Monday, February 11, 2008

Black Book

Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is a brilliant slap in the face to the very idea of "tastefully" dealing with such important issues as the Holocaust or Nazi collaboration. When it first appeared, some critics derisively dismissed it as "Schindler's List meets Showgirls," an unwittingly apt description for a film that flinches away from neither the harsh realities of Nazi atrocities nor the perverse sexual adventures of the film's heroine, Rachel (Carice van Houten). The film is a blast of energy and enthusiasm, packing an emotional wallop that is in many ways much more genuine than the dour do-gooderism of Spielberg's famous Holocaust film. Verhoeven delves into the moral complications of resistance and collaboration in Nazi-occupied Holland, with van Houten as the central figure in a sprawling adventure epic largely set in the final months of the war. Van Houten is a wonder to behold here, gorgeous and sparkling with an intensity and depth that completely carries the film.

When the film starts, Rachel is a young Jewish woman hiding out at a farm house where the Christian family forces her to recite Bible verses, perfectly memorized, before she is served her dinner. This shining example of Christian hypocrisy, within a family that from outside would certainly seem to be exemplary in their sheltering of a fugitive, tips the viewer off early to Verhoeven's critical perspective in this film. His interest is not, per se, in the barbarity of the Nazi regime, which hardly needs pointing out these days — he's much more interested in the petty cruelties, manipulations, and quiet acquiescence to horror that takes place under the radar in everyday life, even among those on the "right" side. Rachel's life, following the bombing of this family's farm and her flight into the underground, becomes a neverending hellish descent, with Verhoeven battering the poor beleaguered girl until he is literally pouring shit on her. Her story takes a number of twists and turns, starting with the slaughter of her parents and brother during a failed attempt to sneak across the border, after which shetakes on a new identity and falls in with a group of resistance fighters. They soon ask her, though, to infiltrate the German gestapo headquarters as a singer, by seducing the garrison commander Müntze (Sebastian Koch), and as a result she's drawn into a complex web of deceit, treacheries, and machinations. The plot is structured as an escalating series of incidents and action, reminding me of a slightly calmer version of Emir Kusturica's frenetic masterpiece Underground, which similarly builds towards ever more harrowing evocations of wartime brutality, and similarly laces its horror with kitschy good humor.

Verhoeven has crafted this epic from some well-worn genre materials: the wartime spy thriller, the sexual noir, the campy Germanic cabaret film. But while the basic materials may be familiar, the ways in which they're combined and played out on screen are most certainly not. The trope of the female double agent who falls in love with the man she's supposed to be seducing is as old as the spy genre itself, but it somehow manages to acquire new life here, partly because van Houten infuses her role with such a winning combination of sexy playfulness and emotional investment. The cliché is further twisted by the fact that Koch makes his Nazi commandant a surprisingly sympathetic and multi-faceted figure, a man who has realized that his country has lost the war, and now only wishes to minimize the bloodshed in the final days before the inevitable defeat. The scenes between these two have a surprising electricity that's perfectly encapsulated by the scene where Rachel strips for Müntze, who's lying in bed, the bedsheets between his legs slowly tenting upwards as he watches her. Of course, he has a pistol down there, and in the following scene he caresses her breast with its metal tip as they smoothly segue between seduction and pumping one another for information.

If Müntze is a complex and very human Nazi, he's counterbalanced by the presence of his hulking, maniacally leering underling Franken (Waldemar Kobus), who's only missing a "stein" (the Jewish last name of the film's heroine, of course) to turn him into the monster he so clearly represents. He's a true movie Nazi, and Verhoeven seems very aware of it, taking cartoonish glee in this wholly artificial creation's outlandish evils. He's engaged in a plot to convince rich Jewish fugitives that they're fleeing with the resistance, when in fact they're being led into a trap where Franken can kill them and relieve them of their money and jewels. Franken may be a cartoon, but the evils he commits feel no less real, no less potent, for having been committed by this ridiculous figure, who in happier moments loves to pound on a piano and whistle along with Rachel's torchy crooning. In fact, Verhoeven's whole aesthetic purpose in this film might be summed up by the seeming contradiction between gritty realism on the one hand, and overt stylization on the other. He's equally committed to both narrative modes, and the film swings queasily back and forth between the two with little regard for stability.

