Monday, July 20, 2009

TOERIFC: Black Book


The films of Paul Verhoeven seldom deal with morality and appearances in conventional ways. Verhoeven's filmography represents a prolonged examination of the depths hidden beneath overly familiar surfaces; he often mines within genre templates for the emotional truths obscured by superficiality. And in his 2006 masterpiece Black Book, he turns to the question of historical truth, examining the history book truths we take for granted, exploring the vast gray areas that exist between black and white, good and evil, hero and villain. If Verhoeven was making a Western, most of his characters would wear gray hats. His is a morally ambiguous universe in the deepest sense, one with no easy answers, no pat moral conclusions.

This perspective is especially challenging here because Black Book is about the end of World War II in the Netherlands, where in the final months of the war, the Nazis, Dutch collaborators and anti-Nazi Resistance fighters continued to fight, always thinking about what would happen once the war was over. The film's central character is young Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman who soon changes her name to Ellis de Vries as part of her disguise from the Nazis. When the film opens, she is living with a Christian family who begrudgingly shelter her, forcing her to faithfully recite Bible verses before she is allowed to eat (exactly the kind of self-righteous hypocrisy Verhoeven most loves to mock). When her shelter is destroyed by Nazi bombs and her identity discovered, she attempts to escape with her family, but instead she winds up the sole survivor after the sinister German officer Franken (Waldemar Kobus) ambushes the boat and kills everyone else. Now named Ellis, she falls in with a group of Resistance fighters and, at their behest, infiltrates the Nazi command by cozying up to SS officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch).

Of course, the plot only grows more complex from there. The script, written by Verhoeven with his frequent collaborator Gerard Soeteman, is serpentine and epic, structured around the multiple twists, betrayals, moves and countermoves that characterize this tale of wartime spying and resistance. The film is lengthy, but with the exception of the brief framing segments in post-war Israel, its action covers only around a year or two, from the last few months of the war to the immediate post-war period, the time of liberation, revenge and readjustment. This brief time frame is packed with incident, however. Verhoeven has always known how to tell a story. In fact, he's often been picked on for this very skill, for his ability to work competently — even vigorously — within conventional storytelling modes. That's why he was such a good fit for Hollywood, at least for a time, despite his penchant for outrageous provocation and radical subtexts. He's a provocateur and a satirist, but even more than that he's a storyteller, an entertainer. Rather than using satire to undermine entertainment, the way so many covert satirists have, he allows the two strains of his work to coexist, to intertwine, so that in a Verhoeven film the excitingly sensual surface he offers up is inseparable from the cerebral and thematic undercurrents of his stories.


This means that his films are always rollicking good fun, if nothing else, and Black Book is no exception. His action sequences are thrilling and visceral, and the plot is a complex web of deceit and double-crosses, with new twists continually introducing complete shifts in the status quo. Of course, sexuality is also almost always an important factor in Verhoeven's films. In Black Book especially, however, Verhoeven's treatment of sexuality is far from simple exploitation or gratuitous titillation. One of the film's most important subtexts is its subtle revelation of the ways in which women are used and then punished for their sexuality, for their charm and beauty. Ellis seduces the Nazi Müntze only out of necessity, after the Nazis capture a shipment of weapons along with several Resistance fighters, including Tim (Ronald Armbrust), the son of the Resistance ring's leader Kuipers (Derek de Lint). She agrees to help by infiltrating the SS headquarters, planting a bug in Franken's office and generally providing information on what's going on, as the Resistance cell tries to figure out a way to free their captured comrades.

So Ellis uses her sexuality for the benefit of her friends; she is willing to sleep with Müntze, and even to expose herself to the unwelcome attention of the brutish Franken, the man who murdered her family. But she is not praised for her behavior; she is silently, implicitly judged. Before she goes undercover, the doctor and Resistance fighter Akkermans (Thom Hoffman) makes sure that he sleeps with her first, as though marking her before the Germans get ahold of her, claiming her as Dutch property. Her sexuality is a tool, a weapon, a resource, and also something to be fought over, but she is never treated as an equal, as someone to be respected in her own right. Even when she first joins the Resistance group, she is eager to help, but seems disappointed when she learns that all she has to do is pose as Akkermans' wife, kissing him to distract Nazi inspection parties as they smuggle underground materials from place to place. This assignment establishes the boundaries of what she will be asked to do as a part of this group, though her quick thinking when the mission nearly goes wrong indicates that she is more than just a pretty prop, that she can think for herself and ingeniously get her allies out of tight spots. Still, they do not respect her, and Ellis knows it.

One of the key moments here comes when Ellis arrives at the Resistance's secret base while they are listening in on the microphone that Ellis planted. They hear Franken having loud, raucous sex with his secretary Ronnie (Halina Reijn), and the Resistance fighters are laughing wildly, mocking the lovers and especially the girl. They call her a whore and comment on how horny she must be, and they laugh uproariously. Ellis looks uncomfortable, her head bent down, her eyes averted from everyone else, certainly not laughing. She realizes that Ronnie, an ordinary and not very bright young woman, is just doing what she must to survive, that she's no Nazi or "Nazi lover" but only someone who knew, as Ellis did, that she could use her sexuality as a way to get by during a difficult time. And Ellis knows, too, that the others might just as easily say the same things about her. She's sleeping with Müntze just as Ronnie is sleeping with Franken. Ellis has a pretext for her actions, but in the end sex is sex.


Complicating matters even further is the fact that Müntze is not an unsympathetic character, and in fact he is portrayed as a relatively decent guy. He is an SS officer, but by this late point in the war, he has realized that his country is losing, and instead of reacting out of greed (as Franken does) or self-preservation (as so many others do), he attempts to calm down the violence in his own little corner of the war, negotiating with the Resistance to halt the hostilities on both sides. He knows the war is over in all but name, and sees little point in further death, further violence and horror. Moreover, he very quickly deduces that Ellis is a disguised Jew, and not long after discovers that she is a member of the Resistance. But in both cases he keeps her secret, protecting her and conspiring with her.

There is a hint of tension between them, of course, which bursts out in the wittily Freudian scene where Ellis thinks Müntze is getting an erection under the covers, only to find he's pointing a gun at her: underscoring the forced, duplicitous sexuality that thrust them together. Even so, the relationship between them is surprisingly tender and sweet, a true romance in the midst of so much deceit and treachery and violence. He is, perhaps, a good man who had been warped by the war, forced into his position by cowardice or some other motivation — it's never made clear how or why he became such a high-ranking SS officer, or what he must've done in the past. But with Ellis, he is loyal and kind, and their sex scenes have a warmth and passion that never feels like playacting.

This brings up the question of appearances and surfaces again, and of acting. Carice van Houten is asked to virtually carry the film on her tiny shoulders — she is its center and its heart, almost never offscreen — and she gives a phenomenal performance. In many ways, she is also playing an actress, a woman who must be able to disguise her true self completely. She must do this first as a Jew, dying her hair blonde and changing her name, shedding her Jewish roots. She even dyes her pubic hair, as though changing even her sexuality; Verhoeven shows her daubing between her legs with a brush, making art of her sex. Then her disguise becomes even more complex when she is employed by the Nazis. There is an extraordinary sequence when she first sees Franken and recognizes him as the man who murdered her family. The creepy, lumpen oaf is hunched over a piano, cheerfully singing a song and playing; he is as goofy and awkward here as he was cold and evil in the earlier scene. Ellis stares blankly at him, and runs from the room, retching and throwing up when she reaches the bathroom. But she takes a moment, cleans herself up quickly and pulls herself together, and when Müntze asks her what's wrong, she smiles and takes an eager swig of champagne, then goes out to sing a torch song with accompaniment from Franken, lewdly dancing and posing as she sings the sexually suggestive lyrics.

Van Houten is excellent at conveying these sudden shifts, the way Ellis' face can quickly and smoothly transition from a sour, numb expression into a bright and seemingly genuine smile. Verhoeven, with his concern for the relationship between appearances and reality, is especially interested in this fluid masking of emotions: at what point do Ellis' faked smiles become real? At what point does her façade of affection and desire for Müntze bleed into something deeper, more true? Such questions are at the heart of the film, and they go beyond Ellis' undercover theatrics, extending to every aspect of the story, to every character. Virtually all these people are wearing masks of various kinds, and they're all more than they appear to be on the surface. For one thing, the film rejects facile categorizations of "good guys" and "bad guys," suggesting that real evil is not always as easy to identify as the cartoonish Franken, who in any event is also capable of playfulness and good humor, and who seems to love making music. Moreover, Verhoeven is saying, often evil can be mistaken for good, and vice versa — not to mention the complications of most people combining the two within themselves.


Verhoeven explicitly mocks the moral absolutism that ignores such gray areas. This is especially obvious in the character of Theo (Johnny de Mol), a devout Christian who becomes hysterical after killing a man to protect Ellis. He believes that because he has committed murder, he is now "as bad as the Nazis," an absolutely absurd idea that demonstrates a complete inability to see moral gray areas. Verhoeven, by contrast, is interested only in the gray areas, in why people do what they do, in the complicated interactions of morality and practicality from day to day. For Verhoeven, morality never exists in a vacuum, but is integrated with people's situations: the choices available to them and the choices they make as a result.

What's also interesting about the film is its almost-complete emphasis on the kinds of stories not often told about World War II, the stories that are generally overlooked and glossed-over. Verhoeven has always been interested in this material, in the history of resistance and collaboration in his homeland. In 1977, he made the epic Soldier of Orange, which is similarly engaged with issues of collaboration and resistance, with the interesting ways in which wartime can warp or divert a person's character and destiny. In many ways, that film seems like a warm-up for Black Book, a first examination of the territory he'd return to here, now mining even deeper, digging even further into the ugly contradictions of his nation's past.

Those contradictions are laid bare here, particularly during the film's final hour, in which Ellis, suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, is forced into hiding along with Müntze, who's fleeing the dubious "justice" of the post-war regime. Verhoeven has often been accused of a lack of subtlety, and the final hour of this film could certainly provide copious material for anyone wishing to make that case. He heaps suffering and degradation on his poor heroine, who is misused and betrayed despite all her efforts to do what was right, to help her friends and exact revenge for what happened to her family. Instead, she is arrested as a collaborator, labeled a "Nazi whore" who sang for the Germans. She is, at one point, stripped and slathered in excrement, at a prison where drunken soldiers and prison guards abuse and humiliate the prisoners. And then she is betrayed again, nearly killed by the last person she thought she could trust, Akkermans himself, who turns out to be a genuine collaborator, the man who kept tipping off Franken to the locations of fleeing Jews.


Verhoeven undoubtedly makes things difficult for his heroine, and he also makes her plight difficult to watch — this Passion of Ellis is harrowing and often stomach-churning, both physically (the feces bath) and emotionally (the execution of Müntze). But no matter how much Ellis suffers, Verhoeven never strips her of her dignity: her warmth and passion, her energetic spirit, her honesty, her defiance. When the prison guards demand that she sing for them like she once did for the Nazis, she simply shakes her head: "not for you." She is an ordinary woman in extraordinary times, and she rises to the occasion in every way, molding herself to be tough enough for what she has to face.

And she always retains her idiosyncratic sense of humor, her playfulness — seen in tossed-off little moments like the one where she takes a bite of a carrot meant for a rabbit, then turns around to speak with the bite stuffed into her cheek like a chipmunk, or the scene where she brushes her teeth by gargling with champagne, then opens her mouth wide for inspection with a grin. Verhoeven obviously admires her cheekiness, and he admires his actress too, admires the versatility she brings to this role: compare the matronly, melancholy Rachel seen in the Israeli framing story against bold, blonde Ellis for some indication of the range and depth van Houten brings to this character.


Indeed, "range and depth" is a fairly good summation of Black Book as a whole as well. It's an extraordinarily complex and multi-faceted film, both narratively and thematically. Even as its plot continually subdivides and changes directions, Verhoeven probes deeper and deeper into the sexual, political and psychological subtexts of his story and characters. His style is direct and bombastic, with a subtle stylization to the way he groups other characters into two-shots with his heroine, tracing her varying relationships with the men she encounters. Ellis is always turning towards the camera, flashing it a smile or a penetrating gaze; Verhoeven makes it natural enough that it never quite breaks the fourth wall, though the technique does call attention to itself, and to the continual highlighting of the star.

I could certainly find a lot more to say about Black Book — it's a film I suspect I could write a book about, delving into each scene and giving it the careful consideration it deserves. It's that rich, that layered. For now, however, I'll simply open up the discussion for others to share their impressions of Verhoeven's film. What does everyone else think?

205 comments:

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Ryan Kelly said...

First of all, bravo on the piece. I don't love Verhoeven (or this movie) in quite the same way that you do, but you make a lot of great observations that I feel that someone like me who is less-than-enamored with this movie can shake their head about what you write every step of the way.

I love Verhoeven, and am enjoying exploring his Dutch period. I found Black Book to be something of a mixed bag, though--- the first hour suffers from almost generic plotting: she runs, Nazi's come, Nazi's beat the shit out of/kill everybody, she runs more. When things started picking up for me was around the time that she started working for the Nazi's and the character of Muntze comes into the film. To me, this is where the moral ambiguity of the film really started to shine through--- some people on the protagonist side are evil, some on the antagonistic side are good and decent people. I feel like Munich articulated this central conceit better, but it's still valuable as subtext. He's not like Spielberg in Schindler's List, who writes off the Holocaust as being started and perpetuated by a couple of particularly bad eggs.

Like you I loved van Houten, and you're right to say she carried the film on her soldiers. A lesser actress may not have been able to afford the role as much dignity and nobility as she does. And I love how you point at that sequence where she recognizes Franken (my favorite in the film)... she conveys so much wordlessly.

I wish I was crazier about it than I was, because I found a lot to admire, but I found some of the melodrama to be a little much, and almost undermining the genuine drama bubbling underneath the surface. The humor in the film is too scattered; surely the last thing we need is another oppressively dour Holocaust film.

Again, a great choice and a great piece.

Ed Howard said...

Interesting comments Ryan, though obviously I don't agree. Most of all, I certainly would never call the film "oppressively dour." Its final hour is a bit hard to take, but otherwise Verhoeven brings such an energetic style to the film that I never find it less than entertaining -- and hey, it is a WW2 film so it's not exactly gonna be a light comedy.

