Eye For Film >> Movies >> Black Book (2006) Film Review
I’m always deeply suspicious of films that begin with a titlecard announcing that “The following was inspired by a true story,” since the word 'inspired' seems to denote a relationship to truth so distant as to be effectively meaningless. After all, is not every story, no matter how fantastical, in some way inspired by our experiences of real life? Were they not, then an audience would have no point of identification or reference and the story itself would have no resonance or meaning. The only reason to make this kind of deliberately vague declaration, particularly when applied to a period piece which takes place against a specific historical backdrop, is to fraudulently imply a sense of authenticity designed to remind us that “what’s really amazing about all this is that it’s not simply make-believe - it actually happened!”
In addition to this, Black Book is a Paul Verhoeven film. Verhoeven has made some entertaining pictures in his time, but he is fundamentally a purveyor of lurid, exploitative genre pictures with a penchant for a trashy aesthetic. He is not someone I would have thought it was wise to entrust with the sensitive adaptation of a woman’s harrowing, real-life ordeal in Nazi-occupied Holland. After all, in cinematic terms, Verhoeven has never seemed to place much more value on human life than the Nazis did as they raped Europe, and although his films are shot through with a facetious comic-book sensibility, the graphic ultra-violence with which they are punctuated is often realised with a gloating sadism that some critics have argued borders on the fascistic. This isn’t to suggest for a moment that Verhoeven sympathises with either Nazi politics or doctrine, but simply that his adolescent attitude to the excitement of brutality and violence makes him ill-suited to examining its effects and consequences in anything approaching a realistic context.
It predictably transpires that, from the film’s opening scenes onwards, integrity and plausibility are cheerfully jettisoned in the name of making a piece of escapist entertainment firmly in the Hollywood mould, no more convincing in its portrayal of life under the Nazis than, say, the Indiana Jones trilogy. The difference of course being that the latter merely use them as cigarette-holder-chewing antagonists in a boy’s own adventure fantasy, whereas Verhoeven seems to think that by announcing his story’s alleged basis in fact, he endows it with some kind of importance or significance it would otherwise lack.
Black Book is the story of Rachel Steinn, told in flashback as she sits by the sea outside an Israeli Kibbutz sadly casting stones into the water (I kid you not). Having seen her hideout reduced to cereal by a German bomber, she then sees her family wiped out before her eyes by a German ambush as they try to escape. Circumstance brings her into contact with the Dutch resistance and she begins to work with them, infiltrating the Gestapo by agreeing to seduce a powerful SS officer. As the war draws to a close, betrayals within both the Nazi high-command and the resistance see both messily implode as the narrative twists its way towards a conclusion riddled with cross and double-cross.
Maybe Verhoeven’s film is faithful to the facts and maybe it isn’t, but all I can say is that the story is told in such a sloppy, cavalier manner that I had great difficulty believing any of it. The characters behave and speak not as people from the real world but as types recognisable from other movies. This extends beyond the direction and into both the characterisation and casting. Contradiction and complexity are bled from situations and people in the interests of an implausible simplicity and moral clarity that hardly ever exists in life, never mind in the murky world of desperate resistance to invasion, occupation and genocide.
Müntze, for example, the officer with whom Steinn first sleeps and then falls inexplicably in love, takes the role of The Good Nazi. He is charming, handsome, intelligent, even-tempered, trustworthy and sensitive. He is a realist who recognises that the war is lost and he’s a gentle humanitarian with a boyish enthusiasm for his hobby of collecting stamps. He has also taken to risking his life by negotiating a ceasefire (in contravention of an explicit decree from Hitler himself) with members of the resistance. His sadistic colleague and adversary, Franken, on the other hand, is not only a blinkered fascist ideologue, but is also lecherous, dim, fat, ugly, cruel, corrupt, volatile and greedy. When we first meet him, he is overseeing the slaughter of Steinn’s family from the shadows, a cigarette clenched between his smirking teeth. There is no suggestion that Franken possesses any humanity that might complicate his two-dimensionally villainous status in the same way that we are never told what culpability Müntze shares for crimes committed against Jews in Holland either personally or simply in the name of the 3rd Reich in whose ranks he has risen so far. Such complex moral shading would only confuse the reasons for Steinn’s infatuation, which in turn might undermine her own saintly characterisation.
The trade off of this approach is that certain plot developments simply don’t make any sense. For instance, it’s never revealed why, having worked out early on that Steinn is Jewish, Müntze doesn’t turn her in. Instead he takes the life-threatening decision not only to lie in order to protect her, but also to keep her working in an environment where she is privy to extremely sensitive documents and information. That someone as powerful and canny as Müntze should do something that flies so completely in the face of common sense and a basic instinct for self-preservation is clearly irrational, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. However, the reasons for such a decision demand proper investigation and any film-maker seriously interested in the questions of loyalty and identity that his affair with Steinn raises would take the time to examine them. However, Verhoeven appears to be content with the implied explanation that Steinn looks good in stockings and suspenders and has great tits. And who, we are supposed to ask ourselves, wouldn’t risk betrayal and summary liquidation for that?
Equally, we’re never given to understand why Steinn should fall for a high-ranking member of the SS, having seen her family destroyed before her very eyes by that same organisation. As imperfect a film as it was, The Night Porter at least attempted to get to grips with the issues of self-loathing and mutual abasement that can inform this kind of perverse and torrid affair. However, Verhoeven seems to want to keep such a fascinatingly bizarre relationship as simple-minded as everything around it and so we’re asked to believe that Steinn falls for Müntze (with barely a hint of inner turmoil) purely out of respect for his fundamental decency, a trait that feels as if it has been imposed upon the character by the scriptwriters for the sake of convenience anyway. The upshot of this approach is that it becomes increasingly difficult to believe in either the star-crossed lovers or their mutual passion, and consequently to be remotely moved by the injustices that befall them following the end of the war.
Meanwhile, potentially harrowing scenes of slaughter (presumably 'inspired by real events') unfold tastelessly like action sequences in a Stallone film. Shots of dead bodies being stripped and looted are filmed as pruriently as the frequent and largely gratuitous nudity, and the madness, decadence and paranoid chaos of the collapsing regime - so disturbingly captured in Downfall - is instead made to look frivolous, cartoonish and unimportant. The sound design is deafening, the score overbearing and bombastic, and after 145 minutes the plot’s numerous loose ends are explained by someone in a speech which begins with the words “So, let me get this straight…”
The most that can be said of Verhoeven’s film is that despite being by turns absurd, puerile and lazy, it is a competently executed piece of undemanding entertainment for undemanding minds, and although it is never particularly gripping, at nearly two and a half hours, it never really manages to be boring either (which, I suppose, is an achievement of sorts). Besides, the fact that Verhoeven has made a crass and unconvincing war film is hardly a hanging matter (he’s certainly not the first person to have done that). But that he has hijacked a real woman’s ordeal in order to decorate something quite so shallow and stupid with a spurious authenticity seems insulting not only to the tragedy of the events themselves, but, more importantly, to the intelligence of his audience. The introduction to the press notes asserts that “the film was critically well-received where [sic] it was screened at Venice and Toronto”. This, it strikes me, is a statement as meaningless as the one with which Verhoeven opens his film.Reviewed on: 11 Dec 2006
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