Even more radically, Verhoeven extends his moral ambiguity to the resistance fighters, and in the scenes set after the war's end, implicitly questions the entire process of assigning blame and assessing collaboration versus resistance. The irony of high-ranking Nazi commanders being quietly assimilated back into society is juxtaposed against the even more unpalatable spectacle of the cruelties meted out by the victors against those dubbed collaborators. Most troubling is the treatment of women, which Verhoeven takes great pains to underline. Before the war is over, he has one of the resistance fighters explain what he'd like to do to the Nazi's women: shave their heads and dub them "Nazi whores" in acts of public humiliation before putting them against the wall. And sure enough, when the war ends, Rachel walks through the streets and comes across, in the midst of the celebrations, a display exactly as the resistance fighter described it, with tearful young women getting their heads shaved, signs saying "Nazi whore" hung around their necks. The undercurrent is a kind of sexual punishment and a sense of male entitlement about female bodies — the greatest offense is sleeping with the enemy, and when Rachel herself is branded with this crime, sexual humiliation (including a vat of feces poured over her naked body) is the primary punishment. Before Rachel first goes to seduce Müntze, she sleeps with the resistance fighter Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), who takes her as though she's his right, saying "at least I get to have you first" — who one sleeps with becomes a moral act in itself. Verhoeven's thrust in these scenes might even be called feminist, although his critique is complicated by the obvious delight he takes in sexualizing and fetishizing his protagonist's body right along with the characters on screen (and, by implication, bringing the audience along for the ride as well).

The implicit, unstated question underlying the entire film is the problem of assessing degrees of culpability, and degrees of brutality. This problem comes closest to being addressed explicitly by Theo (Johnny de Mol), a quiet, peaceable Christian member of the anti-Nazi resistance, and probably the film's most purely "good" and uncorrupted character. When he's forced by circumstances to commit a murder in order to save Rachel and his friends, he's wracked by guilt, and he melodramatically exclaims that he's "as bad as the Nazis." He seems incapable of making any moral distinction between wholesale genocidal mass murder and a single act of violence committed with more "just" goals in mind. He's a moral absolutist for whom murder is always murder, but Verhoeven doesn't necessarily take his side. In many ways, Theo's exclamation seems to be there as a not-so-subtle jab at the current prevalence of casual Nazi comparisons in political discourse, by which George W. Bush (among other targets) is declared to be "as bad as the Nazis." Verhoeven, by placing the statement in its original context, reveals the lie, and the laziness of such comparisons, while advocating for a moral attentiveness and an ability to make meaningful distinctions. Verhoeven presents a very muddled and ambiguous moral world, but his central characters must nevertheless make the best of the options open to them. The ambiguous ending, set 12 years after the main action at a kibbutz in Israel, serves as one last ironic comment on the place of morality in everyday decisions, as Rachel has set up a seemingly happy new domestic life for herself here, teaching schoolchildren, marrying and having a family. But in the film's final shot, Rachel and this happy family walk away into a barb-wire-protected compound, as explosions and gunfire and soldiers mobilizing on the ramparts signal the continuing war and brutality happening all around their oblivious domestic core.

This emphasis on moral choice and accountability is startling in a film that at times seems to revel in schlock, and Verhoeven walks a thin line between camp and verisimilitude. It's a film where the continuously thrilling, exciting, engaging surface narrative rapidly pulls the viewer into a deeper moral engagement with the material. Black Book works on its primary level as a lurid wartime spy thriller, infused with melodrama, eroticism, and action — it seems calculated for maximum visceral impact. But its sneaky insistence on never taking the easy way out of moral dilemmas, of never shrinking away from tough but important distinctions, propels it to a whole other level as a complex moral investigation. It's a film about corruption, greed, inhuman brutality, and, somewhat perversely, love and sexuality as well. Not to be missed.


Marilyn said...

Ed - I, too, was blown away by this film and was dismayed that so many critics still seem to see him through the eyes of Showgirls (which I like, by the way). Black Book shows his continued fondness for Hollywood movies and their genres, but he brings such a sly intelligence to them (note how he has completely cut Americans out of the discussion) that it does, as you say, draw you deeper without consciously realizing it.

