Black Book

blackbookBlack Book (2006) is a World War II film about the Dutch Resistance, directed by Paul Verhoeven, and starring Carice van Houten, Sebastian Koch, Thom Hoffman, and Halina Reijn. We originally meet the central character, Rachel Stein, when she is  living in hiding on a Dutch farm.  When the farm is distroyed by American bombs, she is forced out into the open to survive on her own.  She finds her way into a Dutch resistance cell which is troubled by a turncoat, an ongoing mystery in the film:  who is it that keeps ratting  to the Nazis?

Rachel serves the cause by sleeping with the enemy:  she dyes her hair blond, becomes the mistress of a powerful Nazi, and reports back to her cell what she learns from him.   No fool, he figures out that she is Jewish, and chooses to overlook it for the time being.  Verhoeven suggests, through his characters and others in the film, that it is harder than we like to think to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

This is absolutely not a film for children or for the sensitive; it contains a lot of graphic sex and violence.

Commentary

You may recognize the name of the director:  he also directed Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, and Showgirls.  Verhoeven is known for making violent, lurid films and this one qualifies on both counts.  The screenplay is stuffed with handy coincidences, and when the opening credits claim that it is “based on a true story” one should reach for a box of Morton’s Salt.  There was a lawyer in the Netherlands who kept a “black book” like the one in the film.  Beyond that, the film is fiction.

So why include it on this list?  Why might this film be worthwhile for some viewers?  Black Book makes the point again and again that anti-Semitism was not the sole province of the Nazis.  Many Christian Europeans felt that Jews had brought their troubles upon themselves by failing to become Christian; others believed that Jews could not be trusted, were driven by a desire for money, etc., etc.  Verhoeven’s moral relativism may go too far when he suggests that there were “good Nazis” but he acknowledges something that most Holocaust films do not:  that the Holocaust was not a Nazi aberration, but an extreme expression of themes that had long been part of European Christian culture.

Is this a great film?  No.  It’s a thriller-melodrama with a lot of slick sex and violence. I include it here because it also contains some kernels of truth about things that nice people don’t want to discuss.  Leave it to Verhoeven to go where nice people won’t.

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2 responses to “Black Book

  1. Hello ,

    I just don’t agree with your review. I left this film in shock at the London Film
    Festival in 2007. I was shocked that Verhoeven could get away with suggesting that an SD officer was less antisemitic than the Dutch resistance, and that Rachel could have fallen in love with him having seen her family slaughtered by members of his troop. But all the critics seemed to love it and despite its being pulp it won a BAFTA.

    Antisemitism was widespread in Europe from the millennium, particularly in the Rhine Basin, and no doubt in the Dutch resistance. It has been studied by historians who treat it with the seriousness it deserves, not Verhoeven’s trite suspect politics. In my opinion, he repeats himself, and in Soldiers of Orange he shows Dutch antisemitism and that really annoyed the Dutch. But meanwhile he sneakily slips in an unsympathetic Jewish woman, Esther, who sexually betrays her lover. He in turn turns traitor against the resistance to betray her and at one stage it is even suggested to keep her in luxuries!

    I came across this piece by Richard Brody’s in the New Yorker recently when he reviewed Elle, where he not only condemns Verhoeven for the way he handles the Gestapo commander’s involvement with Rachel in Black Book, but also takes a knife to Verhoeven’s superficial manipulative techniques as a film maker in looking at Elle. At last I thought I’m not being oversensitive!
    http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/the-phony-sexual-transgressions-of-paul-verhoevens-elle

    Thank you for giving me the opportunity to reply.

    Ann O’Brien

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