I love how Verhoeven finds room for those little moments of humor here and there, reminders that just because these characters are trapped in a horrible situation, they don't forsake their humanity. One I forgot to mention in my writeup is the great scene where Akkermans comically imitates Hitler after the Resistance fighters successfully kill a collaborator. Then there's Muntze's deadpan reaction to seeing Ellis' dyed pubic hair: "ah, you're a perfectionist." These kinds of details are what really make the film for me.

Marilyn said...

Outstanding review, Ed, of Verhoeven's masterpiece. I wrote about it, too, when it came out. I think the idea of masks obsessed Verhoeven - if you look at Showgirls, Elizabeth Berkley's character's face is encased in one made of make-up from the beginning to the end of the film; Gina Gershon's character loses it when she gives up the stage after a crippling injury, the first and only time we see her real face.

This is such an anti-Hollywood war film made in high Hollywood style - a woman as the hero, not an American savior in sight, a deep focus on the Jewish predicament in which Jews are not shown only as victims.

Greg said...

Verhoeven has often been accused of a lack of subtlety, and the final hour of this film could certainly provide copious material for anyone wishing to make that case.

For someone wishing to make that case the entire film would work, not just the last hour. Ryan said, "I found some of the melodrama to be a little much" but Ryan, melodrama is a little much by design. It is heightened drama and here I think it works.

I was a little surprised by this as your choice I must admit. After Dancer in the Dark I assumed you hated melodrama and it's blunt machinations.

After being a little put off by the opening set-up (the barn is bombed and the fire-trucks are there THAT VERY SECOND! I found myself quite taken by this film. Certainly van Houten is terrific and in the scene where she is told of Müntze's death I thought she was flat out extraordinary!

That's all I say for now, as always, waiting for others to give their opening impression as well. Great write-up Ed.

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn: that's a great point about Showgirls and masks, though in the case of Black Book the central heroine is much more open than Elizabeth Berkley's Nomi. Rachel/Ellis is continually hiding her identity and disguising herself, but her emotional core shows through, at least partly because of Van Houten's stunning performance. And I think you're right that the film consciously turns Hollywood Holocaust movie tropes on their head. Verhoeven is almost always responding in his films to the conventions of other movies, and this is probably the best example of how he can simultaneously fulfill those conventions (making an exciting action movie) and undermine them.

Ryan Kelly said...

Its final hour is a bit hard to take, but otherwise Verhoeven brings such an energetic style to the film that I never find it less than entertaining -- and hey, it is a WW2 film so it's not exactly gonna be a light comedy.

Well, I wasn't expecting light comedy, but I just felt in that last hour or so the movie goes to extreme lengths to show that moral relativistic horror. I'm so used to Verhoeven satirizing conventions that I was surprised to see him embrace them with such a straight face. I'm surprised you say that scene where the character screams "I'm as bad as the Nazi's" to be a ridiculous sentiment. Why is is ridiculous? The point was killing is killing whether you're on the side that history favors or not.

One I forgot to mention in my writeup is the great scene where Akkermans comically imitates Hitler after the Resistance fighters successfully kill a collaborator. Then there's Muntze's deadpan reaction to seeing Ellis' dyed pubic hair: "ah, you're a perfectionist." These kinds of details are what really make the film for me.

I agree, great moments that stick out strongly. I'm just saying I wish there was a little more humor sprinkled throughout the film. Though, admittedly, I've been spoiled by The Last Metro, my favorite movie on the subject, a film that simultaneously pays justice to the tragedy and the horror of the Holocaust, while never allowing that horror and tragedy to oppress the human spirit.

Maybe I'll like it more after I watch Soldier of Orange, my next Verhoeven? You're more well-versed int he man's films than I am, any thoughts on that?

Marilyn said...

Melodrama is exactly the right milieu for this story. We are looking at horrible conditions forcing horrible choices on people, particularly our hero. In less deft hands, this could have been merely a women's picture (though that is not a discreditable designation, just one that limits the effects this film could have had to a particular genre). The subtle and not-to-subtle attacks on classic war films, the heroic resistance, the upstanding men of honor - it's all out the window.

Ryan Kelly said...

Oh, and this reminds me... I told a friend to stop in here because he claims to be a Verhoeven fan, and he said "Black Book is Verhoeven's most/only boring movie. Now, it's a lot of things.... but boring it never is! It's okay, though, this friend of mine is wrong a lot.

Ed Howard said...

Greg: Yeah, there's no denying this is high melodrama. But as much as I disliked Dancer in the Dark, I'm actually a fairly big fan of well-done melodrama. I love Sirk, love Fassbinder, and love more modern adherents of the form like Verhoeven and Todd Haynes. The best melodrama gets at something real and deep through its heightened style and drama. Certainly this film, despite the sometimes outrageous machinations of its plotting, has a core of emotional truth that, for me at least, prevents its melodrama from descending into the kind of manipulative tear-jerking that I dislike in the worst melodrama.

Ryan Kelly said...

it's all out the window.

But, at the same time, it's not--- and I found this simultaneously off-putting and fascinating. But that's Verhoeven for ya, someone whose films I both love and find maddening, sometimes on a minute-to-minute basis.

bill r. said...

Okay, so, I did like this film. Van Houten WAS extraordinary -- I don't know what her level of fame is in the Netherlands, maybe it's pretty high, but it still felt like something of a coup for Verhoeven to be able to get her for this part.

Still...this moral grey zone that you talk about, and which is clearly Verhoeven's subject, didn't fully play for me. Ed, you brought up the fact that Muntze's past is left unclear, so we don't know how he rose through the SS ranks, and my reaction is: "Well, that's awfully convenient, isn't it?" If Verhoeven had delved into Muntze's past honestly, his thesis would have fallen apart, because Muntze probably didn't get where he was by keeping his head down and treating Jews or resistance fighters with kindness. Hell, Franken was shocked to learn that Muntze didn't want to execute the prisoners. Maybe because it seemed so unlike him?

Further, there is no moral grey area here. The people who are bad are bad. Haans is a traitor and killer, who joined the resistance dishonestly. His immorality is as black and white as Franken's.

But as drama, I thought the film worked like gangbusters. I just don't think Verheoven's deeper themes were worked out too well.

Marilyn said...

Ryan - Why would it be offputting to you to have conventions acknowledged and critiqued? I think this is a great anti-war film in that regard. We swallow the story because it is told so extremely well, exciting our emotions and senses. Yet in the end, we see the enormous waste, the worst humanity can dredge up on each side of the conflict. There isn't, as Ed said, black and white. The black and white hats switch heads easily.

Greg said...

has a core of emotional truth that, for me at least, prevents its melodrama from descending into the kind of manipulative tear-jerking that I dislike in the worst melodrama.

You're right, there is no tear-jerking going on here, although I also didn't find it examining things in a particularly deep way either. Melodrama explore the depth of life by presenting a surface view but one that contradicts the reality around it. I thought the melodrama here was good, and agree with Marilyn that it was the way to go, but don't think it succeeded as well as it could have because there were so many plot twists and turns and diversions that the movie never allowed itself to settle down and start looking into the lives of its characters.

If that makes any sense.

Ryan Kelly said...

Marilyn, I don't feel the mask of big gaudy Hollywood film making subverts the themes under the surface quite as strongly as they're supposed to. At the core, I agree with you and Ed that this is a sophisticated movie with complex themes, but on the other hand I don't think it works as well as it could have.

Count me as an admirer and ever so slight detractor.

Ed Howard said...

I'm surprised you say that scene where the character screams "I'm as bad as the Nazis" to be a ridiculous sentiment. Why is it ridiculous? The point was killing is killing whether you're on the side that history favors or not.

Well, I thought Verhoeven was presenting that sentiment as absurd. Theo had killed a man who had sent countless others to their deaths, and moreover he had killed him only to protect a friend, who otherwise likely would've been killed instead. To say that this makes Theo "as bad as the Nazis" is a pretty ridiculous notion. I think the film engages in very interesting ways with the ideas of moral relativism and absolutism. Verhoeven seems to be saying that, while people are not often, if ever, wholly good or wholly bad, and it is difficult to judge people's actions, there are still degrees of moral culpability. The film is all about the difficulty of looking back on history and deciding who was right and who was wrong, who was good and bad: as evidenced by Muntze's superior who somehow manages to convince the Allies that he's a "good guy" once the war is over.

Verhoeven is definitely NOT saying "killing is killing," he's saying that we have to judge actions in their context, that to truly judge we have to understand why people do things, not just what they've done. The idea that "killing is killing" is a close relative to the sentiments that tar Ellis as a "Nazi whore" because she slept with a German officer.

Ryan Kelly said...

Greg, I think that makes perfect sense. So we can be delusional together, if nothing else.

bill r. said...

Speaking of Theo: his decision to kill Van Gein because Van Gein had blasphemed was extremely contrived. It was an example of Verhoeven trying to show the absurdity of certain ways of thinking by contriving absurd fictinos, which is another way of saying he stacked the deck.

Ed Howard said...

Ed, you brought up the fact that Muntze's past is left unclear, so we don't know how he rose through the SS ranks, and my reaction is: "Well, that's awfully convenient, isn't it?" If Verhoeven had delved into Muntze's past honestly, his thesis would have fallen apart, because Muntze probably didn't get where he was by keeping his head down and treating Jews or resistance fighters with kindness. Hell, Franken was shocked to learn that Muntze didn't want to execute the prisoners. Maybe because it seemed so unlike him?

I think that's kind of the point, though. It's fairly obvious that any high-ranking SS officer had to have done some pretty atrocious things throughout the rest of the war. That's where the moral ambiguity comes in: does Muntze's late-in-the-war redemption overshadow anything he might have done earlier? Is he a good guy or a bad guy? That's why he's a gray hat: at this particular time, we see him as a decent guy, someone trying to do the right thing, but we also know that if we'd seen him earlier in the war, it likely would've been a very different story. I think this is exactly the point Verhoeven is making: people are complex, they're capable of both horrible brutality and goodness.

Marilyn said...

I think the lives were delved into a deeply as they needed to be; I certainly had no trouble understanding these people along the way. What Muntze did before he had a change of heart does not negate that change of heart. We live in a society that thinks people are cast in stone - once a criminal, always so. Circumstances often dictate that people return to their former lives because they have no means out of them. Muntze did have a way out, and I think it was hinted that he complied to better his family circumstances. When his family was killed, he really didn't have any reason to go with the program and awoke to the destruction around him.

bill r. said...

But who says that Muntze had a genuine change of heart? Because he didn't turn in the woman he was having sex with? Neither did Amon Goeth!

Rick Olson said...

Hi, everybody ... nice piece, Ed. I'm just checking in ... be back later.

Ed Howard said...

But who says that Muntze had a genuine change of heart? Because he didn't turn in the woman he was having sex with? Neither did Amon Goeth!

He was also negotiating with the Resistance to halt hostilities -- he didn't want any more bloodshed, and this is of course what got him in the most trouble with the Nazi hierarchy. I think the film makes it clear that Muntze's change of heart wasn't so simple as wanting to keep a hot Jew safe so he could sleep with her. Even when he discovered she was a member of the Resistance and a spy, he didn't turn her in, but instead joined up with her plans.

Marilyn said...

Bill - I don't really need that kind of certainty about his change of character. I've seen people, including you, say that if someone harmed your family, you'd be happy to see them burn in hell and would even light the match. Is it really so bad that Muntze might have found love again, that he might have found renewal in that love and disillusionment with his cause? And if he were still capable of mass murder, well, I guess whenever we support a war, we are culpable in his crime, even if not so directly.

bill r. said...

He didn't join in her plans to stop the Nazis. He joined her plans to escape the Nazis when he was out of favor. Like I say, everything to do with Muntze seemed like a very convenient contrivance in order for Verhoeven to make his point, and I don't think he made it.

This is really an overall problem with making moral or political or whatever kind of points through fiction: in order to do so, you have to invent all of your evidence. I just have a hard time buying into the deepness or truth of such arguments, given the circumstances.

Fox said...

Hey Ed-

Thanks for choosing Black Book. Really liked the movie.

Two things hit me after reading your very entertaining intro...

I agree with your observation that Rachel/Ellis isn't treated with equality among her peers, but I also think she sometimes has the upper hand because of her sexuality (with Smaal, Akkerman, Muntze, Van Gein, etc.). Although we realize that the title "Black Book" refers to something specific at film's end (I also thought about the title when we see Ellis reading the Bible at the beginning), I also felt that it referred to a list of men that Ellis was able to manipulate with her sexuality. I think Verhoeven was super aware of that when casting someone as strikingly gorgeous Carice von Houten.

Now, on Theo, I felt that the scene with him killing Van Gein was some misplaced humor or clunky satire on Verhoeven's part. I appreciate Verhoeven's fair mocking of religion (the cross Ellis makes with her molasses is particularly funny), but his bizarre jump with Theo felt silly to me. It was a sudden shift to the absurd - to an emotion we would see in, say, Starship Troopers - whenever Theo is pushed over-the-edge to kill only when someone uses the word "goddamn". It felt even more like a misfire to me as we see Theo later in the film existing as a regular, tempered guy, not the over-the-top character that he appears in that scene with Van Gein.

bill r. said...

And if he were still capable of mass murder, well, I guess whenever we support a war, we are culpable in his crime, even if not so directly...

Oh, please, Marilyn. That's absurd. By your logic, anyone who supported the war against Hitler is indirectly culpable in Hitler's crimes.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, I never imagined so many people would have problems with that Theo scene. It was over-the-top, yeah, but no more so than anything else in the film. Moreover, I didn't really see it as such a stretch for the character -- Theo's a quiet, restrained guy, a devout Christian and a pacifist, and he's been placed in this situation where he's surrounded with death, constantly under stress, forced into a position where he has to make a choice and the "right" thing to do actually goes against all of his core beliefs. It makes sense that he'd crack a little, and that the thing that finally triggered his decision would be a seemingly trivial little detail.

Marilyn said...

Bill - Every movie has its contrivances, and moreso in melodrama. Nothing we see is "true," but there are people like Muntze, and were among real Nazis. Why is that so hard to accept? I don't really go along with the people who try to hunt down every last Nazi to make them pay for what they have done. This is a black-and-white solution to a gray situation - what if that Nazi went on to found a school, help the poor, have a useful life? It happens.

Greg said...

Ed, for what it's worth, I didn't have a problem with the Theo scene at all. I thought the firetrucks were much more ridiculous, and apparently I'm the only one.

Marilyn said...

