Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Black Book

Black Book may be the first Holocaust film to be shot in primary colors. Vibrant reds, blues and yellows fill the screen, and all are present on the heroine, a Jew hiding in plain sight in The Hague with dyed-blond hair, sparkling blue eyes and a dash of red lipstick to drive men so crazy with lust that they couldn't care less about her ethnicity. Paul Verhoeven, having been unceremoniously cast out of Hollywood for mining the place of its sleaziest depths and leaving its garish excesses on display for all to see, took what he learned in Los Angeles back with him to the Netherlands. Black Book looks more like a throwback to bold, sensual three-strip classicism than even the more recent gonzo WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds, and it's about as subversive.

Beginning at a kibbutz in Israel in 1956, Black Book reverses Schindler's List's ending and, in the process, prevents the audience from projecting any emotional connection onto the image. What we see here is not the light at the end of the tunnel but simply a state still in its infancy and experiencing birth pains (pains exacerbated by the constant threat of attack). But it's also a place where tourism has already become an industry for those who wish to come snap photos of the quaint little place the noble West gave the poor Jews after the war -- that the scene occurs in a kibbutz, a semi-socialist commune that might make for an elementary school field trip, only emphasizes this more, as does the fact that the bus that carries the tourists is crassly labeled "Holy Land Tours."

A woman on the tour, Ronnie, catches sight of a familiar face in the commune's classroom, and she reunites with a woman she calls Ellis (Carice van Houten). Just as their pleasantries might evoke some emotional connection, Ronnie leaves as quickly as she appeared and leaves Ellis to ponder the past Ronnie conjured up, leading to a flashback in 1944 Holland. There, Ellis is still Rachel Stein, a Jew separated from her family and living with a strict Christian family that makes her recite Bible verses before each meal. One day, while sunbathing out on a lake, an Allied bomber with smoking engines drops its load in order to climb to safety, nearly hitting her and the sailor who hits on her and subsequently destroying the house with Rachel's host family.

Both the framing device and this opening segment of the narrative proper demonstrate the manner in which Verhoeven undercuts his imagery with vicious satire: the opening shows that the Jewish state millions had to die for is ultimately a Western trinket, a religious Disneyland erected to secure a base of friendly operations in the Middle East and to provide yet another place for Westerns to go spend their postwar dollars. Even in a commune modeled on utopian socialism, capitalism holds sway. As for the first part of the wartime narrative, our first exposure to the Allies comes in the form of a bomber that indiscriminately drops its payload, not out of the malignant warmongering that drove the Nazi invasion of the area but an almost farcical accident. The parade for liberating Allies will not come until much later in the movie, but for now, one wonders if certain counter-invaders weren't causing trouble of their own.

That moral ambiguity extends to the larger framework of what is a surprisingly straight-faced thriller. Black Book, as one could guess from its bright color scheme, is a work of pure fantasy despite its "based on true events" label, yet the research and cultural awareness put into the depictions of the Nazis and Dutch resistance fighters deepens the simplistic, melodramatic story one might expect from the look of the movie. Rachel and the sailor who helps her are guided by van Gein (Peter Blok), a seemingly incorruptible Dutch policeman assisting Rachel and other Jews take boats to unoccupied territories. He even reunites Rachel with her splintered family, and all seems well. When he stays behind as the boat chugs off, who would think anything? He probably needs to go find and help more Jews. But then Verhoeven cuts to a cold, blue night, and something feels off long before a German patrol boat comes across them loaded with armed soldiers. Only Rachel survives the massacre, and she watches the Germans loot bodies without compunction.

For Verhoeven, greed is as big a motivation for the actions of characters as hate. Rachel, now going by the name Ellis de Vries and dyeing her hair blond to fit in, finds her way to The Hague, where she becomes part of the resistance movement. They play upon her cabaret skills by sending her, Notorious style, to sleep with the local SD commander, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) in order to get secrets. Müntze discovers that Ellis is Jewish almost immediately, yet he does not care -- in raunchy Verhoeven fashion, Ellis convinces Müntze by placing his hands on her breasts and hips and asking "Are these Jewish?" Yet when Ellis is later framed by another, more sadistic Nazi officer, Franken, resistance fighters listening in on a bug instantly turn on her and cite her Judaism as part of her supposedly duplicitous nature. In a moment, Verhoeven mercilessly exposes the antisemitism of those meant to be fighting against it, proving that the same social and religious conditioning that so inured Germans to the atrocity committed in their backyards also affects those under Nazi subjugation.