Great review.

Chet Mellema said...

This is probably the most under-appreciated film of 2007. When I saw it last summer I was amazed at the successful tight rope act Verhoeven performed, of which you discuss eloquently. Van Houten's performance is nothing short of brilliant and I am still amazed that I could sympathize with a Nazi. To me, that is Verhoeven's greatest achievement, one that forces the viewer to examine what's going on between his or her ears while it's going on up there on the screen. I was almost repulsed by my own preferences while watching this movie. Amazing...and a definite must see.

Ed Howard said...

Thanks for the comments guys. Chet, the point you bring up about sympathizing with a Nazi is right on. The film makes it very difficult to know where to stand with regard to Muntze, who in some ways seems like a fairly decent guy, but of course you have to realize that he must have committed his share of atrocities earlier in the war to continue holding such a high position. His stance, towards the end of the war, to minimize further bloodshed, is of course admirable, but doesn't necessarily negate anything he did before. But his execution is heartbreaking nevertheless, partly because Verhoeven does such a good job of exposing the ironies and injustices at the heart of the post-war investigations, by which Muntze's superior officer is allowed to re-integrate with society despite his own likely crimes. The greatest triumph of the film is to force the viewer to think about morality in more relative terms, to distinguish between individuals rather than just choosing sides and equating the enemy with pure evil and your allies with pure good. Verhoeven realizes that things are not so simple, that both sides consist of individual people with both good and evil aspects.

It's also amazing to me that Verhoeven can engage in such complicated moral discourse even while the film works on its surface as an enormously entertaining popcorn thriller.

Uncle Gustav said...

I loved the film, too, and thought it superior to Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful and even Polanski's The Pianist -- Oscar favorites all. Verhoeven has appealed to me since his early pictures, and Black Book is an excellent classic-style narrative.

Chet Mellema said...

This is totally non-substantive but I wanted to let you know anyway...I just watched Black Book again a few days ago and I think this is your best review along with your write-up on I'm Not There last year.

reassurance said...

I agree with Chet. I love everything you have to say about this film, particularly as it was a film I had kinda pushed you toward seeing. You eloquently hit some wonderful points about the film, yet I feel as if Verhoeven's work (as a whole) is the stuff for text books. The man is in such opposition to anything that could ever be expected of him. Hell, I could write a text book on Showgirls alone.

Shubhajit said...

I agree with Chet in that this is indeed a very good review because you have captured the subtleties and moral dilemmas presented in the movie. Sebastian Koch is indeed a very real character - he is neither white nor black, but somewhere in between. As you pointed out Franken's character is comical and grotesque, & i must say it is one of the many one-dimensional "typical" characters in the movie. I don't agree on that the female lead's performance is breathtaking. She seems to be going through the motions, and very rarely do we see her emoting. The movie is explosive, i agree on that. But unfortunately, the impact is hardly lasts beyond the movie. And one of the principal reasons would be the inane final twist of the plot.

Pieter den Hollander said...

I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and your reviews are always eloquent and full of insights. Great writing and thinking. I missed the TOERIFIC discussion on Black Book, so I'll post my comment here.

Just want to share a few moments from Black Book that I treasure:

- The comic relief after the narrow escape of Ellis in the coffin. We first see her hand, as if we are suddenly watching a Dracula B movie.

- The foreboding way the location of the party that Ellis and Müntze visit is filmed from a distance, with a low camera angle, suggesting that she has now entered another world, that of the enemy. There's no going back.

- The zoom-in and zoom-out when Ellis stands behind the mimeo and in the background Tim is dragged from another interrogation.

- How, in the next scene, Smaal pops up from behind Ellis, making him somewhat suspect (important for the plot of course). Then the transfer of the microphone from his hat to her stocking, underlining the different roles the characters play.

- The shaking of the frame with a picture of Müntzes family, caused by the sound of overflying bombers (that killed them).

- The mis-en-scène of Ellis and Gerben Kuipers with the body of Tim between them.

You really should write that book on Black Book you mentioned in your TOERIFIC review!