Verhoeven’s Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006) for the first time recently, and found it raised so many fascinating and challenging questions about representing the Holocaust that I thought I’d post some initial thoughts on the film, even though it is by no means a recent release.

Warning – lots of spoilers.

Briefly, the film’s central character is a Dutch-Jewish cabaret singer, Rachel Stein, who is fleeing from the Nazis and gets caught up with the Dutch resistance.  When members of her cell are captured, Rachel, using the alias Ellis de Vries, agrees to seduce Hauptstürmfuhrer Ludwig Müntze in order to try to secure their release.

Rachel’s relationship with Müntze was the chief source of critical controversy.  He is portrayed in a comparatively sympathetic light, and he and Rachel develop a genuine mutual attachment.  Clearly there is something uncomfortable if not grotesque about such a relationship.  It might seem wrong to try to humanise Müntze or imply any kind of equivalence between his situation (his wife and children were killed in an air raid) and Rachel’s (her family were gunned down by the Nazis).  The New York Times headlined its review ‘Bedding That Nice Nazi, and Other Wartime Perils’. But the relationship is presented in a matter of fact way – it’s something that happens, and is not unduly sensationalised.

Another notable feature of the film is its warts and all portrayal of the Resistance.  One character accuses Rachel of valuing Jews more than the Dutch (of course the Jews in question are themselves Dutch), and when they are tricked into thinking she has betrayed them, the first reaction is an antisemitic comment which no one challenges.  Similarly the family sheltering Rachel at the beginning of the film may be taking huge risks, but they still sternly inform her that Jews could have avoided their problems if they’d heeded Christ.

Carice Van Houten depicts Rachel as a charismatic, tough, determined, and very human character.  She never felt, I thought, like a victim, even though she is being hunted by a monstrous regime, and could at any moment be killed or sent to a concentration camp.

In fact it’s clear from the start that Rachel is going to survive.  In an interesting move Verhoeven chose to set the opening scenes in 1950s Israel.  Rachel is working as a primary school teacher at a kibbutz and is recognized by a visitor, Ronnie, from a Dutch tour group.  We hear Ronnie express brief, casual surprise that her friend is Jewish, before eagerly taking her contact details so they can keep in touch.  It’s only later that we learn that Ronnie was the mistress of Franken, the  Nazi who murdered Rachel’s family – with her, as with the other characters, Verhoeven simply presents her contradictions and doesn’t try to rationalise or moralise them in any overt way.

We return to Israel at the film’s conclusion, and now realize that the kibbutz was built with money stolen from the Jews by Franken, and retrieved by Rachel. Rachel is now married with children of her own but, we are warned by the presence of soldiers guarding the kibbutz, will need to continue being tough and determined in order to survive in her new home.

One problem for many is the film’s oddly discordant combination of humour, violence and sex.  (Not surprisingly, it’s been compared with the later Inglorious Basterds.) The New York Times described it as a ‘vulgar romp’Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian described it as ‘crass, vulgar and flatulent’.  His reaction to the film was very different from mine:

Heaven knows, no one expects subtlety from Paul “Showgirls” Verhoeven, but sitting through his cheesy new soft-porn second world war resistance drama is like discovering a particularly humourless episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo on satellite – one with an awful lot of contrived toplessness. The leading lady here manages to remove her clothes as often as the eponymous heroine of the Sun’s notorious George and Lynne cartoon.

I found the film’s tonal uncertainty unsettling but effective.  One thing which struck me is the way the viewer’s emotions aren’t manipulated. As this blogger points out:

Black Book is an extraordinary film, with non-stop action and rarely a breathless moment, but the action frequently operates to distance the viewer emotionally.  Unlike many stories of amazing Jewish survival during the Holocaust (think Europa Europa, Schindler’s List, Fateless), I was not particularly moved by Black Book – entertained, stimulated and frequently enthralled, yes, but no tears welled in my eyes.

In this interesting review of the film this post is picked out as a deeply inadequate response.  Its concerns seem very sincere (and I thought a point made later on about Verhoeven’s use of the word ‘terrorists’ was a fair one) if rather naively expressed.

From the opening moments onward, Stein is portrayed as a seductive, promiscuous diva. The film presents her as having the moral integrity of a tramp with few qualms about who she sleeps with–including a nazi commander–and this plays into the troubling stereotype that Jewish girls are easy. Similarly, Stein’s wealthy family ties play into the stereotype that Jews are rich. Popular culture has enough propaganda to enforce those dangerous generalizations. In fact, nazi propaganda enforced both myths, too. The last thing we need is a film that further plays up harmful stereotypes. Yet, Black Book does so in a forthright, unapologetic way that I couldn’t help but find inappropriate and repulsive.

By contrast I liked the way that Rachel did what she had to in order to survive and didn’t always demonstrate the approved set of responses to the utterly horrifying situation she found herself in.  She vomits when confronted by the murderer of her parents and brother, but still manages to sing ‘Naughty Lola’ because – she doesn’t have much choice, and she doesn’t want to be a victim:

Like ‘Katie Tippel’ (1975) and ‘Showgirls’, ‘Black Book’ charts the progress of a woman set on survival and independence and willing to use sex. Rachel is more sympathetic, but just as canny, and she takes to her role-playing life with aplomb.