especially for what it meant with the women involved.
The by-product of the story illustrates the degradation they, in particular, have in wartime, and/or under male patriarchy. Let alone what Nazi-occupiers’ expected of them in due course, or the scorn and humiliation heaped upon their confederates for doing so post-liberation. Brutal, to say nothing of what it was like if you were female and Jewish. It is said, Verhoeven used real historical events in his film to make clear the war brought out the worst in everybody.
Nothing makes that more literal than one notorious scene late in the film that only this director could come up for our heroine to experience that’s a stark metaphor for it all. Springing it on Rachel when things should be joyous as it occurs shortly after the Nazis had fled, and representative of the cost surviving European Jews knew only too well. The unimaginable stench of which has to leave you gagging, if you have any humanity left. Verhoeven does like to twist the knife on occasion
While the film also relies on the usual fare found in war movies, its combination of scandalous behavior, espionage, and tragic romance give it an aspect even Rick Blain and Isla Lund couldn’t have foreseen. Throw in a talented cast (most unknown to Americans) working with a solidly plotted script that churns along efficiently, plus some marvelous cinematography of the Dutch flatland, and the result was haunting. Verhoeven invested enough bitterness in the film to give it a personal weight that’s befitting.
To say the least, given some of the visual and titillating excesses this filmmaker is known for, this was definitely one of his best films and made in his native Holland. Paul Verhoeven created a stark but consummate piece of wartime cinema with the same panache that’s worked for and against him through the decades, yet using them here made for something extraordinary. Even if you dislike WW2 movies, or for that matter having to read sub-titles, Black Book should be the exception made as it is about so much more than just the war.
All brought by a filmmaker and ensemble cast (to say nothing of the exceptional lead performance) baring it all emotionally or in the flesh, but as Rachel would say, “Does it never end?”
2. Which happens to be the same color of the uniform of the “good” SS officer set to be caught in Rachel’s honeypot trap; the “bad” ones of course wear the historic (hiss) black regimentals.↵