A List, Who's Naughty and Nice
Officially entered for a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar, and closing night feature at Lincoln Center’s eighth Film Comments Selects series, Black Book/Zwartboek is Paul Verhoeven’s return to working in his homeland Holland after two decades of Californian commercial success in spite of Showgirls, sci-fi and sex shockers, kinetic visuals and uneven critical opinion.
It marks, as well, a revisiting of the World War II Resistance of Soldier of Orange, his art house hit that showcased Rutger Hauer. “Inspired by true events . . . absolutely,” fusing real and fictional characters and necessitating research in seven-to-eight hundred archived and private documents and pictures, the new film is, according to the director/co-scriptwriter, “a correction to the heroic Soldier of Orange . . . a more realistic depiction of history.” Aimed, he says, at a truer grey of mixed motives instead of the usual clear-cut extremes of pure heroism and knavery, it would also cross “art and business . . . in some brilliant way . . . for a film of lasting value and commercial success.”
Perhaps the latter is achieved, though the jury remains out till box office is in, but the result is not cinema art. Featuring a good lead in Carice van Houten, excellent period costuming for the women (men are restricted to uniforms, work clothes or topcoats), and realistic wartime shootings, it holds up an interesting premise for an hour-and-a-half that should have been the full length. But the rest of the film slides into banality and improbability.
Their kingdom has long enjoyed fame as a haven for oddballs and serious outcasts and dissenters like our pre-Plymouth Pilgrims, Iberia’s Sephardim (the family of philosopher Spinoza) and Germany’s Jews (Anne Frank’s), and Hollanders’ hackles may be raised by the revisionist view presented. Though the story takes a turn in an unoriginal war-movie direction, along the way it admirably raises questions about altruism, heroism, nationalism, religious proselytism, thinly submerged anti-Semitism, opportunism, fear and, underlying many of them, garden-variety greed.
Cutting out the flashback-inducing frame would not remove many minutes, but the device is detrimental in its happy-present close and the virtually unnoticeable kibbutz sign to explain the good use made of wealth stolen from duped doomed Jews. Jewish herself, but active and adaptable and, with some luck thrown in, therefore a survivor, once-successful recording artist Rachel Stein (Van Houten) has found refuge with a stern Christian family. Her protectors and their farmhouse annihilated in one of war’s ludicrous chances, the frisky woman is hidden by casual young acquaintance Rob (Michael Huisman), who decides to accompany her on the inland waterway crossing to freedom arranged by a mysterious Van Gein (Peter Blok).
Instructed to carry portable funds in bills and jewels, she secures an advance from close-mouthed attorney W.B. Smaal (Dolf de Vries), who enters the amount in a black notebook alongside other transactions with desperate Jews. Reunited with her parents (Jack Vecht, Jacqueline Blom) and brother Max (Seth Kamphuijs), she is the only survivor when a Nazi patrol boat surprises and kills them and an officer with a recognizable scar oversees stripping the corpses of valuables.
Resilient, unable to cry, she is then sheltered by Resistance leader Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and given fake ID and work as Ellis de Vries at his warehouse, but asks to enlist in his underground group fighting the German occupiers. On a first mission, her quick thinking in sidling up to stamp-collecting Hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch) saves her and accomplice Dr. Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). This feminine ingenuity is the first result of the simple change that broke a twenty-year logjam for Verhoeven and co-writer Gerard Soeteman, who could not imagine how to allow their originally male protagonist to get inside the Nazi infrastructure. When Kuipers’ son Tim (Ronald Armbrust) and two others are captured and tortured for information, the distraught father asks that she wile her way into Müntze’s bed and help the captives.
Dyed Master Race blonde, she does her job, is given a cushy secretarial position with brassy but sympathetic good-time Ronnie (Halina Reijn), and recognizes in the officemate’s oily beau and Müntze’s subordinate and rival, Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), the commanding officer of the boat ambush. Perversely, she and soulful widower Müntze fall for each other, but when a rescue attempt fails, the prisoners and would-be rescuers except for Akkermans are killed and Müntze is arrested for opening secret truce negotiations with the loyal Dutch, Rachel/Ellis is falsely set up as a traitor to the Resistance.
Not necessarily because of the complications, but because the storyline has declined into standard action-movie stuff, the vehicle grows tiresome way before Rachel/Ellis is attacked by vengeful mobs following Liberation, saved by national hero Akkermans, learns the identity of the real traitor, and reports to a bereaved Kuipers to share revenge with him. An encouraging start here is ruined by a long, and routine, finish.
(Released by Sony Classics and rated “R” for some strong violence, graphic nudity, sexuality and language.)