Zwartboek (Black Book)
Directed by Paul Verhoeven
Screenplay by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman
The first new film from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven in six years, with a screenplay co-written with Gerard Soeteman, is a welcome return to the trajectory of a career that once showed significant promise. Unfortunately, that arc was interrupted for more than a decade starting in the late 1980s to make a string of commercial films for Hollywood that included a range from sci-fi action films - Robocop, Total Recall, Starship Troopers - to thrillers - Basic Instinct, Hollow Man - to the unclassifiable exploitation of Showgirls.
But now Verhoeven is back. Black Book is a film that harnesses the director's skill at directing both action and suspense - which he developed during his American sojourn - in service of telling a story "based on true events" that is far more interesting, provocative and thoughtful than anything he has made in the last twenty years.
On the surface, the story has many of the elements of a war-time espionage thriller and Verhoeven handles them with remarkable aplomb, setting a pace where a nearly two-and-a-half hour film never seems to drag. There are hairsbreadth escapes, betrayals, acts of daring, selflessness and courage, there are intrigues, confrontations and gun battles. But Verhoeven goes beyond these predictable tropes - sets them in a new way, against a new background - that reaches for something more disturbing and human than the simplistic "Good Guys versus Bad Guys" dynamic exploited by other films covering the same subject matter. What Verhoeven explores here is the moral universe - the excruciating dislocation of moral center that war represents, and the various strategies human beings develop to protect themselves from that unbearable pain.
The story centers on Rachel Steinn - a pretty Jewish girl who was a singer before the war and who goes underground in the countryside during the Nazi invasion. She survives living in a farmhouse attic right up to the end of the war, in 1944, when her refuge is accidentally destroyed. She is taken in by a young man who is attracted by her good looks and charm - but a member of the Resistance appears and warns them that they must flee. He offers to help them escape through the marshes to Belgium, where the British army has already liberated the countryside and is advancing toward Holland.
Rachel is reunited with her family, who are also trying to escape, and they climb onto a canal-boat for the night journey to freedom. But they are surprised by a Nazi patrol boat and ruthlessly murdered - Rachel alone escapes, by plunging into the canal. She watches from hiding as the Nazis strip the dead bodies of their valuables and plunder their luggage for whatever resources they were hoping to carry out with them.
Her family dead, her refuge gone, Rachel is lucky enough to be picked up by the Resistance, who help her to assume a new identity - as Ellis de Vries - and recruit her to work with them. On her first assignment, her quick thinking saves her and her partner, when she takes refuge in the train compartment of a Nazi officer, using her charm and good looks to engage him and so avoid a search of her luggage.
The Resistance fighters quickly realize the opportunity this accident offers her as an entrée to the good graces of a ranking member of the Nazi High Command in Holland, and they urge her to exploit it. Rachel - now Ellis - accepts the assignment - which will surely include establishing and exploiting sexual intimacy - making the first of many difficult and imperfect moral choices.
And it is on those choices that Verhoeven's' film focuses - not in a didactic or moralistic way, but rather illustratively - showing how extreme situations bring out the best and the worst in human beings - sometimes both in the same person at different times. The proposition that "the ends justify the means" is examined with merciless clarity, in situations with devastating consequences - and no clear answer emerges. Verhoeven leaves us at the mercy of our own consciences, to grapple with the horror that is the cruelty and inhumanity of which all human beings are capable.
That he does this in the context of a film that maintains many of the elements of the genre has brought a certain amount of opprobrium down on this film, which some critics have seen as exploitative and shallow, using sex, gun battles and an "exciting" American-style linear narrative to craft what is essentially a "shoot-em-up" action/adventure/war film.
But the fact is that none of the action here - including the explicit sexuality - is ever gratuitous. It is, as Verhoeven points out, "inspired by real events." These events didn't happen in this sequence to these particular characters, but all of them are well-documented, as Verhoeven discovered while researching his earlier film, 1985's Soldier of Orange, chronicling the experiences of real-life Resistance-fighter Erik Hazelhoff Roelfzema.
Verhoeven and his long-time screenwriter and childhood friend Soeteman discovered a number of disturbing documents, describing everything from the barbaric mis-treatment of suspected collaborators in post-liberation Holland to the Occupying Forces' complicity with the captured German command structure in meting out punishment to former German soldiers whose "offense" was breaking discipline by showing mercy to Dutch citizens!
These dark revelations and the images they conjured didn't find a place in the celebratory and heroic Soldier of Orange, but they stayed with Verhoeven and over the years he encouraged Soeteman to pursue them. They worked together on a screenplay that would explore the much more complex and troubling world these events described. Black Book is the result. It is a harrowing, violent, disturbing and ambiguous tale, perhaps best summed up by a line spoken by one of the characters: "everyone has unknown depths." It is those "depths" - related perhaps to Nietzsche's "abyss" - that Verhoeven suggests we need to confront.