"If the Jews had listened to Jesus," says the patriarch of the family Rachel hides with at the beginning, "They wouldn't be in this trouble now." In that single line is a condensed psychology that fits seamlessly within the plot's well-paced momentum while getting at something deeper. Meanwhile, Müntze circumvents the mad, greedy sadism of his inferior by sparing all resistance fighters brought in as hostages as he prepares for the imminent fall of the German war effort with Russia well inside the Fatherland. Whatever role he might earlier have played in rounding up Jews or just generally spying on and interrogating the Dutch populace, Müntze does not wish to continue the bloodshed simply to feel a bit superior as the inevitable encroaches.

What Verhoeven is saying, then, in the middle of an erotic thriller, is that Nazis are capable of good, and the good are capable of horrible evil. This should be obvious, of course, but some seem to want the Hollywoodized vision of WWII -- the first (and still most embarrassing) review of the film I read uses the phrase "morally ambiguous" as if it were distasteful. Verhoeven always tells relatively straightforward stories, so straightforward that one can easily miss the satire and even the earnestness behind the lens. Yet he bothers to add dimensionality to his aesthetic throwback that makes Black Book far more modern and critical a look at the travails facing Jews than most Holocaust films. Black Book may not fit neatly into the rigid confines of a good vs. evil story, but that only makes its dramatic flourishes all the more grounded in reality. (Even minor details, such as Müntze's stamp-collecting, are reflective of the research done for the movie, as the real SD commander in The Hague also collected stamps.)

Amusingly, it is Verhoeven's audacity in morally fluctuating people that makes Black Book such a relentlessly fun movie. Audacity is its strong suit; after all, it's chief story involves a Jewess and a Nazi falling in mutual love despite each knowing the true identity of the other. The burden is on Verhoeven to present Ellis as someone who can continue to fight for the cause while sleeping with the enemy, but is that so different from the other resistance fighters working toward a cause -- the end of Nazi dominion and policy -- at least some of them clearly do not reject entirely?

The primary color scheme only exacerbates the peevishly elated feeling of "Is he really doing this?" the film's plot engenders. Ellis' dyed hair has such a glow that one suspects it's less the result of sly lighting than a self-produced aura. That angelic light becomes ironic when Ellis stands before the deep, bloody reds of Nazi flags as she sings for the enemy. Often, Ellis wears dresses with ornate floral patterns, as if she just fell out of In the Mood For Love, and the vibrancy of her dress and appearance contradicts the desaturated, even black-and-white, aesthetic that has become typical of WWII-era movies. This being a Paul Verhoeven film, there are also outlandish elements, such as a close-up shot of Ellis' pubic hair as she dyes it blond. And only he can make dramatic power out of the scatological, pairing one chilling recognition with vomit and framing the climax of the post-liberation witch hunt against suspected collaborators with a literal pouring of shit. (It should be said, or maybe it shouldn't, that Verhoeven uses strikingly realistic approximations of the two; clam chowder and melted chocolate this is not.)

This swirling of the base with the high-minded characterizes the muddied, human actions undertaken in the film. Everyone is capable of good and bad, and good and bad impulses do not always line up with their resultant actions. That Black Book is so enjoyable perhaps leads to a certain guilt in some, the way many accepted Inglourious Basterds on its surface because it worked so well as a revenge fantasy. But just like the revenge of Tarantino's masterpiece left a bad aftertaste that opened up deeper readings, the sex and scheming of Black Book is self-annihilating. Sex abounds in Verhoeven's films -- "Of course there are nude scenes," he said to press after showing this film. "I'm Dutch!" -- but it is never exactly sexy. Not the desperate act of, say, an Antonioni or Tsai Ming-liang film, sex in Verhoeven's pictures is a power play for both sexes, a means of mutual degradation and exploitation, yet only the fleeting fits of genuine affection come off as sad and delusional. Ronnie sleeps with SD officers because she enjoys creature comforts denied to the conquered populace, but she manages to avoid punishment for collaborators when a Canadian soldier takes a shine to her and steals her away. Ellis initially sleeps with Müntze for information but falls in love with him. Yet for all her efforts and the honesty of her feelings, she's the one who gets torn apart by her countrymen.