Oh, please, Marilyn. That's absurd. By your logic, anyone who supported the war against Hitler is indirectly culpable in Hitler's crimes.

I think sometimes people force you to fight. If you're backed into a corner with someone swishing a lead pipe in your face, you capitulate, run, or fight. Hitler is an aberration in history. More often, wars are fought like Iraq, where someone decides they want something someone has and cooks up a reason to attack. I certainly do think anyone who supported that war is culpable in some way for the deaths that occurred.

Ed Howard said...

Oh, and Fox, I'm not sure I agree that Ellis is really able to manipulate very many men with her sexuality. She consciously uses it as a tool to get Muntze's attention, certainly, and she manipulates him with it -- when he discovers she's a Resistance agent, she gets that plaintive look on her face and very seductively asks him to kiss her. But with Akkermans, she was more used than using; he wanted to get her "first," as though staking a claim on her before the Nazis entered the same territory.

bill r. said...

I know that all films have their contrivances. My problem is when those contrivances are used as evidence to support a particular moral or political position.

And I don't know of any Nazi who fled punishment, only to later build a school. Even if one did, that doesn't not excuse him from punishment for taking part in genocide and nightmarish cruelty.

But that's an argument outside of the film discussion, so...

Ed Howard said...

I thought the firetrucks were much more ridiculous, and apparently I'm the only one.

I'll admit, that's never occurred to me anytime I've watched this movie. I see your point, but it just seems like a typical example of condensed storytelling to me.

Greg said...

Without getting in the middle of Marilyn and Bill's argument I just wanted to say that while I understand both sides, for myself, melodrama allows these kinds of characters to exist without too much questioning just as they did in Hollywood's heyday of the thirties and forties.

When we see melodrama before Sirk turned it into irony, we accept it at face value and don't criticize character motivations very much. When we see it today we expect realism. My problem as stated earlier was that there was too much plot for the melodrama to really get going with the characters, but as far as the characters went, I thought they were completely acceptable under the general standards of melodrama.

bill r. said...

I certainly do think anyone who supported that war is culpable in some way for the deaths that occurred...

You'll believe what you want to believe, and you'll believe in black and white and good and bad, as long as it puts you on the side of the white and the good. Otherwise, make sure that you see those shades of grey!

Ed Howard said...

I know that all films have their contrivances. My problem is when those contrivances are used as evidence to support a particular moral or political position.

So the alternative is that fictonal films shouldn't make moral or political arguments at all? I don't get it: philosophers provide hypothetical cases to illustrate arguments all the time, so why should it be such a problem for fiction to do the same thing? Verhoeven's film is an exaggerated melodrama, but its characters and situations aren't so far removed from the reality of the war that they negate the points he's making about reality. There were surely real people similar to this, in similar situations.

Fox said...

Ed-

My problem with the Theo scene is that it doesn't seem to fit in with everything else that is over-the-top. I also felt this way about the bombing of Ellis' hideout in the beginning. Why does she show no remorse? Weren't there children in that house?

I can appreciate the absurdity of Verhoeven (it's something I like about him in general), but he portrays Ellis as too human a character for her not to care that the family she was staying with just got slaughtered.

To me, the movie was strong enough in other areas - and playful in the right doses - for me to really like the film, but I still think Verhoeven got a little too overzealous in moments... which, when you hear the guy interviewed, he just can't help. Which, to me, is kind of charming.

Marilyn said...

Bill - I'm a hypocrite who believes in my own moral superiority. Fine. Have it your way.

Greg - You're right that we live in different times. Black Book suffered critically because of the denigration of melodrama as a legitimate storytelling device. People don't know how to read it anymore.

bill r. said...

Ed, that's all fair. Maybe my problem is that Verhoeven seems so convinced about the black-and-whitness of his belief in moral grey zones, if that makes sense. Or if he weren't so blatantly trying to make a "point".

It reminds me a little of Starship Troopers, a movie I don't like. My memory of that film is that he satirized the morality of the idea of Earth attacking the bugs, even though he had the bugs slaughter a bunch of missionaries before humans had done anything aggressive. So maybe it's not the making of the points that bothers me about Verhoeven, but that I don't think he makes them very well.

Greg said...

Fox, also, even if the family wasn't harmed in the explosion, surely they were imprisoned, tortured or killed for harboring a jew and yet in the next scene Rachel is all giggles saying things like, "Well, now I won't have to quote the Bible anymore." Wow, uh, fuck you, you goddamn ingrate.

Greg said...

Black Book suffered critically because of the denigration of melodrama as a legitimate storytelling device.

I've often thought many classics from the thirties and forties if never released then but made exactly the same way and released today would be raked over the coals because of all this goddamn realism and irony constantly shoved in our cinematic faces.

Fox said...

But with Akkermans, she was more used than using; he wanted to get her "first," as though staking a claim on her before the Nazis entered the same territory....

Ed-

I agree with the "wanting to get her first" comment, but Ellis also coyly says to Akkerman, "oh doctor, it stings, help me!" when she's applying the dye/bleach. So, you're right that Akkeman just wants her sex, but I think Ellis knows that and uses it to her advantage to hide amongst these men, to survive. If Ellis wasn't as gorgeous as she was, she would not have been chosen for the position. When Gerben asks her to do the job, she stands out next two the two other more homely women next to her cutting vegetables.

Maybe "manipulate" is the wrong word b/c it implies a dasterdly intent. Maybe it's just that Ellis is aware of her power.

bill r. said...

Fox, also, even if the family wasn't harmed in the explosion, surely they were imprisoned, tortured or killed for harboring a jew and yet in the next scene Rachel is all giggles saying things like, "Well, now I won't have to quote the Bible anymore." Wow, uh, fuck you, you goddamn ingrate...

EXACTLY! The Christians are there to be mocked as self-righteous Christians, but not to be praised for putting their lives on the line to save someone else. They're killed to move the plot forward, and not to be the objects of grief.

Fox said...

Fox, also, even if the family wasn't harmed in the explosion, surely they were imprisoned, tortured or killed for harboring a jew and yet in the next scene Rachel is all giggles saying things like, "Well, now I won't have to quote the Bible anymore." Wow, uh, fuck you, you goddamn ingrate....

Exactly. And that contrasts with the genuine look of love Ellis has on her face when she meets her OWN family in one of the following scenes.

Now, if Verhoeven wanted to portray Ellis as a nasty opportunist the whole way through, I would get that unaffected attitude she gives to her "hiding place", but - for most of the film, at least - he portrays her as someone who has genuine emotions. I mean, if she can fall in love with the head of the Gestapo, surely she can mourn the death (or capture) of a family that protected her.

Greg said...

Wow, I was quoted twice in a row. I feel special. But anyway, that's why in my original comment I said "After being a little put off by the opening set-up..." because I was ready to be VERY disappointed in this movie at that point, but I think it recovered nicely.

Nonetheless, as Bill and Fox elaborated on, I was bothered by the family HELPING TO KEEP HER ALIVE being the object of mockery.

Marilyn said...

Greg - That's assuming the family was known to have harbored a Jew. It didn't appear the bombing was directed at that house because of that particular fact.

As for Rachel's response, I think it's a human response of someone who was looked down on who is used to being deferred to as a rich person. Here we see her snobbishness come out - something she will lose the hard way in the course of the movi.

Ed Howard said...

It reminds me a little of Starship Troopers, a movie I don't like. My memory of that film is that he satirized the morality of the idea of Earth attacking the bugs, even though he had the bugs slaughter a bunch of missionaries before humans had done anything aggressive. So maybe it's not the making of the points that bothers me about Verhoeven, but that I don't think he makes them very well.

Well, I guess it's fair to say that he doesn't make the points well since so many people don't seem to get them! Starship Troopers is especially insidious and subtle in its satire, because it presents everything from the viewpoint of the human characters without ever really getting into the mindset of the bugs, at least not until the very end. But it seems fairly obvious that the bugs were being attacked on a pretext -- the human high command blames the bugs for sending meteors flying at Earth, but there's no evidence in the film that the bugs have the ability to actually do anything like that; their defense systems are low-tech and localized. The bugs attack and fight when the humans come to their planets, but then, who wouldn't fight against alien invaders? The sly genius of the film is that it presents the human/bug war entirely from the human viewpoint, which is natural since the audience for the film is human, and the bugs are scary-looking sci-fi creatures. But when you really think about what's happening in the film, it's obvious that the humans are going to the bugs' planets without provocation and killing them in large numbers.

So maybe one could argue that Verhoeven's satire is too subtle, that he's so committed to the surfaces of his films that the subtext is sometimes a little too buried. I can see that argument against Starship Troopers, though personally I like that one too. I don't think that's the case with Black Book, though.

Ed Howard said...

but Ellis also coyly says to Akkerman, "oh doctor, it stings, help me!" when she's applying the dye/bleach.

Very true. That was hilarious, too. Ellis definitely goes along with it, and she's obviously very aware of the effect she has on men. You can even see it in that uncomfortable scene when Franken walks into the bathroom naked and starts hitting on her, and Ronnie pulls out Ellis' breasts to show them off. Ellis is disturbed at first, but then she kind of poses, cocks her head to the side and rolls her eyes, looking like a cheesecake pin-up. She knows she's sexy and she knows how to use it. I love all those little shifts in Van Houten's expression that you see in moments like that, how malleable her face is, able to show so many different emotions while automatically putting up defensive masks.

bill r. said...

Ed - I don't think it's too subtle. I think it's not any good. In Starship Troopers, the bugs slaughter unarmed missionaries before the humans act aggressively towards them. So then Verhoeven sets it up that the Earth is attacking them on a pretext that the humans trumped up, even though the bugs attacked first. The satire is contrived and contradictory and I just don't think it works. I don't think Verhoeven is the deep thinker so many of his fans think he is.

BUT!! As a story and as a film, I did enjoy Black Book very much. Honestly. I can safely say that it's my favorite Verhoeven film. I just wasn't won over to thinking that Muntze was such a great catch.

Greg said...

Greg - That's assuming the family was known to have harbored a Jew. It didn't appear the bombing was directed at that house because of that particular fact.

No, Marilyn, I agree the bombing isn't directed at the house. But afterwards they find her info there and so we can assume they NOW know the family was hiding a jew. That's what makes her response a little nauseating. I also agree that maybe that's intentional so we can see how changed she becomes as the story progresses.

Ed Howard said...

For what it's worth, I saw Ellis' nonchalance after the house bombing as a kind of forced defensive reaction, a refusal to let herself get overwhelmed by what's happening. Sure, the Christians are mocked for their self-righteousness, and Ellis is rightfully aggravated by the way they literally won't put a bowl of food in front of her until she correctly recites a Bible verse. You get the impression that if she missed a word she'd get no dinner that night. At the same time, they are good enough to shelter a Jew at a time when that was an extremely dangerous thing to do. So they're hypocrites, or maybe just contradictory, capable of both good and bad. Ellis' non-reaction to their death seems less like contempt than an attempt to maintain a cheery facade, something she tries to do all through the film.

Fox said...

This could be pure ignorance on my part, but I was hoping someone could clear something up for me...

Where exactly is Rachel at the end? I know she's in Israel, but is the fenced-in area supposed to imply that she is in a Jewish settlement? The over-head camera move that pulls out in the final shot has a dramatic feel to it, but I couldn't quite place what Verhoeven was trying to say (if anything... it just felt to me like he was).

Greg said...

As for Bill's view of Starship Troopers presented here:

The satire is contrived and contradictory and I just don't think it works.

I agree completely and will now make a confession. The Tin Drum was my TOERIFC choice as we all know but the two I was going back and forth on were The Tin Drum and Starship Troopers. I almost picked it but in the end didn't want to pick a film I didn't like at all. I find Verhoeven's "satire" so bumbling and heavy-handed in that movie that in the end I think the movie actually ends up condoning fascism unintentionally instead of parodying it. Which probably would have made Heinlein proud.

Greg said...

For what it's worth, I saw Ellis' nonchalance after the house bombing as a kind of forced defensive reaction, a refusal to let herself get overwhelmed by what's happening.

That's mighty generous of you.

Fox,

Since it's 1956 and Rachel is in Israel we can assume the troops are coming in due to the beginning Suez Crisis. What Verhoeven is saying with that I don't know for sure however. I suppose there are many interpretations you could pull from that.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I just finished the film...sorry coming to the party late. I have to agree with a lot of what Ed says in his amazing essay (one of the best I've read on Only the Cinema). I think this film is a fantastic entertainment, a film filled with great, classic melodramatic moments mixed with beautifully shot scene after beautifully shot scene. There seems to be a lot more to this film than I got from it on my initial viewing, but I can only assume that's because Ed has seen it numerous times.

The last hour of the film really flies, too. The entire film held my attention even with the 6am start time this morning.

Anyway, to the discussion:

I was most struck by these two comments by Marilyn and Greg.

Marilyn said:

You're right that we live in different times. Black Book suffered critically because of the denigration of melodrama as a legitimate storytelling device. People don't know how to read it anymore.

Greg responded:

I've often thought many classics from the thirties and forties if never released then but made exactly the same way and released today would be raked over the coals because of all this goddamn realism and irony constantly shoved in our cinematic faces.

I couldn't agree more with these two comments. Too often melodrama is ridiculed and not given enough credit for being able to carry the onus of bi philosophical questions or heavy themes because it's just melodrama. The idea that everything has to be gritty-real is bollocks, and I for one loved Verhoeven's glossy, melodramatic look at the end of WWII.

Marilyn's right, people don't know how to read melodrama anymore, and I think more than anything they slough it off because it makes them uncomfortable -- because it's so unabashed about what it's trying to do and the emotions it's trying to evoke.

I thought of the lines from the film between Ellis and Muntze where they spout lines like "The war may be over, but not for us." Cheesy, yes, but necessary in these types of melodramas...

And I think Greg is correct too in saying that it is the recent flurry of realism in historical films (somehow history got mixed up with literal/factual as nothing can be mythologized/romanticized anymore) that seem to convey that the only way to make an historical film is to be as "realistic" as humanly possible. There's no contemplation of what it may have been like for the people we're watching, because we're led to believe by the producers and directors that this is as real as it gets -- we're being dropped into history, so there's no need for wondering or contemplating contexts...it's all here for you on the screen...

I really enjoyed the film, Ed. Great choice. And although it may not be time yet, as I'm sure there's still some more discussion about specific scenes, I'm interested in what you think of Black Book and its place in Verhoeven's oeuvre.

