Black Book

| April 15, 2007 | 0 Comments

There has been a lot said about what really happened during World War II, and I think it safe to say that it’s proven to be an inexhaustible subject. Even more importantly, it is a subject that requires reverence. Considering Paul Verhoeven’s previous films (i.e.: Sarah Brightman: Diva and Showgirls), Black Book is a serious, emotional endeavor.
Rachel Stein’s story is an especially awful one. Played by Carice van Houten, the Dutch actress and genius of 2001′s Undercover Kitty and 2005′s Knetter, Rachel is a woman no one can get enough of; a real pop star of the underground. Black Book begins with Rachel grudging her circumstances as a fugitive, a Jewish woman in hiding, in a staunchly Christian home that requires her participation in prayer and scripture reciting.
When that home is bombed, Rachel happens to be on a river deck listening to her own records.
A man, claiming to be of the Resistance, finds Rachel that night promising her safe passage to Belgium, safer territory. Rachel and her family are all in the boat when they steer into a trap. All of them are gunned down with the ferocity that only a machine can impose.
Except for Rachel, who was stooping to cry over a fallen lover before diving into the water and escaping Nazi fire.
No stranger to hiding, Rachel changes her name to Ellis de Vries and her dark hair to blond. Being the vivacious flirt that she is, Ellis finds herself infiltrating the enemy as a lover a secretary to a Nazi general, one Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), originally to aid the spying power of the Resistance, than because she falls in love.
Her dangerous position makes for an unprecedented performance. Her fear of death in never stronger than her love for life. While it may seem coincidental that she manages to stay alive for the first half-hour of the film, by the time Müntze has a gun resting on her breast, we are in awe of her cold nonchalance towards self-preservation. We get the impression that she is immortal, an impression than is confirmed near the end of the film when she counters the excessive insulin injection by cramming a bar of chocolate down her throat.
Ellis, undoubtedly, needed to live with a desperation that is hard to fathom. This conclusion was somewhat spoiled by Verhoeven’s choice to open Black Book by showing a future Ellis/Rachel teaching in a Jewish school in Israel. If I have a complaint against this movie, it would be its very beginning and its very end, with its portrayal of future Ellis and its awkward transitions.
Fortunately, Black Book wasn’t completely reliant on the mystery of Ellis’s survival, which is the common focus of World War II memoirs (in which case, they don’t). The twist in Black Book is actually (caution: spoiler alert) who is good and who is evil, for in this case, the masterminds of the Resistance are a corrupted quake doctor and esteemed lawyer and are reveled to be responsible for setting up the trap in the beginning of the film that kills Ellis’s family. The audience begins to discover that Müntze, despite his incriminating position, is the most trust-worthy character Ellis has in her life.
We see the evil that occurred after World War II ended, camps covered by more civilized governments that tortured “Nazi Whores” or anyone affiliated with the German Troops. We see startling, raw accounts of the evil that paraded as the “good side,” the “celebrated side.” We remember that we can never know everything that happened.
What does the Black Book say? Perhaps, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” or “live to the death,” or “It’s not so simple.” I’ve concluded that it says a lot of things, and it says it with brilliant poignancy.

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