I do not enjoy the constant critical juxtaposition of every Holocaust film with Schindler's List -- one that always seems to come from those who dislike that film even though the incessant comparisons legitimize Spielberg's movie far more than any rave -- but Black Book appears to be a calculated response to it. Its saturated colors contrast with the washed-out palette of Saving Private Ryan and the monochrome Schindler's List. Characters exhibit much more of an inconsistency that ironically makes them more consistent and believable. And, fundamentally, Schindler's List is a moralist drama with splashes of gripping audience moments (i.e. the (in)famous shower scene), while Black Book is a crowd-pleasing romp that injects splashes of emotional and moral depth.

Perhaps that makes it a lesser work, not compared to Schindler's List but in general. Black Book certainly has its share of contrivances and one too many miscues and double-crosses to get to its conclusion, and the subtlety-in-gaudiness of the first two hours becomes more open in the final push, turning a deceptively clever movie into one that perhaps insists on its intelligence a bit too much. Yet there's no denying that Verhoeven's satirical bent is backed by his strongest script since Robocop, the relatively straight-faced garishness of the scripts he culled from Hollywood writers replaced by a screenplay the director co-wrote with his old creative partner , Gerard Soeteman. Their script, unlike the messy ones Verhoeven had to make sense of before he could lay on the wit, is obviously keyed to the director's tastes and sensibilities.

Besides, it's hard to call Black Book an ironic inversion of Schindler's List when one considers the final scene, a return to the framing device that twists the more cynical view of the opening into a more thoughtful one, and if anything he outdoes Spielberg: the American's ending showed the hard-won lives Schindler's Jews and other Israelis received from determination, a bit of luck, and a few good souls. The Dutchman, on the other hand, says that Jews seemingly will always be under attack, and even that, as was seen during WWII, they might face trouble from ostensible allies. The sudden transparency of Verhoeven's sympathy, stripped of its sarcasm and visceral pranksterism, is all the more moving for its unexpected sincerity, and a poignant end to one of the most complex WWII dramas ever filmed.


  1. Great piece, Jake, I'm so happy to see such an enthusiastic appreciation — and one that so thoroughly *gets it* — of this great film. It's a real favorite of mine and a film I've written and thought about a lot. It's a deeply powerful and complex film but also a remarkably entertaining one. I've always loved that Verhoeven doesn't look down on the entertainment factor, that he isn't condescending about the thrills and action and suspense that he does so well here. You do a great job of probing this film's intricacies.

    I do have a few small disagreements. One is that I certainly don't think Verhoeven views sex as "self-annihilating." He's very candid about sexual manipulation and exploitation, sure, but Verhoeven also just loves sexuality, and treats it as a major part of life that needs to be represented in the cinema: in its uglier aspects as well as in its moments of playfulness and fun. Verhoeven's sex scenes often are sexy, and Ellis is a very sexy heroine, a woman who's very in touch with her sexuality, who uses it as a tool for a cause but who also obviously just enjoys sex, who enjoys being a woman. I think viewing Verhoeven as only focusing on the negative aspects of sex is missing out on the full richness of this character and of Verhoeven's worldview in general.

    I also see the ending a little differently. I think what you say about the state of constant siege afflicting the Jews makes sense, and is definitely part of it. But I also see a bit of irony in that ending, a bit of darkness, a suggestion that Ellis, seeking peace and security, has simply placed herself in the center of a different war, a different volatile situation. It's not just sympathy for the Israelis, but maybe also a subtle questioning of whether such fragile security is really wise or desirable.