Oh, and I really like that shot of the stone in the water, and its ripple effect, at the end. I think Verhoeven has poetry in him, people just get distracted by how over-the-top he is.

Fox said...

Ellis is disturbed at first, but then she kind of poses, cocks her head to the side and rolls her eyes, looking like a cheesecake pin-up....

I also love the way von Houten rolls her eyes at Akkerman on the train right before they play-kiss like they are a couple.

Her expressions are great. There is a look she gives Muntze when they are looking at his stamp collection that is just excellent. It's really in that area of not being able to tell if her character is being genuine or not.

Marilyn said...

Fox - She's on a kibbutz. I think that is more than a bookend device. For her, to realize that with all her wealth and privilege, that she was not protected at all, created a determination on her part to find a way to secure her future and that of all Jews by building their own nation. We have to see this journey in its entirety through the flashback that is the movie to understand a bit about the Zionist movement and why someone like Rachel would join it.

Ed Howard said...

Where exactly is Rachel at the end? I know she's in Israel, but is the fenced-in area supposed to imply that she is in a Jewish settlement? The over-head camera move that pulls out in the final shot has a dramatic feel to it, but I couldn't quite place what Verhoeven was trying to say (if anything... it just felt to me like he was).

She's in a Jewish kibbutz, a communal farming settlement. They were important communities in the early development of Israel, tending towards socialism and extreme Zionism. It's implied by the writing on the sign outside the kibbutz that Rachel and Gerben used the money that was inside Akkermans' coffin at the end to fund this settlement.

I think the point of the framing sequences is to further suggest the ambiguous morality that Verhoeven is exploring in this film. In Israel, Rachel seems relatively happy and comfortable, she's married and has a family, and yet the final shot of the fortified compound shows just how unstable this happiness is, how it's built on a foundation of war, of forming domestic settlements in a hostile area, displacing the people already there.

bill r. said...

Fox, I'm pretty sure she was in a kibbutz.

[now that Ed and Marilyn have already explained it, I can jump in and act like I know what the shit I'm talking about]...

Ed Howard said...

In Starship Troopers, the bugs slaughter unarmed missionaries before the humans act aggressively towards them. So then Verhoeven sets it up that the Earth is attacking them on a pretext that the humans trumped up, even though the bugs attacked first. The satire is contrived and contradictory and I just don't think it works.

It's been a bit since I've seen the film, but I don't remember it that way. I gathered that the bugs and humans were already at war when the attack on the missionaries occurred -- after all, the missionary attack is only in the film because an arriving group of soldiers find the empty camp. I guess I agree that Verhoeven's satire in that film isn't nearly as clear as it could be, but I still think overall it works.

Kevin J. Olson said...

I think the point of the framing sequences is to further suggest the ambiguous morality that Verhoeven is exploring in this film. In Israel, Rachel seems relatively happy and comfortable, she's married and has a family, and yet the final shot of the fortified compound shows just how unstable this happiness is, how it's built on a foundation of war, of forming domestic settlements in a hostile area, displacing the people already there.

I thought that was a powerful closing shot that left me in a contemplative mood. I'll probably be thinking about this film all day...

Greg said...

somehow history got mixed up with literal/factual as nothing can be mythologized/romanticized anymore.

Kevin, well put. It's one of the reasons I like older war films. The first Vietnam war movies started the trend towards gritty realism in war even as they allowed romanticizing of the characters as well (The Deer Hunter, Platoon) and then WWII movies followed suit (Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red LIne).

Fox said...

Marilyn, Ed, Bill-

I'm pretty sure that is the first time "kibbutz" has been used in three simultaneous comments... well, on a film blog, at least.

Thanks for the info. (you too, Greg).

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn's right, people don't know how to read melodrama anymore, and I think more than anything they slough it off because it makes them uncomfortable -- because it's so unabashed about what it's trying to do and the emotions it's trying to evoke.

Very true, Kevin. Verhoeven in particular is often misunderstood and dismissed as just a provocateur, as a style-over-substance filmmaker. But I think even his most melodramatic and stylized films have a great deal of depth to them. "Gritty realism" has its place, but Verhoeven's approach to WW2 gets at ideas and emotions that would be lost in a more realistic film. He does have a sense of poetry, too, I'm glad you said that. It's easy to forget the quiet, contemplative moments amidst all the sturm und drang, but he knows when to slow things up a bit, to linger over an image -- one that comes to mind is the quiet interlude in the bathroom when Ronnie and Ellis are preparing for the big Nazi rally, and Ellis is dispassionately adjusting the big red flower in her hair as she comforts Ronnie.

I'm sure I'll get into the place of Black Book in Verhoeven's oeuvre as a whole, eventually, but I'll save that for later. Actually, throughout this week I'm planning to run some reviews of other Verhoeven films I haven't covered yet, like Showgirls and Flesh+Blood.

Marilyn said...

What I really found interesting about this film from a Jewish point of view is how legendary the Dutch have always been as saviors of the Jews of their country. Anne Frank, after all, went there and was hidden, and many Dutch citizens took great risks to get Jews out of the country. Then here comes Verhoeven with his pin to puncture even this unequivocable image of good. The Resistance are bumblers, corrupt, willing to ransack Jewish fortunes. Who doesn't betray Ellis? An SS officer! It's really quite audacious.

bill r. said...

I want to double back to a point that I tried, but I think failed, to make earlier, regarding the idea of the film being about moral grey zones.

The problem for me -- or a problem, though I think it's central to where I'm disagreeing with at least you, Ed -- is that the grey zones in the film have nothing to do with morality. What's grey are the allegiences. I don't think it's a stretch to assume that Hans's motives for belonging to the resistance are at all pure. By the end of the film, we learn that his streak of monstrosity goes way back. So the fact that we THOUGHT he was a good guy doesn't change or cloud his actual morals. He was never good, or moral: he just pretended to be.

If you choose to read Muntze affectionately (and obviously Verhoeven wants us to), the same thing goes, but in reverse: we THINK he's on the side of the Nazis, but we're led to believe by the end that he's turned a corner, or maybe he's a Nazi in name only. The point being, it's not their morality that's grey, but whose side they're on.

Which is why I object to Muntze's portrayal. We get a fair amount of information abotu Hans's past, so we can make a judgment call on him. It seems like Verhoeven couldn't create a convincingly sunny back story for Muntze, given his position, so he left it alone, and wanted us to embrace him based on what we see him doing in the film. Which is, I suppose, fair enough up to a point, but isn't it true than every supposed good deed that Muntze does in the film can be chalked up to a sense of self-preservation? Does he help anyone in a way that doesn't also end up helping himself (or, at least, that COULD help him) after the war?

Ed Howard said...

Yeah, Verhoeven was particularly bold for daring to take on the image of the Resistance. He hinted at this before in Soldier of Orange, in which the Dutch Resistance are portrayed as mostly ineffective, performing missions with little real significance and often failing even at those. Moreover, that film also contains an idea/image that is recycled for Black Book: the "Nazi whores" getting their heads shaved as retribution for their collaboration. Verhoeven is very interested in the self-righteousness of the victors, and the ways in which they punish anyone who they perceived as doing less than them. There's also a specifically sexual component to that retribution, since these women's crimes were mainly sexual; they dared to sleep with a German, or with a collaborator. There's an undercurrent of indignation in the punishment: you're Dutch property, how dare you sleep with anyone other than a Resistance fighter?

Ed Howard said...

Bill, I want to respond to your points in detail, but for now I'm going to take a quick lunch break. I'll be back soon, everyone, carry on without me for now...

Kevin J. Olson said...

one that comes to mind is the quiet interlude in the bathroom when Ronnie and Ellis are preparing for the big Nazi rally, and Ellis is dispassionately adjusting the big red flower in her hair as she comforts Ronnie

Ed:

I really liked that scene, too. I thought about mentioning it in my initial comment about the type of mood the film has left me in, but I opted for that final moment where Ellis says "we should let him out..." and then throws the stone in the lake. I've always thought Verhoeven as a visual poet, and seriously consider his Robocop one of the best science-fiction films ever made. I usually get a lot of crap for that as people will say "well you mean in a campy way...right?" Nope. Buried beneath the over-the-top violence of Robocop are deeper themes about the "rules" of a postmodern society, interesting themes broached by similar cyber-noir type films (like Blade Runner, our love affair with technology and the effects it has on us as a society, etc. There are bigger themes there...there's also Ed-209 shooting the shit out of some guy -- and that's neat, too.

PIPER said...

Great write-up Ed. Sorry I'm way late on this, got caught in a meeting all morning.

You'll be pleased to know that I watched this yesterday with subtitles because I knew I would secretly be judged by you and Jason if I didn't.

And I have to have a word with Greg. He told me that this film was all about people fighting bugs on far off distant planets. I kept waiting and waiting, thinking that at any moment this might jump forward in time and show some big bugs, but nothing.

But I found it entertaining, nonetheless.

Like you said in your write-up. It's a very entertaining film and because of that, I wasn't really sure how to react to it, because most war films aren't necessarily built that way. And I would say that occasionally this film is guilty of playing out like a TV show. Especially at the end when they get back to HQ and find the doctor's jeep there and the hearse missing. It felt to me a little rushed and what normally would play out longer, severely condensed.

I'm going to attempt to play catch-up in the comments section.

But again, great write-up. But I would expect nothing less.

Fox said...

What I really found interesting about this film from a Jewish point of view is how legendary the Dutch have always been as saviors of the Jews of their country. Anne Frank, after all, went there and was hidden, and many Dutch citizens took great risks to get Jews out of the country. Then here comes Verhoeven with his pin to puncture even this unequivocable image of good. The Resistance are bumblers, corrupt, willing to ransack Jewish fortunes. Who doesn't betray Ellis? An SS officer! It's really quite audacious....

Marilyn-

What I find acceptable about Verhoeven's "pin puncturing" is that he himself is Dutch, as opposed to say, someone like von Trier who tries to puncture American lore from way over in the comforts of his homeland.

Of course, being of a country isn't a pre-requisite for attacking it, it's just that I find myself much more engaged to listen to someone like Verhoeven than someone like von Trier because of that.

Also, I also think Verhoeven's sense of humor helps me get over some of his (what I perceive to be) flubs. I get the impression that while Verhoeven has a huge ego (listen to his commentaries) he also won't hesitate to poke fun at himself.

Greg said...

My cat will roll on her back and expose her tummy to rubbing by anyone she believes might feed her. Within minutes of watching this movie I began referring to her as "moffenhoer." See, I take something from every movie I see. And with that, I'm going to take a short break too.

Marilyn said...

I think that closing shot also has symbolic significance. Rachel was a bird in a gilding cage before, and she couldn't see the bars until the political climate fanned the flames of the ancient curse of being Jewish. The fortifications of the kibbutz make what was invisible visible and may be a commentary on the situation Jews in Israel find themselves in today - an explanation, if not an excuse, for the ambiguous or outright outrageous behavior they engage in to protect themselves.

Tommy Salami said...

I enjoyed this movie quite a lot, especially having seen Soldier of Orange first. He went back and dived even deeper into the themes he touched on earlier and more. I was most interested in how Ellis was treated as a woman, as this gets mostly overlooked in many historical films unless it's the centerpiece.

And I'll defend her flippant remark once the house is bombed- they treated her with condescension. The feeling I got was that Verhoeven wasn't berating them for being Christians, but for behaving as if harboring another human being was a martyrdom, that only if she wasn't Jewish they wouldn't have to do this. Another gray zone.

Fox said...

Which is, I suppose, fair enough up to a point, but isn't it true than every supposed good deed that Muntze does in the film can be chalked up to a sense of self-preservation? Does he help anyone in a way that doesn't also end up helping himself (or, at least, that COULD help him) after the war?...

I agree with what Marilyn said earlier about redemption, but I think Bill's correct that it's kind of hard to accept in the case of Muntze without also accepting that he's an opportunist.

After all, would he have turned into the softy that he was had the Nazi's been successful? I doubt it.

I like to see what Verhoeven is saying (although in a kind of clunky way) is that we are all suseptible to being seduced into something dark. That's how I read the way he shows the liberated people treating the Nazi criminals in an inhumane way. It's not so difficult to fall down that hole, is what I think Verhoeven is saying.

It's like the recent footage we've witnessed from Iran. We see video of one of the regime's police thugs being beaten after he's knocked off his motorcycle. The mob's anger is understandable, but is their violence justifiable? I don't know. I'm not here to judge them, but I know I felt compassion when I saw that thug being beaten. But he's most likely an enforcer of draconian laws! Maybe that internal moral battle is the grey area Verhoeven is reaching for.

After all, I'm a person who is in favor of force when force is needed, and I don't have a lot of sympathy for fascistic thugs in any walk of life. But then I see myself as someone who has struggled with the morality of the death penalty his whole life.

Marilyn said...

Tommy - Welcome to TOERIFC. I think women have been left behind in contemporary war films. I admit that the only Iraq films I've seen are documentaries, but women have not been present in large numbers in those. Can anyone tell me about the fiction films? I've only seen women as warriors/victims in contemporary foreign films.

Pat said...

Hi everyone,

I'm just cruising in quickly during my very short lunctime today. I'm sorry that I can't get to all the comments yet, but just wanted to pop in and congratulate you, Ed, on an excellent choice and a brilliant write-up.

I found "Black Book" very compelling, to say the least - I was completely and totatly engaged from the first frame to the last. It was a like a great book that you literally can't bring yourself to put down. Durning the scene towards the end, when Rache;/Ellis has been given the overdose of insulin, I was quite literally shoutoing at the TV: "Find the chocolate!! EAT THE CHOCOLATE!!!"

Anytime I'm that wrapped up in a film, I know it's worked some kind of magic on me.

Of course, there are lot deeper aspects of "Black Book" to touch on, but I'll save them for when I can spend more time on this thread.

Marilyn said...

Fox - I don't think it was Germany's fortunes that really soured Muntze on his cause - it was the death of his wife and his entire way of life. In the idealized world Hitler presented of the ascendency of the master race, Muntze would have had it all. But he's not a Hitler Youth age either; he's not an unsophisticated man who believes such ideals. He went with the tide and it turned. He may never have believed in it all the way. There's a film starring Viggo Mortensen called Good that deals with this very issue of self-delusion - a good man in his own mind, Mortensen's character eventually turns on his best friend when he joins the SS. The film isn't very good, but it looks at what makes a guy like Muntze - flattery, ambition, the good life, a willingness to blind oneself to the consequences of one's actions.