The screenplay Verhoeven and Soeteman developed from this material is accomplished and effective. The conflicts and questions are allowed to arise from the characters themselves. as when the sensitive and deeply religious Theo finds himself intensely conflicted when called upon to kill a man - in however "good" cause. Likewise, Rachel's struggles with her conscience are embodied not only in her willingness to "sleep with the enemy" to further her cause, but also in allowing herself to develop a bond of deep affection and loyalty with that very "enemy."
The dialogue is crisp and to the point, without any preachiness (except when it is in a characters' nature to preach). Events unfold smoothly and rapidly, and the rhythm of alternation between action-oriented sequences, those that build suspense, and those that develop character and relationship works very well indeed. At the same time, Verhoeven doesn't try to explain everything. Some things are allowed - as in real life - to unfold spontaneously.
His actors serve Verhoeven the director very well. He has talked in several interviews about Carice van Houten and how often he found himself abandoning his "direction" in favor of her instincts. Certainly van Houten gives a performance here that ranks with the best of the last several years. She is fearless in portraying both a character and situations that would paralyze a lesser talent. Her fierce commitment - and the emotional authenticity it generates - to allowing Verhoeven to observe her character in the most vulnerable and compromising of situations, is one of the elements that makes the film so effective.
German actor Sebastian Koch, whose fine performance in The Lives Of Others (Das Leben der Anderen) helped lift that film to an Academy Award nomination and many European awards, shines here again. He embodies Mčntze as another of the pivotally ambivalent psyches around whose combinations of rationalization, survival instinct, denial and idealistic aspiration the film's narrative is constructed. He manages to believably express the "softer" side of amoral self-interest that manages to illuminate both the similarities and the differences between it and the sadistic and ruthless version adopted by his colleagues in the High Command.
Speaking of whom, Waldemar Kobus and Christian Berkel, given the thankless task of portraying the worst aspects of Nazi evil as Obersturmführer Franken and General Käutner respectively, manage to make their characters despicable in very particular and individual ways that lifts them out of cliché and makes them an effective part of the wildly distorted "moral universe" Verhoeven invites us to observe.
Thom Hoffman and Derek de Lint - Dutch actors whose long careers include appearances in some of Verhoeven's early films - likewise manage to bring to life characters whose sense of right and wrong undergoes unbearable strain, and ultimately proves inadequate - in both cases - to protect them from doing things that must have horrible repercussions.
Like many of the other characters in this film, they manage to combine personal charm, a desperate and ruthless will to survive, rationalization and some version of something that passes for "idealism" in a mix that powerfully illustrates the irreconcilable psychic dissonances - the palpable basis of "post-traumatic Stress disorder - with which extreme circumstances, and especially those of war, present us.
All the actors, make a meaningful contribution to the film. Helina Reijn, who plays Rachel's counterpart, the shamelessly self-exploitative good-time-girl (and consummate survivor), Ronnie, manages to make her appealing and reprehensible at the same time. Johnny de Mol makes his small part as Theo a shocking reflection of the break-down of value systems implicit in the kind of struggle the film portrays.
The camera work is very good. Verhoeven's American experience shooting action sequences is put to good use here, as is his more reflective and subjective European sensibility - to which he is clearly trying to return. With cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, he manages to visually reproduce the intense mood swings and changes in energy the film embraces.
The music is used skillfully, despite occasionally verging on the intrusive. Composer Anne Dudley (whose résumé includes an incredible range, from Monkeybone to American History X, and Say Anything to The Crying Game!) employs the pounding beats and crashing chord structures typical of American Action Films to underscore the battle scenes, subtle themes that recall Hitchcock to offset some of the suspense sequences, and understated, lilting melodies grounded in the music of the period to underscore the development of interpersonal relationships, all of it to good effect.
The sets and production design are very well done, with the location work shot in Holland blending seamlessly with the interior work done in studios in Berlin. The contrast of the homey, cozy Dutch interiors and the charming location exteriors create a nearly surrealistic dislocation with the violence and cruelty of the events unfolding in the foreground, that mirrors the internal dissociations Verhoeven is investigating.
Black Book is a very well made film. Verhoven has incorporated the tools and skills he acquired in Hollywood to tell a story that speaks forcefully and evocatively about basic conditions of the human predicament - conditions that have as much bearing on us now, when conflicts like those in Iraq, Darfur, Bosnia and Rwanda are part of current and recent history, as they did in the context of 1944, when the film is set.
But Verhoven's purpose is not to advance any particular agenda, to "teach" us anything, but rather to show us how the situations we create effect us and our world, and hope we can learn something from seeing that. Black Book is a film whose resonance grows with reflection and time. It fulfills Verhoeven's purpose in that it raises difficult and painful questions we can all benefit from asking.
But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.