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?