For a movie that looks so “Hollywood”, Black Book (Zwartboek) is terribly grim, but that’s because, despite its epic surface, it isn’t Hollywood at all. Tail between his legs, unappreciated auteur Paul Verhoeven (Total Recall, Robocop) retreated to his native Netherlands, where he’d had a successful pre-Hollywood career, following 2000’s uninspired Hollow Man—as a fan of Verhoeven’s Hollywood work, even I wouldn’t stick up for that one—to get back to his filmmaking roots; he has triumphantly reemerged with this bitter romance that, incidentally, serves as a nice allegory for his American career.
Black Book stars Carice von Houten in a masterful and old-fashioned kind of performance (she is compared twice in the film to sirens of the silver screen) as a Dutch Jew during World War II, first as an Anne Frank-type in hiding and later as a member of the Resistance, for whom she infiltrates the Nazis as a spy; it is on her own, though, that she falls in love with an SS officer (!), Sebastian Koch (fresh off of Das Leben der Anderen). Black Book could’ve settled to be some sort of unusual romance, but because Verhoeven and Soeteman insist on keeping matters so unrelentingly dreary it’s instead less a bodice-ripper than, well, a major downer. C’est la guerre, I suppose. (Or c’est le Verhoeven.) It seems like every plan in Black Book goes awry, every escape and/or rescue ending in gun violence and bloodshed; it’s just one failure after another, with von Houten just about the only one scraping through it all.
That’s in large part because, as a woman, she has one advantage all other characters seem to lack (at least when dumb luck isn’t enough)—her sexuality, and a conscious awareness of its power. (In contrast to Halina Reijn, her comic fille de joie foil.) In an early scene, von Houten, a Jew on the run in Nazi Germany, is riding on the back of a bicycle past some German soldiers; she picks up her dress just a few inches to their fox-whistling delight, showing that even in war sex still trumps ideology. Later, when Koch asks von Houten if she’s Jewish, she pulls his hands to her bare breasts and asks, “are these Jewish?” The sex that ensues seems to imply the answer is no, though it’s probably a question best referred to a theologian.
So Black Book is somber, yet sexy, both bleak and beautiful, as von Houten dyes her hair a stunning platinum blonde when she joins the resistance. She’s the only one who can move with ease from the grays of the opposition’s warehouse-hideouts (talk about a political movement in need of a woman’s touch) to the blaring technicolors of the Nazi parties.
Most everyone in the film is made unsympathetic by Verhoeven: the resistance fighters corrupted and self-interested, more concerned with saving a handful of their own than a few dozen Jews, and the Nazis, well, are the Nazis. Even the Krauts, when freed at the war’s end, turn vile and are scolded by their liberators: “you’re as bad as the Nazis!” (Remarkably, or scandalously, one of the only other sympathetic characters is Koch’s SS officer, even though he never even does anything particularly heroic except fall for a Jewish girl.)
The audience’s enduring ability to sympathize with von Houten is, at least in part, a result of her being Verhoeven’s diegetic stand-in. Before the war, von Houten was a singer, and as she says early in the film, “one day you’re singing, the next you’re silenced.” Sounds, too, like a mournful remark from our hero director, effectively banished from the Hollywood scene. Verhoeven is best-known for making Hollywood blockbusters with a subversive twist, sometimes so subversive, as in the case of Starship Troopers, that the anti-fascist subtext went right over the heads of many viewers. In Black Book, the Third Reich functions as Hollywood and von Houten is Verhoeven, both an insider and a member of the opposition, and as such in time all sides turn against von Houten and she is left unable to sing and ultimately she finds herself relegated back to her homeland; the bookends that frame the flashback that makes up the bulk of the film finds von Houten living in Israel, just as Verhoeven wound up back in the Netherlands.
Of course if the film were merely an allegory for Verhoeven’s career it would be offensively self-aggrandizing, but it can at least serve as a clue as to why the director took an interest in the girl’s story and made the film in his homeland. When von Houten is humiliated by being stripped topless and having a vat of feces poured on her head, it doubles as Verhoeven’s telling the audience all about how American audiences and producers shit all over him.
Just like as in Verhoeven’s Hollywood career, there’s no happy ending for von Houten. Verhoeven sticks up for the Jews early in the film when a man who says, “if the Jews had listened to Jesus, they wouldn’t be in this mess” gets his house and family exploded but, when the film ends in Israel amidst gunfire, it feels like a political statement about the Jews’ arc from aggrieved to aggressor, though it might just be the director indicating that this shit’s never over. As von Houten cries in the third act, “when will it ever end?” . With all the Nazi’s talk of “defeating the terrorists” throughout the film, it’s hard not to start connecting the film’s story to the present day, so to answer that question: never. Groan.
||Release Date: September 25, 2007
Running Time: 146 minutes
Number of Discs: 1
Cast: Carive van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Studio: Sony Pictures