Ed Howard said...

Bill: I think you're correct about Akkermans, in that he was corrupt from the beginning; his reversal isn't morally ambiguous, it's just a case of the audience getting more information about what he's really like.

But Muntze is certainly morally ambiguous. Yes, he likely did terrible things earlier in the war. Yes, his behavior now can at least partially be explained by self-preservation (although if that's the case his superior officer did a much better job of it). But here and now, he's sheltering a Jewish woman, he's trying to make peace with the Resistance, he's doing what he can from his position to make things a little better. None of this does away with the terrible things he must have in his past, but that's precisely what makes him ambiguous.

If you choose to read Muntze affectionately (and obviously Verhoeven wants us to), the same thing goes, but in reverse: we THINK he's on the side of the Nazis, but we're led to believe by the end that he's turned a corner, or maybe he's a Nazi in name only. The point being, it's not their morality that's grey, but whose side they're on.

This I especially think is offbase. It's not just that we *think* he's on the side of the Nazis -- he *is* on their side, he's an SS officer, and yet he proves himself capable of human feeling, of changing his behavior. It's not just a question of whose side he's on. Muntze is a character whose morality changes over time. Maybe he wouldn't have changed if the Nazis had won, but that's not the point -- he woke up to the horror going on around him and did something about it. He's morally ambiguous because it's difficult to call him either a good guy or a bad guy. He's just a man, a product of his choices and actions, some of which have been good and some bad.

From the other side, the Resistance is morally ambiguous to the extent that, once they are the victors, many of them resort to the cruel humiliation of their enemies, and those they deem, rightly or wrongly, their enemies. The point is that once the Resistance is in the position of power, many of them take advantage of it to treat the other side with brutality and hatred, as seen in that horrifying sequence when the drunken soldiers come to visit the prison where Ellis is being held.

Ed Howard said...

Tommy, I see Soldier of Orange the same way; seen now, it's like a trial run for this film, which returns to the same territory and digs even deeper.

I also agree about how refreshing Verhoeven's serious treatment of his female lead is. I imagine a lot of people slag him off for sexualizing his female characters so much, but the fact remains that Ellis is an extraordinarily complex and rich character, and Verhoeven deals with the issues brought up by her femininity and sexuality in very interesting ways.

Marilyn said...

I also don't have a problem with Rachel/Ellis' use of her sexuality to stay alive. We use what tools we have; given the time in history, this type of sexual politics was completely current. Looking at it from our post-second-wave feminist perspective, we can see all the more clearly what few options a woman had to influence events.

Ed Howard said...

Piper, I'm glad you went with the subtitles. That wasn't so bad, now was it? I can't imagine missing out on Carice van Houten's great voice by listening to a dub.

It's a very entertaining film and because of that, I wasn't really sure how to react to it, because most war films aren't necessarily built that way. And I would say that occasionally this film is guilty of playing out like a TV show. Especially at the end when they get back to HQ and find the doctor's jeep there and the hearse missing. It felt to me a little rushed and what normally would play out longer, severely condensed.

I see what you mean, but that kind of stuff didn't really bother me. The plotting is so blatantly artificial and melodramatic throughout that such condensations just seem like forgivable storytelling shortcuts rather than larger flaws. Verhoeven does stuff like that, I think, to maintain the film's relentlessly fast, action-packed pacing -- the narrative buzzes along with such energy that it leaves one nearly breathless.

bill r. said...

But Ed, Verhoeven takes the easy way out by not telling us anything about Muntze's past, and how he got to be the head of the Gestapo. Verhoeven makes it very easy for the audience to view him sympathetically by not only not showing him committing any atrocities, but by showing him next to the monstrous Franken (who's not only evil, but fat, to boot!).

If Verhoeven really wanted to make this film as difficult and complex as some people claim it is, he would have been more hones about Muntze, and he wouldn't have let the audience off the hook about him. He wouldn't let us assume certain things, he'd tell us and show us.

Fox said...

I don't think it was Germany's fortunes that really soured Muntze on his cause - it was the death of his wife and his entire way of life....

Marilyn-

That's a good point. I had forgotten about the regret Muntze expresses about his family, but if Verhoeven wanted us to accept that Muntze didn't buy into the Nazi ideals, it would have helped had he not made him the head of the gestapo. Someone like that, I'd imagine, had to be a pretty bad dude.

Ellis even ponders this after she gets off the train. "Why would the head of the gestapo collect stamps??". So, in the way that Bill says Verhoeven's portrayal of Muntze is "convenient", I agree, it's just that I don't have so much a problem with that in the grand scheme of the whole movie.

Ed Howard said...

It was a like a great book that you literally can't bring yourself to put down. During the scene towards the end, when Rachel/Ellis has been given the overdose of insulin, I was quite literally shouting at the TV: "Find the chocolate!! EAT THE CHOCOLATE!!!"

Pat, that's fantastic! I too love the narrative drive of this film. Everytime I watch it I always intend to focus more on the themes or the style or the way Verhoeven puts it all together, and I always wind up getting caught up in the twists and turns of the story as it churns along. On top of everything else, it's just great suspense/action storytelling, ironically using Hollywood entertainment style in a way that Hollywood itself seems incapable of doing nearly as well these days.

bill r. said...

On top of everything else, it's just great suspense/action storytelling, ironically using Hollywood entertainment style in a way that Hollywood itself seems incapable of doing nearly as well these days...

In the interest of reiterating my largely positive feelings for the film, I will say that I actually agree with that.

PIPER said...

Marilyn,

I agree with you, but my feeling towards Ellis towards the end was not unlike my feeling towards Selma in Dancer In The Dark. They were both put through so much turmoil, which lessens their sacrifices. At least to me.

It ultimately is a testament to van Houten and her charisma/acting that she rises above all of this. But I don't feel, at least at the end, that Verhoeven was helping her any.

Bill R.,

I agree with you on your take on Muntze, which goes back to my original complaint about this film. It gave up a lot of character exploration so it could maintain it's fast pace. Ultimately, it's the characters and their struggles that gives this film its layers, but I feel like some of that was compromised.

Marilyn said...

Pretty bad dude. I don't even know what that means. The nexus of evil? A man capable of sending millions to their deaths because he didn't think they were human? Take a look at The Fog of War and see just how complex a guy with his hand on the trigger can be (and how simple). We have to purge ourselves of the movie stereotype of the rabid dog Nazi if we are to glean anything at all about human nature.

I, too, commented on how this is Hollywood film of the type Hollywood doesn't make anymore - especially for adults. It's a throwback and, ironically, a way to look at future moviemaking once all this nonsense about "indie" filmmaking and remakes of TV shows runs its course.

Ed Howard said...

Of course, being of a country isn't a pre-requisite for attacking it, it's just that I find myself much more engaged to listen to someone like Verhoeven than someone like von Trier because of that.

This is a very good point. I think it's just that Verhoeven knows this milieu so well, it gives him some authority to make his criticisms. It's apparent that he's studied the history in some depth, that he knows that things like this happened. I think the desire to make films like Soldier of Orange and Black Book came from reading a lot about the history of the time and wanting to draw attention to aspects of the historical record that are often overlooked and glossed-over for various reasons. The Holocaust itself naturally grabs a lot of the attention around WW2, and there's also a great reluctance to do anything to tamper with the larger narrative of the Nazis as pure evil and the Resistance as valiant heroes. On top of that, there's just generally little attention given to the smaller national struggles like those that went on in the Netherlands, a country that we in the West generally know little about and certainly don't hear about very often in relation to WW2 history.

Marilyn said...

It gave up a lot of character exploration so it could maintain it's fast pace. Ultimately, it's the characters and their struggles that gives this film its layers, but I feel like some of that was compromised.

I hate to say it but you're Exhibit A of moviegoers who need to learn about how melodrama tells a story. Character exploration is supposed to be fairly superficial.

bill r. said...

Marilyn, if we accept that it's superficial, then why do we claim that it has anything to teach us about human nature?

bill r. said...

Plus, Dickens is melodrama, and he's not exactly lacking in character exploration.

PIPER said...

Huh. Melodrama about WWII that delves into the atrocities against the Jews?

That's pretty heavy Melodrama.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go back to being exhibit A.

Marilyn said...

Melodrama communicates through heightened reality, archetypes almost. Superficial only in the sense that we don't really need to have a deep dive. Method acting ruined actors and audiences for this kind of exploration and identification by focusing too much on the particular.

Marilyn said...

Piper - Click through to my link at the top of the comments section and read my review of Black Book. I think that lays out my thinking on this pretty well.

bill r. said...

For what Verhoeven is going for here, in terms of "grey" (or what a lot of people claim he's going for), then you DO need to dive deep. How can Muntze be grey if we don't know anything about him? Maybe he's fully decent, maybe he's like Stauffenberg... But that's not what Verhoeven is going for, so why not lay all your cards on the table and portray Muntze the way you want him to be, and let the audience sympathize with him, or not. The reason, I believe, is because if Verhoeven really showed us the Muntze he envisioned, no one would sympathize, or give two shits when he was executed. And why should they?

Fox said...

Marilyn-

Well, I think McNamara was a pretty bad dude as well.

Ed Howard said...

I'm with Marilyn here - I thought the characters in this film were exactly as deep as they needed to be. I certainly didn't feel like the plot, even as twisty and convoluted as it is, ever overwhelmed the characters, which is quite a feat in such an event-packed movie. Rachel/Ellis is such a potent character that I really don't get the criticism that the film needed more character development.

Marilyn said...

More on melodrama.

Even more, read through the several pages - it's worth it.

bill r. said...

Ed, because Rachel isn't the center of the supposed moral greyness, but rather Muntze. If the film is so audacious in the creation of that character, it needed to be a little more honest about him. As it is, Black Book strikes me as only superficially audacious and superficially complex.

A great story well told, though.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, I guess I'm just not convinced that the film really needed to include more info about Muntze's past to emphasize the moral ambiguity in his character. We all know what the Nazis did, we all know what it means to be an SS officer. Verhoeven could have included a flashback of him signing off on executions or something, I guess, but I don't think that would really change the character so much. We already know he's someone who's done terrible things and has now changed, for whatever reason(s) you want to ascribe to him.

Marilyn said...

Bill - Is she not? Depends on your point of view. The audience sympathizes with her, but the Dutch don't. In their eyes, she's a traitor with a capital T. All the discussion about Muntze seems to be a similar case. Is he the nexus of evil? I don't think Verhoeven has been convenient in painting him in shades of gray - only providing a corrective to the decades of boogie man Nazis that every cinephile has consumed and absorbed. Instead of Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List, who can't reconcile his attraction to a Jew with his propagandized mind, Muntze has no such conflict. Do you think Fiennes' character was similarly troublesome and unnuanced?

PIPER said...

Marilyn,

I'm reading back through the comments and plan on reading your review as well. I see now that I was perfect evidence for your argument.

You're welcome and I will be looking for my check in the mail.

Please don't poke at exhibit A.

Marilyn said...

Check sent. Xs and Os to follow.

bill r. said...

But Marilyn, my point is that Verhoeven DOESN'T paint Muntze in shades of gray. He paints him white. Verhoeven didn't have the courage to paint him gray.

And Rachel isn't gray, either. The only reason the Dutch hate her is because the Nazis fed them lies about her. If they knew the truth, they wouldn't be after her. But that's not the same as painting her gray.

Marilyn said...

Bill - We're talking about putting ourselves in others' shoes. From the POV of the Dutch, they're exactly right to condemn her. She didn't start out in the Resistance and did fall in love with a Nazi. That we know more about her allows us to shade our sympathies in her direction. I agree with Ed that we all have a picture of Nazis in our heads - Verhoeven adds shades to that with an overly sympathetic portrait of Muntze, otherwise he'd be nothing but black. He's not black. You say he's white, but I think that's necessary to overcome our conditioning. Verhoeven went too far for you, but I think he did it about right.

PIPER said...

I'm already a little bloody from Marilyn, but what the hell.

I continue to agree with Bill on this. No doubt Verhoeven took a very traditional (melodramatic) approach to this, especially when you look at Franken's character, but like Bill said Muntze's character is much more complex. He is not so easily defined.

On one hand I will say it's an interesting approach, on the other I will say it's a cop-out.

Marilyn, sill with the Xs and Os?

Ed Howard said...

I think by now I've said about all I can say on the issue of moral ambiguity, and it's probably a safe assumption that Bill and I are not going to convince each other, so now is probably a good time to change directions. Up above a bit, Piper compared Ellis to Selma from Dancer in the Dark, in that both heroines suffered so much, had so much heaped on them, that it "lessens their sacrifices." This is obviously especially interesting to me since I loved one of these films and virulently hated the other, so obviously I don't view them as doing the same thing.

But for now I'll just ask: what did everyone else think of the way Ellis/van Houten was treated in the final hour of the film? Was Verhoeven degrading her or her character, getting off on her suffering? Or does he sympathize with her and her plight?

Shubhajit said...

First of all congrats for the eloquently written article. Its absolutely brilliant, even though I didn't always agree with your points of view.

Well Ed, its quite obvious you really like this movie, and strongly believe it is a complex work of art and not just another glossy war-time thriller. I would however beg to differ. You mentioned that this movie is more about people wearing 'gray hats'. The fact that Muntze, despite working in the Fascist regime, is a sympathetic character, is one of your principal points on that front - the fact that a good man could actually work for the Nazis.

However, I really didn't find any moral ambiguities with any of the key characters. Its quite obvious from the beginning that Muntze may be treated as a good guy. You're right, its never revealed why he became an active member of the Nazis in the first place. That, I concede, does lend a streak of Greek tragedy in his very being, but Verhoeven ensured that we never suspect the fact that he is someone who may be sympathised with. And given the way his character has been portrayed, I'm sure every audience would place under the good guys' category despite his being part of the bad guys' team.

Anyway, where Rachel and Franken go, they do not have even those gray shades. Rachel is quite obviously the doomed damsel, and her falling in love with one of the 'enemies' is a classic (and a not very surprising) tool for a 'behind the enemy lines' kind of movie like this. It was quite apparent that she would fall for Muntze, and she did. I don't think her falling for Muntze added any layers to her character for the simple matter that Verhoeven ensured that Muntze himself is a nice bloke.

As for the vile and disgusting Franken, he is as one-dimensional a screen villain as any. He is all bad without really any moral compass to keep his selfish ends on a leash. I would have really loved to see his character to shape up differently.

