Thursday, October 11, 2007

DVD: Black Book (Zwartboek)

I confess, I am a Paul Verhoeven fan. Even when he stumbles, I'm still entertained. All right, I've never seen Showgirls, so it's possible, even probable, that he's made at least one totally irredeemable film. That said, I'm still a fan.

I discovered this wholly by accident. I saw Robocop, was surprised how much I enjoyed it, and saw that Verhoeven not only directed Robo but had also directed one of my favorite war films, A Soldier of Orange. I hadn't paid attention to who directed Soldier, and so this all came as a pleasant surprise. From then on, I kept a watchful eye for the next Verhoeven film, carefully avoiding Showgirls (which may or may not suck, though I am given to believe that it sucks pretty damn hard, pun possibly intended). And so I got a little depressed when he left the US in search of his cinematic roots. I heard about his next big thing, but until the DVD I wasn't able to at last catch up with Black Book (Dutch title, Zwartboek).

Black Book tells the tale of Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a Jewish woman hiding in occupied Holland during World War II. Everyone is on pins and needles in anticipation of the coming Allied liberation. Our heroine is no different; she's riding out the last days of the war hiding in a barn. (Her protectors, btw, are Christian. Their brief moments together are quietly touching.)

All of this comes to an end, though, when an Allied B-17 bomber rumbles overhead, pursued by a German fighter. To shed weight and climb to safety, the bomber is dumping its bombs, and one kills Rachel's benefactors and destroys her hiding place. Lucky for her, she'd just started flirting with a man who now takes her to his place to hide. From there she is lured to a boat that is ferrying Jews out of the country. This goes horribly wrong and she winds up with the Dutch resistance. Yes, it happens just about that fast and easy.

But that's all right because now the story really begins. Black Book is a story of betrayal, and not just a single betrayal but a succession of them. The film proceeds in straight, linear fashion, the twists and turns of the plot revealed to the audience as Rachel experiences them. There's very little that happens that we're allowed to see that she isn't. As a result, Verhoeven forces the audience to go through the same travails as our heroine.

She's not particularly admirable. For the most part, she just wants to stay alive. As a result, she's buffeted by demands on all sides, yielding to those which have the best chance of seeing her survive the day. This slowly becomes not enough and the plot evolves from survival to discovering who is the genuine traitor in their midst.

It's all great fun, in that in-your-face-brutal way that Verhoeven has. Verhoeven has never shied from violence, yet I've never found his films exploitive. Black Book is no exception. There is a particularly brutal and nauseating sequence involving Rachel, as degrading as it can be. What Verhoeven does with such material is present it in a direct, matter-of-fact fashion. He doesn't let his camera linger and he avoid slow motion like the plague that it is. The result is that's he's second only to Michael Mann in realistically depicting violence on the big screen.

That said, Black Book is not Verhoeven at his best, but it is certainly a return to form. It's an intense experience and one fans will applaud. Newcomers might be a little put off, but I think they'll find the experience worthwhile. I was happy to see him present a straight story, and never mind the half-baked allegories or analogies that weaken so many of his films. (For instance, did you know that Starship Troopers was satire? Didn't think so.)

I have a few complaints. First, the film opens in 1956 Israel, with Rachel living in a kibbutz. From there the film is a long flashback. I dislike this film technique in general because it shows a lack of faith in a film's actual opening act, and here it destroys any suspense that should have been growing from Rachel's worsening predicament. We already know she survives, so why should we worry when she's caught, tortured, etc.?

Second, Rachel seems a little too willing to go from one step to the next. Hide? Sure. Hide here? Sure. Jump on that boat? Sure. Join the resistance? Hey, it's the thing to do! Seduce and sleep with a Nazi? Oh, heck yes! On and on. Eventually you come to understand that this is her character, but at first it just seems oh ho-hum and convenient. You actually cheer when she finally says, "Hey, enough!"

Last, Verhoeven very deliberately has the Nazis refer to members of the Dutch resistance as "terrorists". This is in stark contrast to history and reality. It's a less than subtle way of making the inane and insane statement that "one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter". It's stupid, morally bankrupt, mentally lazy, and condescending. Every time a Nazi said, "Terrorist!" I was jarred straight out of the film.

I managed to make it through the film by mentally substituting "member of the resistance" whenever a Nazi said "terrorist". By ignoring the backhanded slap at the United States, I enjoyed Black Book as Verhoeven returning to form and style. If he can avoid silly political commentary, which was just as unsubtle as his films usually are, Black Book may mark the return of a great director.

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