    Anyway, this is definitely a thoughtful and rewarding film, one that I've returned to many times. I always find myself entertained, I always love every minute of it as it leaps through its perfectly paced action scenes and melodramatic reversals and twists. And I also always get so much out of it. Verhoeven, in making this film that's so thoroughly steeped in Hollywood imagery and grandeur, has infused the clichés with a deep, abiding humanity.

  2. Ed: I admit that it's been a looooong time since I've seen a Verhoeven film that wasn't RoboCop, so I'm going on memory for his sex scenes. But what always struck me about Showgirls was how outsized yet unerotic the sex was, how much the absurdity of its staging painted a more garish picture than if he'd, say, not gone with that dolphin flailing that was Berkley's sex scene. But I need to see both that and Basic Instinct again because I'm still very much on the fence on how well the intended satire works (I still think Verhoeven and Ezterhas had completely conflicting views on what they wanted from those movies). But I feel that there's always a sleazy element underneath Verhoeven's sex: I mean, van Houten is just gorgeous and she plays Ellis seductively, but there's always this underlying hint of either exploitation or foreboding underneath it all. I could never really settle into the heat of the moment as it were; there's a sexiness to the image certainly (like I said, it's never used in the outright despairing way of some directors) but that there's such a swirl of feelings around it that it's hard not to get pulled out and think of context and how the moment might affect later happenings. It's actually a brilliant way of shooting sex, and incredibly unique. He indulges in the sultriness while never letting us just check out and get mental images for, um, later use.

    As for the ending, that's an interesting take, and one I think can work alongside what I got out of it. It's certainly within Verhoeven's power to conjure up multiple moods across a wide emotional and intellectual range at once (which makes me want to return to his American period all the more quickly), and your take would flesh out the tone of the beginning, which paints Israel in a more cynical light as the result of Western nations simply looking for an outlet for all the people who (understandably) did not wish to return to the places that had nearly killed them and had killed so many of their loved ones, as well as a place to serve as an ally for commercial and political interests. The ending mingles that with a more human tone for those who actually live there and do see it as a hard-won land of their own, and even that is under attack. Feeding back into your point, it then follows that even the drastic steps taken to find some respite for Jews are temporary. Haunting to think about.

    Thanks for the input, Ed. I appreciate it.

  3. there's a sexiness to the image certainly (like I said, it's never used in the outright despairing way of some directors) but that there's such a swirl of feelings around it

    That's pretty much what I was getting at: that sex is complicated for Verhoeven, and often includes an element of sexiness and fun, not just the darker undertones. I always love that scene where Müntze is holding a pistol under the covers, pointing it at Ellis, but at first she thinks he's getting an erection (and so do we). The scene goes from playful to threatening and then to surprisingly tender as the lovers reconcile, but the element of danger remains, intimately tied in with the sexiness and the warmer emotions.

    I should say, also, that I wasn't really thinking of stuff like Showgirls or Basic Instinct, but more his Dutch period, films like Turkish Delight or Keetje Tippel, where sex is presented with this whole complex range of feelings. Verhoeven, I think, worked in pretty different ways in his American period as compared to his Dutch period. Showgirls and Starship Troopers, especially, are films where the deeper substance is almost diametrically opposed to the surfaces of the films. As a result, in those films, and also in Basic Instinct, he kind of wallows in the unerotic and the ugly, shoves it in the audience's face. That makes them stand apart from the comparatively nuanced portrait of sexuality in his Dutch works and in Black Book, which is in many ways more like the Dutch films than the Hollywood ones. Like you say in your piece, Black Book represents Verhoeven taking the lessons he learned in Hollywood and bringing them back to his home country, assimilating them into the aesthetic and themes of his original Dutch period.

  4. I've never actually seen his early Dutch films. I was so flummoxed over how I felt about his American films that I kind of moved on to other directors. Maybe once I knock over one or two of the retrospectives I've got going on now I might go through his work, though I've also got some more classic directors planned too. I'm really good at coming up with all these ways of evaluating people for the first time or reevaluating those I might have underestimated but damned if that list doesn't always seem to grow. I would very much like to see his early work before he started working with scripts I feel he probably disagreed with on some level or at least saw completely differently than those who wrote them.