And finally Akkermans. Again his is a classic case of a character's true intentions being deliberately kept under the wraps by the director to unleash the twist to end all twists right at the end. Isn't that one of the most overused ploys where thrillers go - the good and apparently selfless guy turning out to be entirely opposite to what he has been projected to be for nine-tenth of the movie's duration? His turning out to be the villain made the climax a bit of a cliche so to speak.

And even the public beating that Rachel received from the crowd for having 'collaborated' with the Nazis was, correct me if I'm wrong, heavily influenced by the climax of Malena. Too much of a resemblance to ignore - given that both were good women, public perceptions of whose characters defied the complex events that defined their lives - and anyway, the public is nearly always supposed to be parochial, incapable of thinking beyond what's visible to the eyes.

You might feel that all I've done till now is undermine the movie's worth. However that is not entirely true. I liked the movie. Yes, it was entertaining. Yes, it had its fair share of tension and suspense. The cinematography is gorgeous. The acting is good, too, without really being great (in fact, I found Franken's comically brutish character being the most well enacted of all). On the whole its a good watch. However, I'm really not convinced that the movie has a complex undercurrent or masks something profound. I agree, there are some well-construed moments, like, as you aptly mentioned, the Bible-reading scene; but conversely, it was quite obvious what Verhoeven's point was in that scene. As I said, I still have my reservations where placing Black Book on too high a pedestal is concerned.

p.s. I haven't yet gone through the comments above, so I apologise if I've ended up repeating what others might have said.

bill r. said...

I agree with Shubhajit on pretty much everything.

Marilyn said...

I give up. Verhoeven's working in a despised and discarded genre makes this an uphill battle. Choosing to make a sympathetic Nazi has proven fatal to his already perilous cause.

Sam Juliano said...

Wow, a tremendous review, and a thread that ranks with the best of them.

I just can't express any agreement here for this film which Ed calls a masterpiece of cinema, and I have always found cheesy, lurid, convoluted and a shameless downplaying of the seriousness of its subject matter, which is largely about genocide and exploitation. I can see where the thread's first poster, Ryan Kelly is coming from, as the plot is rushed, with little chance for compelling drama or emotional resonance. Yes, Candace Van Houten does survive this debacle, but only because her "breasts" are part of the equation. The film is not as bad as his American failures (TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT, SHOWGIRLS) but it's an indistinct feature and a missed opportunity.

Please don't kill me. I have a wife and five kids to support and a PC obsession to nurture.

All kidding aside, thanks for all this terrific enrichment here.

Ed Howard said...

Shubhajit, thanks for stopping by. There are definitely those here who agree with you. Certainly Verhoeven is working within the conventions of this kind of wartime spy thriller; as he often does, he fulfills as many genre conventions as he undermines. I've already gone into some depth here as to why I see the film as morally ambiguous, so I won't repeat myself, but thanks for your very thorough summation of the opposing case.

bill r. said...

Marilyn, I don't despise melodrama. It's simply a matter of believing Verhoeven took the easy way out. Actually, it's not even so much that, but rather that if he's going to get so much credit for painting in shades of grey, then he should have added more black. Or even some.

I honestly think the movie works great. My issue is with what people claim the film achieves.

Kevin J. Olson said...

And Rachel isn't gray, either. The only reason the Dutch hate her is because the Nazis fed them lies about her. If they knew the truth, they wouldn't be after her. But that's not the same as painting her gray.

The scene where the Dutch find out about her betrayal feels a bit contrived for me, too, and I totally see where Bill is coming from in calling this scene out for not having any shades of gray in it; however, I was totally and fully invested in the story, so I let it go, and chalked it up to melodramatic tropes at play.

And really the way they disregard any possibility that it's perhaps possible that the Nazi's were feeding them lies through the wire (the whole "that bitch is laughing at us" line, and what follows) may come from our expectations of modern espionage movies. It seems like that would have been pretty early in the realm of wire tapping, and for them to think that what they were hearing was the truth is because they haven't watched James Bond movies or 24 to know that there's some funny business going on.

Even though one chracter does broach the idea that what they're hearing isn't true, I see what Bill is saying in that there is no ambiguity there because they are pretty quick to believe that she has betrayed them.

sarcastig said...

Phew, ok, I finally read through everything (had to work before)... First of all, Ed, congrats on a great piece, and on starting such a fascinating discussion. I hope as a Dutchie I can now add one or two things... In no particular order

1. I agree with bill r. that it's not all shades of gray... mostly because Verhoeven cops out and makes Franken such a cartoonishly evil Nazi: greedy, ugly, fat, sleazy, you name it. I know he's supposed to be the moustache-twirling villain in this melodrama, and they are seldom nuances, but even one scene showing what caused it would have been nice. I have no issue with Muntze's background getting left out - he's the head of the SS, that should say enough. And I think Karremans' character was just the right blend, and what Rachel/Ellis does at the end is both horrifying and understandable, but the treatment of Franken seemed too easy.

2. I know this is mostly a boy's club. But it still surprises me that so many of you read the bleaching scene as Karremans using, "marking" Rachel/Ellis. I read it very differently: in my interpretation, she WANTS to sleep with a "good" guy, to prepare herself for what she has to do. I might be wrong, but it's interesting to me that interpretations that see a woman as owning her sexuality, rather than just using it, are still rare.

3. The fact that the victors behaved atrociously is actually quite well known. WWII is huge in Dutch history classes as well as in the collective consciousness. Even now, say that someone was "bad in the war", and everyone knows what you mean. So I suppose to me Verhoeven showing the Resistance as not entirely heroic is not so revolutionary.

(3a: as an aside, if the topic interests you, one of my favorite children's books is "war without friends" by Evert Hartman. It's about the son of an NSB member who slowly comes to realize that what his parents are teaching him might not be right.)

4. Before I am misunderstood, let me emphasize that I liked the film, much more than I thought. I'm wary of WWII films exactly because the topic feels like it's been done to death, but while I don't think Verhoeven did anything radically well, I do think he delivered a very engrossing, well-made film. I loved the pulpy verhoeven moments most: the bleaching scene, but also how the woman at the end gets shot, the over-the-topness of certain action scenes, the way Akkermans dies, and small touches like the chocolate. For an ultimately rather depressing movie, it sure made me smile a lot.

5. A caveat: I don't mind Verhoeven's lack of subtlety in those moments. But I'm sometimes exasperated by the over-the-topness of the "moralism" or symbolisms or whatever you want to call it. The ripple effects in the water at the end. The "irony" of her being in a fenced-in kibbutz at the end, emphasizing the never-ending circle of violence.

6. Oh, and I HATE Johnny de Mol. It might be because of other roles bleeding over to this film (and I envy you that you're not burdened with that), but another actor might have made the scene where he kills van Gein work. As it stands, it doesn't.

7. I think that was it, actually. Now on to the 36 comments that probably appeared while I was writing this.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, I think you're responding primarily to the melodramatic nature of the film, which we've been going back and forth about quite a bit in the comments here. Especially the use of the words "lurid" and "cheesy" suggest that you think that WW2 should only be treated with the kind of dour self-seriousness Spielberg brought to Schindler's List, and that anything else is unacceptable. Verhoeven is in many ways responding to that kind of film, making a film about genocide and exploitation that doesn't traffic in the usual righteous cliches.

I also don't really get what you're saying about Carice van Houten and her breasts there...

bill r. said...

Kevin, I actually wasn't calling out the film for not having shades of grey (boy, I'm getting tired of typing that phrase): I'm saying that it's not evidence of Rachel's own moral ambiguity.

sarcastig said...

I see, for instance, that Subhajit made my point about Franken (and better). Oh well...

Marilyn said...

I'm not really talking about Verhoeven painting in shades of gray so much as providing a corrective to the usual WWII heroics. That he may have overplayed his hand is obvious in these reactions, but that he told a story that needed to be told in a highly engaging way is obvious to me. The milieu he lays down is much more realistic than most films of this ilk, and again, he's going against decades of self-righteousness in the portrayal of resistance movements and liberated populations. I would also add that anti-Semitism is alive and well in Europe, as well as anti-Zionism, so this film can be seen as a response to a forgetful continent, another reason America may have been omitted from the narrative.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Bill:

You're right. I re-read your comments. My bad.

I wonder how everyone (not just speaking at anyone here in this discussion, but a more general "everyone") will react to the sure-to-be-not-serious take on WWII by Quentin Tarantino. I for one am looking forward to it in the same way I was with Verhoeven's film...I don't know why making a melodramatic action film set in WWII is taboo...

Greg said...

I agree with Shubhajit on pretty much everything.

Boy, it sucks being absent for too long with one of these discussions. I've missed like, 110 comments. Anyway, I will say that I agree with Shubhajit too but go out on a limb and say it supports the arguments of Marilyn and Ed and me concerning melodrama. In other words, in our discussion as to Muntze being provided no background and the characters not being painted in shades of grey I will simply say that melodrama works off of archtypes (I think Marilyn already said that) so no backstory is necessary. The fact that Muntze is the head of the SS is all the backstory we need. We now know he is a bastard and thus seeing him and his actions in this movie tells us he is undergoing a change. Melodrama assigns designations to provide a backstory rather than provide one and then works from there.

Anyway, it doesn't matter. The whole story is clearly a dream. Um... Franken's dream I think.

bill r. said...

Greg, what archetype would you say Muntze embodies?

Greg said...

Oh, and I've seen this comment a few times and keep forgetting to bring it up: Marilyn, I don't think Verhoeven is purposely keeping America out of the story, it's just that they are not historically part of it. The Polish and Canadian forces liberated Holland, not America. Had the story taken place in Berlin it would have been the Russians liberating. The Phillipines, the Americans. And so on. I don't think it was "let's excise America from this" it's just that America isn't a historical part of that story.

Ed Howard said...

Wow, Sarcastig, thanks for the very substantive comments. Welcome to the site, and to TOERIFC. Here are a few replies...

Your reading of the bleaching scene is very interesting. It's not one I thought of myself, and it doesn't necessarily contradict ALSO reading the scene as Akkermans trying to stake a claim on Ellis' sexuality. But there's no doubt that Ellis encourages him and seems to want it, and your reading of her possible motivations strikes me as very insightful and probably true.

I'm also very interested by your uniquely Dutch perspective on things. I obviously didn't know that the horrible behavior of the Resistance was so well known in the Netherlands, which does make Verhoeven telling this story seem less daring, at least from the perspective of his homeland. This kind of stuff is certainly not something that finds its way into American history books, though, which tend to have a much more unambiguous outlook on WW2. Maybe that's why the film would perhaps seem bolder from an American point of view.

You say you like the "over-the-topness" of Verhoeven's pulpier moments, but not of his moralism and symbolism. I think the two go pretty much hand in hand for him, though, and it'd be hard to separate his melodramatics from the thematic and moral issues he wants to explore.

Thanks again for commenting and giving us a different perspective on this film.

Greg said...

Greg, what archetype would you say Muntze embodies?

The anti-hero, a person whose motives run contrary to traditional heroism. Because Verhoeven has made him Gestapo we know he was a bastard prior to this story. Now he is doing things that make him sympathetic but for motives that may or may not be admirable. Hence the ambiguity.

sarcastig said...

You say you like the "over-the-topness" of Verhoeven's pulpier moments, but not of his moralism and symbolism. I think the two go pretty much hand in hand for him, though, and it'd be hard to separate his melodramatics from the thematic and moral issues he wants to explore.

You're probably right... which is exactly why I'm conflicted about Verhoeven. I love him, but I find his incredibly irritating at the same time. Met him though, seemed like a nice guy (put a nice, though almost illegible, comment in my copy of his biography).


Also: a clarification. I didn't mean that the horrible behavior of the Resistance was well known. Just that it's generally known that the general population treated collaborators and especially "moffenhoeren" terribly after the war: the head-shaving especially, and the shunning and shaming etc. I know holland wasn't unique in that, either (cf. Hiroshima mon amour). Wars bring out the worst in people...as Verhoeven hammers home.

Sam Juliano said...

There have been sympathetic Nazis in WW2 films over the years apart from Oskar Schindler. I think of James Mason in THE DESERT FOX and Neil McGinnes in THE 49TH PARALLEL for starters.

Ed: There have been instances where WW2 hasn't been traeted with the austerity of SCHINDLER'S LIST.....i.e. LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, Koltai's FATELESS, but at least the direction of both was clear from the outset. But the bottom line for me is that BLACK BOOK was NOT really about genocide and exploitation, but rather about a young woman being hardened by the war.

As far as the comment about Van Houten's "breasts" I found deliberate attention being paid to them throughout, for the obvious shock value.

Rick Olson said...

Greg, you think it sucks missing so many comments ... I just got caught up enough to offer my own. It's been that kind of day.

I didn't go back and read all 122 comments, either, so if you want to disregard this, be my guest.

I completely agree with Sarcastig ... I never read her sleeping with Akkermann as some kind of marking of her by him ... she looked genuinely pleased to be doing so.

I think Verhoeven is very unsubtle in the whole thing. I laughed at some of the schematics on display ... the Christians saying that if you Jews had just listened to Jesus, you wouldn't have been in such a jam, and then Wham! they get a bomb -- from heaven? from God? dropped on their noggins.

The name of the guy played by Johnny de Mol -- Theo, of course, is from the Greek for "God"

van Houten was exquisite. without her, the film would not have worked at all. period. She has a world-class actor's face. I think I'm in love.

The echoes of our own political situation, and whether Verhoeven intended them to be that way ... at the first party, the Nazis quoting Hitler as saying they're fighting for "freedom for everyone," the "waterboarding" scene of Tim. Calling all the folks resisting their occupation "terrorists" reminded me of our calling the resistors of our occupation of Iraq "insurgents."

But maybe I'm reading too much into it ...

PIPER said...

Rick and Greg,

Well at least you guys read the comments before commenting. I went along my merry way and fell right into Marilyn's trap.

Please don't feed exhibit A.

bill r. said...

Greg - Fair enough, but shouldn't archetypes display some of the characteristics of said archetype before we can label them as such? Is a uniform all it takes to achieve....uh, archetypicality?

Ed Howard said...

But the bottom line for me is that BLACK BOOK was NOT really about genocide and exploitation, but rather about a young woman being hardened by the war.

And what's so bad about that? I don't know if it's about her being "hardened" by the war, but it's definitely about one woman's experience of the war, her own encounters with the moral issues brought up by the war, including the genocide of the Holocaust. Does every WW2 film have to be about the same thing?

