Synopsis: In the darkest days of World War II, Jewish fugitives attempt to escape occupied Holland – only to face a Nazi ambush. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) alone survives the attack and joins the Dutch Resistance to avenge her family. She soon confronts the ultimate test: she must infiltrate German headquarters by tempting Captain Ludwig Myntze (Sebastian Koch). In the heat of passion, he uncovers her duplicity…but keeps her secret. Then Rachel’s espionage reveals that a murderous traitor lurks within Resistance ranks. Unable to fully trust anyone, Rachel navigates a minefield of deception and becomes an enemy to both sides. Epic, passionate, breathtaking, Black Book relates an untold story of World War II where the distinctions between good and evil become blurred by the complexities of human nature.
“My scriptwriter [Gerard Soeteman] and I always felt that people under that kind of pressure are really living an existential life because every decision is extremely important. The worst and the best come out. It is a very illuminating period about what people are willing to do to each other to survive.” – Paul Verhoeven, interviewed in Suicide Girls, April 2, 2007.
Going solely on a friend’s recommendation, having been disillusioned with Paul Verhoeven’s work since ‘Basic Instinct’, I decided to give ‘Zwartboek’ a chance. Quite frankly, I wasn’t especially interested in seeing yet another World War II-related movie, but I figured that Verhoeven has made a few excellent films in the past, and one of them, ‘Soldaat van Oranje’ is quite an excellent WWII picture – so there was a chance that this one might also be quite good.
Indeed, ‘Zwartboek’ is a well-made picture. However, unlike ‘Oranje’, which couldn’t possibly be more European, it feels like a Hollywood production – not just stylistically, but also in tone. In fact, if the actors didn’t mostly speak Dutch and German, or the volume was off, one would likely not notice that it is from the Netherlands. This suggests that Verhoeven learned a trick or two from his years in the U.S.; he certainly knows how to make slick, action-packed, silver-screen entertainment.
One of the things that amused me the most, was just how quickly danger reared its ugly head. One moment, everything is nice and pretty. Then, suddenly, BOOM, a house blows up and everyone scatters. It was pretty wild. The funniest was how the Germans kept popping up everywhere, as though they crawled out of every crack and crevice imaginable. It made me think of the Stormtroopers in the original Star Wars trilogy, who would come out of nowhere to try to capture our heroes, and yet managing to fail in the process.
While it makes for effective divertissement, ‘Zwartboek’ is somewhat predictable – there were very few moments that I didn’t feel I’d seen before, and many times over. Admittedly, this may very well be simply due to the fact that these types of war movies have been done to death; it may be quite difficult to come up with a fresh take on the material. Having said this, it’s also possible that Verhoeven, who co-wrote the script, unintentionally borrowed a few genre clichés along the way.
It is, after all, a story of survival under terrible conditions, and conditions that were similar across Europe and experienced by countless people. So similar stories have pretty much permeated our culture, and it’s likely that there are very few ways to tell such a tale. In all seriousness, what would a person do if they were trying to escape persecution at the hands of an overpowering force? Many would hide, some would fight, and others would give in and/or sell out. Seems pretty straight-forward.
It was not out of the ordinary for women to fraternize with the enemy to survive or even to infiltrate; that happened frequently enough. This twist has been a central part of countless war films, so it was nothing new in ‘Zwartboek’. I think what made it stand out here is that I kept getting the impression that it was just an excuse on the filmmakers’ part to get our heroine (played with exactitude by Carice van Houten) naked or to degrade her; it felt exploitative somehow.
Now, I must admit that the character willingly cedes her body to the cause, to help the rebellion – it’s not as though she were coerced or enslaved. Perhaps the screenwriters intended for her to inspire audiences, perhaps they wanted to spotlight her steely devotion in the face of adversity. But, somehow, I got the vibe that she allowed it because there was no other choice, that the choice was taken from her – after all, no other character was asked for a similar sacrifice, and it’s not like they did a lottery or made a general request for volunteers.
Of course, I may be biased by having seen Verhoeven’s earlier works; I’ve found that he crosses the line into the gratuitous sometimes. Not only that, but I often wonder just how much respect he has for women, because he often portrays them as sex objects in some fashion or other. Granted, he’s very good at disguising it as empowerment, as he did in ‘Basic Instinct’, or in the final act of ‘Showgirls’, but the fact that he would expect women to use sex for power is belittling in and of itself – as though it were the only tool in their toolkit.
It makes me think of those who say that a woman doing porn is empowered, versus those say that they are being exploited. Honestly, I wonder where the line is drawn. When does one cross over from empowerment to exploitation? It’s so difficult to ascertain. One thing for sure, though, is that there was a certain sleaze factor that hovered around sex in this film – and, when combined with that humiliating scene in which our heroine is beaten, stripped and covered in human waste, I can’t help but wonder if there wasn’t some intentional degradation happening here.
At least we know from the start that she will survive. This is not a spoiler, because the first sequence takes place many years later, and we know that she is okay. Anyway, I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but it removed all the tension one might feel when a story’s hero/ine is in jeopardy; the whole time I watched ‘Zwartboek’, I knew she’d survive the danger and indignity and casually wondered how she would escape her current predicament – and waited patiently. Because of this, at no point was I was emotionally-involved.
I can’t help but wonder now if, in announcing so clearly that the character would come out of the war seemingly unscathed, this might have influenced the filmmakers in the way that they (mis)handled her. Whether it was subconscious or not, I can’t help but wonder if this allowed them to drag the poor woman through all sorts of hell, taking her to lower and lower depths until all she had left was her own life. As I mentioned earlier, there seems to be some wilful abuse taking place in ‘Zwartboek’.
But… what was the intention behind it?
Well, despite this, ‘Zwartboek’ is nonetheless enjoyable, and quite entertaining. Sure, it’s convoluted, and it left me emotionally disconnected in many ways, but it’s a big budget war movie done quite well. I prefer more emotionally-resonant films such as ‘Malèna’, but many would find ‘Zwartboek’ quite thrilling. War film enthusiasts in particular (and Lord knows there are plenty of those!), would surely sink their teeth into this one: it’s got plenty of action, plenty of drama, a little sex, a moderate dose of violence, and the good guys win in the end.