    And I really, really wanted to mention the scene with the gun, but everywhere I tried to fit it in it came out either as a too-short or too-long aside. I burst out laughing, first because of the audacity of showing an erection like that in anything other than a Z-grade virgin teen comedy and then laughing harder when Verhoeven pulls the bait-and-switch. But even then, as you say, there are deeper feelings at play.

    I'm so glad I finally got around to this. The first review I read of it was the one I linked in the main piece but when Doniphon (who sadly deleted his article along with the rest of his blog) named it one of the 15 best of the decade I took notice but held off reading it until I could see it. Shame I don't have the chance now.

  5. A good movie with a theme of "gray areas" that I think is fascinating only up to a point. Back when Ed published his Toerific piece in 2009, it inspired a lively comments section--I wasn't able to participate because I didn't see the movie until well over a year later, but overall I agree with what Bill Ryan had been saying: Black Book's attempt to address the gray areas in WWII isn't entirely successful, and part of the reason is because the Muntze character isn't a gray character at all but, as Bill described him, a "white". Unlike the other characters surrounding him in the movie, Muntze is seen as a character capable mostly of good deeds--the "good Nazi", if you will. I'm not trying to knock Verhoeven's attempt to bring humanity out of the Third Reich (if anything, I bow to it), but obviously Muntze could only have gotten to such a high position of power if he had been involved in mass murders and genocide. Verhoeven doesn't bother to reveal any details about that, though, probably because he recognizes that to do so would put the audience's sympathy for the character at risk.

    I've also always been confused as to why people like to contrast Black Book with Schindler's List. For one thing, Black Book isn't even a Holocaust movie. It's a genre piece. It's a sex/action thriller that just so happens to be more complex than several of its trashier counterparts, even if the actual wingspan of its complexity is up for debate. It's about as much of a Holocaust movie as Inglourious Basterds was: both films are about Jewish women who plan vengeance against the Third Reich after watching their families get wiped out by Nazis, but neither film ever ventures into the concentration camps nor the death camps--nor should they, since they're not, after all, Holocaust movies.

    Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in his Black Book review about how he believes Verhoeven's movie "puts Schindler's List to shame", but of course Rosenbaum can say that: Black Book doesn't show us any atrocities that happened within the Holocaust but, rather, outside of it. And given Rosenbaum's history of complaining about movies that DO show Holocaust atrocities (Schindler's List, The Pianist, The Grey Zone) and his constant insistence that Holocaust portrayal shouldn't go beyond the sheer documentatary styles of Shoah and Night and Fog, well, it's no wonder he's more comfortable sitting through Black Book than he is sitting through Schindler's List.

    And is it fair to charge that the shower scene in Schindler's List is a scene designed for the audience, or that the ending of Schindler's List is supposed to be uplifting? The shower scene is in the movie because it's true to history: when Schindler's women were accidentally shipped off to Auschwitz, in reality they were there for three weeks--which means that they had to have taken several showers during that duration, each time expecting to be gassed. Spielberg simply makes their fears palpable for people who don't know what that's like. The ending of Schindler's List also comments about how there are fewer than 4,000 Jews left alive in Poland today, and the final shot--of Liam Neeson standing at Schindler's grave out in the distance, amongst the graves of other dead Holocaust victims, while the dedication to them appears on the screen before the fadeout--is as eloquent a statement by any filmmaker that the Holocaust will be following the world to this day.

  6. I can't tell if you're responding more to Rosenbaum or me. He was certainly the person I was thinking of when I mentioned how weird I find the comparisons, although I do stand by my assertion that the film does act as a response to Spielberg's two WWII-set dramas, even if I don't think they require a response. I don't think the shower scene is exploitative either, though that's something for my upcoming post on the film. I think Rosenbaum's track record on any film that so much as pairs WWII and Jews is so spotty than I'm actually amazed he loved this, especially since he made that absurd proclamation that Inglourious Basterds was akin to Holocaust denial.