I never really saw the nudity in this film as being for shock value, either. Maybe in the scenes towards the end of the film, but there the shock is at least as much because of how Ellis is being treated, not just because she's topless. Throughout much of the rest of the film, sex is just a natural part of her identity. I think the idea that copious nudity is always meant to be shocking is a misperception of Verhoeven from an American perspective, where our films are generally, comparatively, puritanical about sex and nudity. Verhoeven has a much more natural attitude about sex: he likes it and sees it as just something that people do, so why not show it?

It's one expression of his general interest in sensuality, in not shying away from the more private and secret aspects of the human condition. It's the same reason that many of his other films, like Turkish Delight, are very scatological as well as sexual. In any event, the sex scenes in Black Book between Muntze and Ellis are so tender and playfully fun, they go a long way towards establishing the intimacy between these two characters. So it doesn't just seem to me like exploitation or a director ogling his actress.

Greg said...

but shouldn't archetypes display some of the characteristics of said archetype before we can label them as such? Is a uniform all it takes to achieve....uh, archetypicality>

That's a good point and I don't think it would have hurt to show some heartlessness on the part of Muntze to further the anti-hero status instead of simply using the knowledge the audience has of the SS as the entire backstory. Still, I'm just saying, that is how characters in melodrama work, i.e., with background included upon purchase and thus unnecessary to include in the story.

Also, Piper, to me you'll always be Exhibit B.

Ed Howard said...

The echoes of our own political situation, and whether Verhoeven intended them to be that way ... at the first party, the Nazis quoting Hitler as saying they're fighting for "freedom for everyone," the "waterboarding" scene of Tim. Calling all the folks resisting their occupation "terrorists" reminded me of our calling the resistors of our occupation of Iraq "insurgents."

Rick, I wondered about that too. It's far from a dominant subtext, but it did pop up often enough that I wondered if Verhoeven was taking little jabs at the Iraq war here and there. Certainly it would tend to tie in with his central theme of judging individuals AS individuals rather than as members of some amorphous group like "terrorists" or "Nazis."

Rick Olson said...

Reading Greg's last comment, archetypes is perhaps a good word ... the archetypical evil Nazi, the archetypical strong woman, the archetypical non-Christ-like Christians.

Come to think of it, it doesn't seem to me that there's a lot of "grey" here.

Greg said...

As far as the comment about Van Houten's "breasts" I found deliberate attention being paid to them throughout, for the obvious shock value.

I didn't find it placed for shock value at all. In the seventies plenty of movies had nudity and then in the eighties it began to disappear. As a result, I think when people see a film with nudity they are inclined to think it is gratuitous whether it is or not. I'm not accusing you of this, I'm just saying that reading other reviews of this film online I was given the distinct impression that if nudity is shown in any way then tittilation must be the motive. I didn't see that here at all.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Verhoeven has a much more natural attitude about sex: he likes it and sees it as just something that people do, so why not show it?

Very true. I havent' watched Flesh + Blood in a long time, but I seem to recall people having a problem with the amount of nudity (and the purpose of it) in that film, too. Especially, if memory recalls, it involves a young Jennifer Jason Leigh...I could be wrong, though.

But you're right-on about this attitude about sex being in all of Verhoeven's films. Some see it as gratuitous and perverse, others see it the way you've explained here.

Rick Olson said...

Certainly it would tend to tie in with his central theme of judging individuals AS individuals rather than as members of some amorphous group like "terrorists" or "Nazis." ...

I think also it might be a case of a European taking pot-shots at one of our foreign policy planks they don't like.

sarcastig said...

I think there were definitely shades of Iraq...

Funnily enough, the boyfriend and I are currently watching the third season of Battlestar Galactica, and there were some very interesting parallels/links. Interestingly, both in Battlestar and in Black Book, the "terrorists" are the protagonists, while the occupier is the antagonist (of course, ironically enough, Rachel is part of the occupying force at the end).

I guess Verhoeven does manage to convey something fundamental about a) how easy it is to abuse power if you have it, and b) how easy it is to go to extremes if you're deprived of it.



As for it being a WWII movie not dealing with the Holocaust: I think that's a big advantage. There are only so many death camp scenes you can see before it becomes a cinematic cliche, a shorthand for evil and progressively less real.

Sam juliano said...

"And what's so bad about that? I don't know if it's about her being "hardened" by the war, but it's definitely about one woman's experience of the war, her own encounters with the moral issues brought up by the war, including the genocide of the Holocaust. Does every WW2 film have to be about the same thing?"

Fair enough Ed, although the issue of genecide is of course not the central concern here. And there's nothing wrong with the film's subject and intent. I just did not think it succeeded due to a distinct lack of cohesiveness, which resulted in th eplot convolutions I spoke of in my initial post.

I'm sorry, but although as always I marvel at your fantastic writing skills and deep insights, I don't agree with the empasis on Van Houton's breasts as a natutal progression in the director's mind, but rather an attempt to 'enrich' the film with some sexual content.

I don't object at all (I am an extreme, anything goes left wing liberal) but I found the device here as distraction to the main purpose.

Sam Juliano said...

Fair enough, Greg. Thanks for responding to me. I addressed the nudity with Ed in my previous post.

bill r. said...

Ed asked a question -- I think a few weeks back now -- about how we reacted to Rachel's abuse towards the end: was Verhoeven depicting it to garner more sympathy for her (as if she needed more) or was he wallowing in it?

I don't think he was wallowing. If we're talking about melodrama, that's another staple of it: pile on the misfortune. It can work or not, but I thought it worked here. The rain of...you know, really made me wince. Just awful, appropriately so.

Then again, the cackling Dutch on-lookers struck me as Verhoeven gilding the lily again. All he's doing is transferring the stereotypical rabidly villainous behavior of one screen stereotype to a different kind of character. Though I don't doubt certain things like that happened, and besides it worked for the story.

Fox said...

On the recent nudity comments...

I think it also has to do with the fact that Verhoeven just likes sex and nudity (ie Spetters). I also remember Rutger Hauer's ching-chong flopping around a lot in Turkish Delight. Verhoeven just likes genitals (I'm not complaining here).

But poor Franken, not only was he fat and ugly, but he had a small penis. (But I guess that's why he got the ugly girl).

Marilyn said...

I think Verhoeven is trying to be entertaining, matter-of-fact, and political in his use of nudity. Sure, there's the titillation factor, as there was in Showgirls. But sexual politics is always there as well. Both Rachel/Ellis and Nomi use it to get what they want, and both also think it's no big deal to be sexual. One makes a living out of exotic dancing and experiences genuine feelings for one of her sexual partners, the other has no problem enjoying her body and sex with those she desires, learning to love Muntze as well. Sex serves multiple purposes for Verhoeven, just as it does in the real world. Without this multifaceted intent, I'd be objecting heartily to its use.

PIPER said...

To the nudity comment,

My movie listing said it was 'R' because of Graphic Nudity. Where was that? So I think that speaks to Greg's assessment that we've all become somewhat prude about nudity in films.

And someone needs to talk to Franken about the fact that for every 10 lbs you lose, you add an inch to your ching chong.

bill r. said...

My movie listing said it was 'R' because of Graphic Nudity. Where was that?

Roger Ebert had a good line about the term "graphic nudity", though I'll have to paraphrase slightly. He said, "'Graphic nudity' means that not only are they naked, but you can see that they are naked."

Sam Juliano said...

"I think it also has to do with the fact that Verhoeven just likes sex and nudity (ie Spetters). I also remember Rutger Hauer's ching-chong flopping around a lot in Turkish Delight. Verhoeven just likes genitals (I'm not complaining here)."

Well, I must say I completely agree with Fox here.

Sam Juliano said...

As for what Marilyn says about sexual politics, well, that's a fine insight too. I think both Fox and Marilyn are right. The director bot conforms and showcases his own sensibilities.

Ed Howard said...

Bill, thanks for answering my question. Clearly I'm with you there, but I was curious to see what others would think. For me, the difference between Dancer in the Dark and Black Book, in terms of the treatment of the suffering heroine, is the degree to which Ellis retains her dignity and intelligence throughout even the worst of the abuses she suffers, whereas Selma is more or less a ragdoll tossed around by the contrivances of the plot. Ellis is at least active, she always seems like a thinking human being in a tough situation, making decisions for herself and striving to keep herself upright.

This attitude can also be seen in the treatment of sex, which is why I never felt like Verhoeven was simply displaying his actress/heroine to be ogled.

Sam Juliano said...

"For me, the difference between Dancer in the Dark and Black Book, in terms of the treatment of the suffering heroine, is the degree to which Ellis retains her dignity and intelligence throughout even the worst of the abuses she suffers, whereas Selma is more or less a ragdoll tossed around by the contrivances of the plot."

I must politely (strongly) disagree here. Selma's character is far more sharply drawn as far as I'm concerned, and we are far more emotionally moved by her plight than anything Ellis does in BLACK BOOK.

bill r. said...

Selma's character is far more sharply drawn as far as I'm concerned, and we are far more emotionally moved by her plight than anything Ellis does in BLACK BOOK...

Not me. I'm with Ed on this one. Rachel was a real human being, while Selma was just a collection of points Von Trier wanted to underline.

Sam Juliano said...

Hey Bill!

Bill, I knew after I wrote this that I was in deep shit. And I don't say that because there is any kind of conspiracy against me. i just remember the DANCER discussion from weeks back, where I was one of the few there who unreservedly loved the film. But I respect you position, as always.

Marilyn said...

I would agree with Sam that Selma's plight is much more pathetic and moving, but it is hard to retain sympathy for Selma because she is so dead set against helping herself. She's more of a doormat. Rachel impresses with her strength.

bill r. said...

No problem, Sam, I respect yours, too. My comment about Selma was probably overstated anyway, especially since I DID think Bjork gave a very good performance.

Greg said...

But poor Franken, not only was he fat and ugly, but he had a small penis. (But I guess that's why he got the ugly girl).

Ronnie was ugly to you? What are you nuts? She was a hottie.

And Marilyn, don't be fooled by all these guys talking about Franken's penis. It looked pretty average to me but most guys get nervous saying any penis not eight inches long is normal lest we think they are judging from a disadvantaged viewpoint.

Me of course, I'm huge. Fucking huge.

Marilyn said...

You know, frankly my dear, I don't give a damn about your penises. That's a real homoerotic thing to talk about.

Rick Olson said...

God almighty, Greg is Fucking Huge. How far things have degenerated ...

But, I think this distinction between gratuitous and non-gratuitous nudity is largely a distinction cooked up in our dirty little Western minds.

There.

Fox said...

So what did everyone think about the shot of Smaal's exploded head when Akkerman comes into his apartment and shoots him?

Was that Verhoeven being gratuitous with gore?

When you talk Verhoeven and gore, we can bounce around to various movies of his, of course, but Robocop is probably the big one. It doesn't bother me in Robocop because I think it's cartoonish in the way a Peter Jackson or Takashi Miike can be, but the tone of Black Blook is much less ludicrous, so the image of Smaal's head hit me weird.

As we've already noted, BB is definitely over-the-top in moments, and in the way other scenes that took me out of the film for a moment (ie, the "Theo" scene), it didn't ruin me overall, but I still found the image of Smaal's head to be a bit of pure "shock". It's like in Jarmusch's Dead Man when that dude's head gets stepped on. Why?

Greg said...

But, I think this distinction between gratuitous and non-gratuitous nudity is largely a distinction cooked up in our dirty little Western minds.

Agreed. I think the nudity here is just the right amount for the story and the violence too to answer Fox's question. The scene he mentions didn't strike me as gratuitous either.

Fox said...

Ronnie was ugly to you? What are you nuts? She was a hottie....

We probably just have different tastes that correspond with our different penis sizes.

And hey, there's a scene in Spetters where the dudes all measure their penises, so, Rick, this hasn't really degenerated AT ALL, ok buddy? We're talking freaking Verhoeven here!

What, are you some repressed Westerner or something?!?!?

Ed Howard said...

Sam, I respect your opinion so we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Greg, I musta missed that comment about Ronnie; she was cute.

Fox, is that shot really gratuitous? It was a horrifying image for Ellis in that it was the first time she'd seen such a grisly image of death up close (as opposed to watching from far away, which is traumatizing as well, of course, but doesn't expose you to the blood and guts in the same way). I think Verhoeven means for it to be as jarring and disturbing for us as it must have been for Ellis.

Fox said...

It was a horrifying image for Ellis in that it was the first time she'd seen such a grisly image of death up close (as opposed to watching from far away, which is traumatizing as well, of course, but doesn't expose you to the blood and guts in the same way)....

I think the first time was when everyone around her was machine-gunned on the boat and she gets blood squirted onto her face.

Those two scenes seem to handle violence pretty differently. There's plenty of blood, but PV doesn't go back to a cruchy skull twice the way he does with Smaal scene.

Rick Olson said...

No, I didn't find the shot of Spetters' head gratuitous. I tend, though, for whatever it's worth, to give the benefit of the doubt more to sex than violence

OTOH, I found some of his scenes of violence over the top, with grimacing Nazis enjoying the carnage a little too much . I'm not sure Verhoeven is that great at directing violence.

And yes, Fox, I'm a repressed Westerner or something. Can't help it, I yam what I yam.

Ed Howard said...

I think the first time was when everyone around her was machine-gunned on the boat and she gets blood squirted onto her face.

True, but that was still more a momentary glimpse of blood-splatter during a frantic scene rather than the prolonged closeup look she gets at the corpse at Smaal's office. Anyway, I think it's meant to be a moment where everything stops, a deliberate disruption.

And Rick, Verhoeven doesn't direct violence well? Have you seen Robocop?

Fox said...

Hey Rick-

Nice use of "OTOH". Are you texting in all of your comments from your iPhone?

And it's not Spetter's head, it's Smaal's. Spetters is a movie. Geez Rick, stop watching TV while you're in a TOERIFC debate. I mean... really... OMFG!!

Fox said...

And Rick, Verhoeven doesn't direct violence well? Have you seen Robocop?...

I don't even think he watched Black Book.

I kid, I kid...

Rick Olson said...

Fox: yes, I saw Robo-whatever ... but the violence is not fluid, there or here in Black Book. The Germans get the jump on the good guys, and mow them down. Or the good guys get the jump on the bad guys, and mow them down.

