Monday, April 23, 2007

Black Book (Verhoeven, 2006)

After spending several years in Hollywood tackling such highbrow subject matter as murderous lesbians, backstabbing showgirls and vicious insect armies, Dutch director Paul Verhoeven returns home to take on the light, breezy topic of Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II. In all seriousness, Verhoeven’s latest film, Black Book, is a rare creature that succeeds in making a critical historical point while at the same time never allowing the politics to weigh down the thriller. In order to appreciate Black Book, the viewer will likely have to tap into a different frame of mind than one might normally bring to a World War II drama.

There are plenty of films that have been created that allow us to dwell deeply on Nazi atrocities and mourn for those who lost their lives. This is not one of them. World War II is used primarily as the background for an exciting adventure filled with intrigue, twists and double-crosses. Nazis pop up unexpectedly out of dark places, calling to mind something closer to Castle Wolfenstein rather than Schindler’s List. And yet the film itself is not simple-minded. It is rather a film that strives for entertainment first and foremost, allowing its lessons of moral confusion in times of war to come to the forefront only towards the very end. Because it has been filmed in a foreign language, it will likely play at your local arthouse. However, take away the subtitles and Black Book has enough thrills to play inside your local mall – and I don’t mean that derogatorily. It is a film that successfully bridges the gap between mainstream and arthouse entertainment, allowing viewers to engage with whatever level of intellectual investment that they care to offer.

Verhoeven’s wisest directorial choice is casting Carice van Houten in his lead as Rachel, the young Jewish woman who must blend in amongst the Nazis responsible for murdering her family. Van Houten’s charisma and beauty allow us to easily forgive one of the script’s flimsiest bits of logic, namely why a high-ranking Nazi official (Sebastian Koch) is willing to risk so much and offer her so much trust. Van Houten’s performance combines beauty, caginess, sensitivity and dignity. All that and she can sing! The character of Rachel is far from angelic and not even psychologically consistent. And yet, van Houten gives her cohesion and provides a direct connection to Verhoeven’s theme of moral fogginess. I suspect the performance will do for her what Run Lola Run did for Franka Potente, namely make her highly sought after by Hollywood producers.

Only one character in Black Book stands out as being mostly unsuccessful. One member of the Dutch resistance is a religious man who insists that his group must not use violence, even when threatened by attacking Nazis. In using this character, Verhoeven is attempting to comment on the fruitlessness of moral rigidity in a time of unspeakable atrocities. And yet, the execution of this particular character is fairly ludicrous. Fortunately, his scenes are mostly brief and do not distract significantly from the whole.

There will be those who argue that the selected subject matter does not deserve to be treated so flippantly or mined for the maximum cinematic thrills. It is a legitimate point. And yet, there will be many who will be glad to approach the time period without the weighty reverence that is typically required. In the end, I believe Verhoeven gives his film legitimacy with the way he asserts that compassion and cruelty are qualities that know no borders and that nationality is no assurance of moral superiority.



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