Robocop was like that too ... Robo took a stand with his big gun -- not Greg's penis -- and mowed 'em down, and the big Robot did too. Same as in the "Starship Troopers," which I consider a minor Sci Fi masterpiece. His violence is static, stiff somehow.

Spaal's, Spetter's, whatever... and I'll have you know I watched all ten minutes of "Black Book".

Marilyn said...

Rick actually watched the French Revolution film Black Book, aka, Reign of Terror and thinks we're talking about the guillotine scene!

Rick Olson said...

You mean there was no guillotine in "Black Book"???

Marilyn said...

GOTCHA!

PIPER said...

Wow. I missed a lot. The gun that Robocop uses is actually Greg's penis?

Fox said...

I can't wait until Rick doesn't give a shit about TOERIFC next month when it's at my place.

Y'know, he seems like he's been on a bender ever since his TOERIFC ended. Maybe he didn't handle it too well.

Kevin J. Olson said...

Wow. I missed a lot. The gun that Robocop uses is actually Greg's penis?

Is that why the guy during the hold-up scene just keeps saying "Fuck me! Fuck me!" over and over? Is it that impressive? Or just intimidating?

Sam Juliano said...

Can someone tell me what the title of next month's TOERIFIC will be? Thanks.

Greg said...

I'm going to proudly tell my wife tonight, "I succeeded in getting a bunch of male bloggers to talk about my penis. I can do anything!"

And Rick - Starship Troopers is a minor sci-fi masterpiece? Ugh.

Ed Howard said...

Sam, info on future TOERIFC films can always be found here. Next month is The Merchant of the Four Seasons at Tractor Facts.

Ed Howard said...

Starship Troopers is a minor sci-fi masterpiece.

I totally agree.

Greg said...

Sam, just go to the TOERIFC for the next several months worth of movies. Next month Fox will host The Merchant of the Four Seasons directed Rainer Fassbinder.

Greg said...

Starship Troopers is a minor sci-fi masterpiece.

I totally agree
.

It inadvertantly condones fascism through it's bumbling satire. You guys are crazy.

Sam Juliano said...

Thanks Ed and Greg!

I will definitely be at Tractor Facts for that one; it's a Fassbinder I love!

Ed Howard said...

Earlier in this thread, Kevin had asked what I thought of the place of Black Book in Verhoeven's oeuvre as a whole. I didn't want to detour that much from the film at hand at the time, but to kickstart a little more conversation now (and hopefully into tomorrow as well), I might as well follow up on that question. I see Black Book as something of a return to the style of Verhoeven's pre-Hollywood Dutch films, following his sojourn in America.

Now in some ways all of Verhoeven's films are obviously part of the same body of work, a product of the same sensibility, but I do think there are distinctions between his Dutch films and his Hollywood films. The most important, to me, is that in his Hollywood films, there's a greater gap and tension between surface and subtext. These films tend to present themselves as the opposite of what they really are beneath the surface; they're satires in disguise. So Showgirls is often mistaken for a sleazy sexploitation pic, Starship Troopers is interpreted as a fascistic actioner (even right here in this thread!), and Robocop is enjoyed for its mindless authoritarian ultraviolence. Each of those films offers much more beneath the surface, and indeed Verhoeven critiques the more superficial elements of his own films, but it's understandable why audiences go to see these movies and only glide along the slick surfaces. To really understand these films is to grasp that the director means the opposite of what he seems to mean, while the clues pointing towards these counterintuitive readings are often hammered home with blunt satire.

His Dutch films are both more subtle about their messages, and more overt in alerting audiences to the subversion of genre conventions. Turkish Delight draws on the conventions of the romantic comedy, but there's little danger of anyone ever walking out of that film thinking they'd seen an actual romantic comedy. Black Book returns to this earlier mode of filmmaking by fleshing out the characters again, moving away from the deliberately plastic archetypes of Starship Troopers and Showgirls (which together make an interesting diptych).

Black Book draws on the Hollywood action movie, but it doesn't ape the form as seamlessly or as slavishly as Verhoeven often did when actually making movies in Hollywood. This isn't to say that I dislike Verhoeven's Hollywood work, because I don't, but for me Black Book is a total masterpiece while even the best of his slick Hollywood satires (and the best is probably the first, Robocop) are not quite on the same level.

Sam Juliano said...

Conversely then, SOLDIER OF ORANGE, obviously falls into the second category, but it really doesn't on the other hand quite follow the Hollywood action movie, as it has little violence, especially by Verhoven's standards.

Kevin J. Olson said...

The most important, to me, is that in his Hollywood films, there's a greater gap and tension between surface and subtext. These films tend to present themselves as the opposite of what they really are beneath the surface; they're satires in disguise.

This is wonderfully stated. I have always thought that Verhoeven was making great satires/commentary masquerading as sci-fi action films. I mentioned earlier in this post that Robocop has some great themes buried beneath its ultra-violent surface. Verhoeven cultivates interesting themes throughout all of his action films (credit must be given to Philip K. Dick for Total Recall) -- he just puts a violent, satirical sheen that averts the attention of the viewer; but, if you dig for them you'll find that he is a director who has a lot to say, he's just working in a genre that people associate with surface instead of depth.

Starship Troopers is one of those films. I think Verhoeven is wrongly accused of making this sci-fi film simply a call back to the old "big bug" movies of the 50's/60's. Some people just throw it in the bin along side other "hacky" movies that aren't what people want out of an action film (to be fair though Hollow Man was all kinds of awful).

I think that's where the disconnect is often times. Because his Hollywood films exist in a genre that is not conducive to deeper explication.


Black Book draws on the Hollywood action movie, but it doesn't ape the form as seamlessly or as slavishly as Verhoeven often did when actually making movies in Hollywood.

That's interesting. I'm always fascinated by filmmakers who work within the machine, and then leave to their home country, working in the places they are most comfortable with -- with the language their most comfortable with. I can imagine how freeing that is for an artist, and your comment makes me wonder if Verhoeven felt that way while making Black Book. I think all artists perhaps feel this way, maybe most noticeably with actors -- just think of how much better Collin Ferrel is in In Bruges, allowed to act in the comforts of his own language, than in any of the countless American action films where he gives wooden performance after wooden performance.

I think I agree with you that Verhoeven is perhaps at his best with Black Book. Yet another film that exists in a genre that comes with all kinds of pre-conceived notions of what a WWII film should be. I think QT might catch some crap this summer -- but maybe he gets a pass because he's Quentin "Pulp Fiction" Tarantino...where people just see Verhoeven as the sleeze who directed Basic Instinct and Showgirls. It's too bad. He's a damn fine filmmaker.

Ed Howard said...

Well said, Kevin. I think you're right that Verhoeven is too often dismissed as a genre hack for his Hollywood films, when there's really a lot going on in them. It's so easy to just laugh at Showgirls and treat it as either total trash or at best a campy pleasure -- and in some ways it IS both of those, but it's also a surprisingly sophisticated film about women, the entertainment industry, and the bitterness and ugliness lying behind the old rags-to-riches cliches. The same goes for Robocop, which is a totally believable and scary portrait of the onset of totalitarianism, taking control somewhere in the background, masked behind inane TV shows and the guise of "crime-fighting." But who looks for this stuff in a movie about a couple of robots fighting, you know?

I can imagine how freeing that is for an artist, and your comment makes me wonder if Verhoeven felt that way while making Black Book.

You're probably right about that. Black Book does feel like a very personal film, and a very free one. I don't know if he was especially constricted on most of his Hollywood films, but there is a sense in those that's he's working more within the system, with his critiques and satire a little further beneath the surface than usual. Then in Black Book it's all right out there again.

Rick Olson said...

I can't wait until Rick doesn't give a shit about TOERIFC next month when it's at my place....

Fox, I won't give a shit in SPADES at your place!

It inadvertantly condones fascism through it's bumbling satire. You guys are crazy. ...

Oh yeah? Says who?

[That oughta fix him ...]

kassy said...

Sorry to be late, I just finished watching the film and reading the comments and am left with nothing to say, my punishment for being late to the party.

Ed, your write-up was excellent!

I was writing down some notes but Shubhajit seems to have stolen my comments in their entirety :)

Netflix kept recommending this film to me and I kept ignoring them, I'm now very glad to have watched it. It succeeded for me as a melodrama, a woman's picture, an action flick, and a thriller. There were three things that stood out for me, the first being van Houten, I too think I am in love. Secondly was the way the film was shot. Right at the beginning I thought that the film looked too pretty to be about Nazis and Resistance fighters and the horrors of war. And as I'm sure that was intentional on Verhoeven's part, I liked it very much. The third thing that stood out was the ending when the camera pulls back and we see the soldiers run to the kibbutz' fence and start shooting. I was immediately taken back to the scene where Ellis learns of Munze's death and she says "it never ends". And we do see that even though she has helped found the kibbutz and lives in a utopian society the violence of war does indeed never end.

Today's discussion had some similarities to the film; so many dramatic comments interspersed with flashes of humor (Piper as exhibit a and Greg's um, exhibit p)

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for stopping by, Kassy, I'm really glad you enjoyed the movie. It does draw heavily on all those genres you mention, which is, along with Van Houten's amazing central performance, a big part of what makes the film so entertaining.

Marilyn said...

I'm not familiar with the body of Verhoeven's work, but I agree that this was a personal film for him, and one made better by his excursion in Hollywood. The Dutch films I have seen (admittedly not a lot) tend to get bogged down in polemicism. Even when I like them (e.g., The Silence of Christina M), I never forget that they are making a statement. Verhoeven certainly has that tendency, but he learned to create an exciting story in which to embed his statements, sometimes subtly, sometimes not.

Ed Howard said...

I'm not familiar with the body of Verhoeven's work, but I agree that this was a personal film for him, and one made better by his excursion in Hollywood. The Dutch films I have seen (admittedly not a lot) tend to get bogged down in polemicism.

I like his Dutch work quite a bit, but I wouldn't necessarily disagree. Verhoeven is very polemical, he never lets you forget that he's beating you over the head with his ideas. Fortunately these films are also wildly entertaining, often bitingly funny, and populated with memorable characters. The best of his pre-Hollywood work (Turkish Delight, The Fourth Man, Spetters) has such verve and intensity that the over-the-top didacticism blends smoothly into the whole.

What's The Silence of Christina M, though? I've never heard of that, and neither have Google or IMDB apparently... Is that another name for Keetje Tippel maybe?

Marilyn said...

It's called in English A Question of Silence for some reason. Director is Marleen Gorris. I wrote about it here.

Paul Arrand Rodgers said...

What's this about Robocop's action not flowing smoothly? Certainly the bits with the stop-motion android, but that's to be expected from something that was, basically, new technology.

Beyond that, the two big action scenes (the shoot-out in the coke factory and the final battle) are about as good as 1980's action gets. Considering that Peter Weller was in a huge, heavy suit and figured heavily into almost all of the action, that's a minor miracle. For comparison, look at how well the action scenes didn't work out in Robocop 2.

Erm...Black Book looks interesting, too.

Greg said...

Ed, before I forget let me officially thank you for your exemplary hosting job this month. A great write-up and another in-depth, informative discussion for TOERIFC. And it's still going too!

Ed Howard said...

That movie sounds interesting, Marilyn; I thought you were talking about Verhoeven's Dutch films, not Dutch films in general.

Paul, thanks for stopping by, welcome to TOERIFC. I'm totally with you about Robocop, which is a great action movie and a great movie in general. I don't think it's stiff or non-flowing at all.

Greg, thanks a lot, this was a fun discussion. I hope it does keep going longer. But if it doesn't, anyone who's stopping by should keep an eye out here throughout the rest of this week, starting possibly as early as this afternoon. I'm going to continue the Verhoeven discussion here by posting more reviews of his films that I haven't written about yet. The first one up will be Showgirls, either later today or early tomorrow.

Marilyn said...

I reviewed Showgirls, too, actually defended it more than reviewed it. I'll be interested to see what you have to say.

Greg said...

I confess I have only seen about two minutes of Showgirls on cable once so I will rely on your review and Marilyn's defense to make up my mind if I ever want to actually see it.

Marilyn said...

Here's my piece on Showgirls

Ed Howard said...

Marilyn, that's a great writeup on Showgirls, a film very much in need of such eloquent defenses. It seems like your view of the film has at least some common ground with my own. Here's my own new review so the Verhoeven discussion can continue.

Greg, needless to say we think you should watch it. I'm not sure you'll like it, but it's very much worth seeing.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Ed-

I'm a day or two late to all this... but just wanted to let you know this was a great pick and I'm very happy I moved it up on my netflix queue. I've loved of few of Verhoveven's movies, but I've never considered him a great director. I suppose he should be on that list, but there is still something about him....I can't explain.

This movie, though, is quite entertaining with a wonderful lead performance and great supporting roles by Koch and Hoffman.

I agree with about the first half of the picture, but find that the story looses its way for about the last hour. I don't think it is bad by any means, but it does become a bit overstretched for its own good.

I also don't care for the framing device used. It really takes away any danger that I felt throughout all the suspense scenes involving Ellis's life. This is the same problem I have with CARLITO'S WAY.

I'm bummed that I've missed out on the last two of these heated discussions, but I may be out of work soon, so blogging will be all I have!

Ed Howard said...

Hey Joseph, thanks for stopping by, I'm glad you (mostly) enjoyed the film. Framing devices like this sometimes bother me in the way you describe, especially when they seem pointless or gimmicky, but in this film I thought it worked well. The framing device adds an additional layer to Rachel's story, and the knowledge that she winds up in Israel somehow when this is all over, though it does take away any suspense that she might die, it also adds a sense of mystery, causing us to wonder what led her there. By the end of the film, we understand why she'd end up on an Israeli kibbutz. The framing story opens up the film beyond its immediate story into the broader implications of WW2 and the changes in the world in the post-war period.

And, though the discussion here continues in dribs and drabs, following up on yesterday's Showgirls piece I've now posted another Verhoeven review, this time of Flesh+Blood.

JOSEPH CAMPANELLA said...

Ed-

Never seem FLESH AND BLOOD. Like I said, I really need to catch up on my Verhoeven. I think the only movies I've seen of his are ROBOCOP, SHOWGIRLS, STARSHOOP TROOPERS, TOTAL RECALL, BASIC INSTINCT and now BLACK BOOK. I should probably catch up with his earlier stuff. It seems like those of the above that have seen his work prior to ROBOCOP have enjoyed it? What am I waiting for?

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