History never ends
BLACK BOOK — Paul Verhoeven, Holland, 2007, 8
Paul Verhoeven’s BLACK BOOK is the kind of movie that gives me and other Christian critics jock itch. The film’s entertainment and artistic value is, I think, unquestionable but, like the turd in the punch bowl, there’s a couple of “couldn’t leave well enough alone” moments of indefensible Christian-bashing.
In many respects, surface trappings of “Holocaust movie” and the Dutch shadow of “Anne Frank” aside, BLACK BOOK is a throwback to the spy thrillers of the 40s and 50s. Set in a moral muddle worthy of Carol Reed’s Vienna where friend and foe shift from moment to moment, BLACK BOOK mostly follows a single protagonist Rachel (Carice van Houten) weaving her way through wartime intrigue between the Dutch Underground and the Nazis, including infiltrating the SD headquarters, at the very end of the war.
But at the level of a boy’s comic-adventure serial, that might have run in Hotspur or Warlord when I was a wee lad, Verhoeven handles the genre mechanics expertly; I deliberately chose that lead image for its iconic, comic-book visual quality. He also keeps believable the shifts in alliances that take place owing to the war’s fortunes and internal tensions among both the Germans and the Dutch. He handles the set pieces, both violence and suspense, with the aplomb and verve you’d expect from the man who made ROBOCOP and Schwarzenegger’s TOTAL RECALL.
Verhoeven also gets a great central performance from van Houten as a Jewish ex-cabaret singer, who’s trying to play Mata Hari (a parallel made in the film). Van Houten won the Skandies¹ without the help I would have given her, a Top 5 slot, had I seen BLACK BOOK in time. Van Houten has it all for the star performance that Rachel requires — she’s smart behind the eyes, classically beautiful, can sing, and, most important of all, has the charisma to hold the screen like a Stanwyck or a more-interior Katharine Hepburn. Van Houten, even when the script dumped a bucket of shit on her, made this movie *hers* in a way that no other actress did in 2007 (i.e., except for Ellen Page in JUNO, all the others among my Top 5 Lead Females were in ensembles).
Sebastian Koch, who played the spied-on writer in THE LIVES OF OTHERS, is quietly excellent in the less-showy role, playing another Good (or maybe Not-So-Bad) German, doing something good from not-so-pure reasons within a structure of sin. Halina Reijn as Ronnie, the other secretary in the SD office, both seems more committed and less committed than Rachel. She also is about the only person Rachel can truly confide in, in the “just us girls” moments in the ladies room, which seems to offer a privileged space for honesty between them, though the two women immediately revert to their survival personae when their Nazi men come-a-knockin’ and don’t wait for it to be answered.
Verhoeven also leavens (the unsympathetic would say “weighs down”) the traditional black-and-white comic-genre storyline with his strange mixture of moralism and perversity. For one thing, survival is mostly incidental and a matter of chance, which often has a sense of humor. Ronnie picks up a Canadian soldier on Liberation Day and is showing it off in her oranje dress in the victory parade as if the previous five years had never happened. For another, Rachel’s being Jewish is mostly incidental, though it obviously amps up the tension. She could be a British spy with hardly a rewrite for the middle hour or so. Her SD lover, played by Koch, easily finds out she’s a Jew and contemptuously ignores it, partly because he’s getting some, and partly because they share a kinship in having had their families wiped out; his in a Hamburg bomb shelter that took a direct hit.
It’s one of many signs of Verhoeven’s perversity that the movie’s most memorable scene is exactly one where the characters acknowledge doing something they perhaps shouldn’t … I will speak vaguely … someone is in the middle of being killed and two other characters sit quietly mere yards away, unconstrained, and say to each other “we should let him go.” “Yes.” They sit quietly until he dies. Another sign is the very end — Rachel is in a kibbutz after the war (not a spoiler … the main war-year story is told in flashback from a framing device set in 1956 Israel, so that “Rachel survived the war” is practically the first thing we’re told). As the classic up-and-out final crane shot fades to black for the last time, we hear jet planes and an air-raid siren and see Israeli soldiers line up in formation and start firing their guns. Survival merely guarantees survival for the next time fortuna’s raging rivers overflow their banks; in politics, there is no eschaton or End of History.
In the same perverse vein, Verhoeven shows as much anti-Semitism among the Dutch Underground than the Germans frankly, and how their belief that Rachel had turned collaborator made the German surrender in Holland a threatening day for her. Speaking of the Dutch Underground, they’re mostly portrayed as an half-baked bunch of semi-competents, the Keijesteen Kops, botching everything they try to do, killing when they shouldn’t, not killing when they should and making a dog’s breakfast out of a jail break-in to rescue prisoners. Verhoeven rhymes this raid with another on the same facility, but done by people who know what they’re doing.
But there’s one member of the underground who feels false, and it tips the hand for where BLACK BOOK becomes difficult for me to take. There is a Christian named Theo among the Underground cell and practically the first words out of his mouth are “we need to give these men,” German soldiers killed in a raid on an Underground safe house, “a proper Christian burial.” He’s reluctant to carry a weapon and argues for “peaceful resolution.” While in the Underground. It’s not that there aren’t many (misguided in my mind) Christians who refuse to bear arms and would say that kind of thing about dead Nazis. But ask yourself: How many of THAT kind of Christian join an underground resistance group (“terrorists,” the Germans call them). Then, during a botched kidnapping of a suspected Dutch collaborator, the intended victim says “damn” or some similar Anglo-Saxon. And Theo goes berserk, shooting him repeatedly, including pumping bullets in his back as he floats in the canal, obviously dead, until the gun stops clicking, and then he squeezes a few more. All for saying “damn.” Again … is this meant to be something half-believable or even quarter- or eighth-believable, even as standing for something or other (what … that can be taken seriously by non-adolescents). Or was Theo’s behavior just a cheap shot at Xtians that Verhoeven couldn’t resist.
Nor is that the only moment in this vein. At the beginning of the movie, Rachel is being harbored by a Christian family in a farmhouse attic, Anne-Frank-style. But in order to get her meal, she has to recite a New Testament verse, like a dog begging for a biscuit. And while she’s eating with the family, the paterfamilias says something close to “if you Jews hadn’t rejected Christ, none of this would be happening.” Now, I am not saying a 1940s Christian saying a line like that would be unbelievable, per se. I’m not a “Christians can do wrong” sort (habitual confession tends to cure one of such illusions) — many Christians of that era held views like that and some accordingly collaborated with the Nazis, passively or enthusiastically. But what I AM saying is scarcely believable is that a Christian family **that would hide a Jew** would hold such views. And what is completely implausible — no ifs ands or buts — is that, even if they held such views, they would also taunt her with them and/or only feed her upon such an ritual.
These are small moments in an excellent movie and all they really did for me was give my eye-rolling muscles an extra-hardcore, high-burn workout. I might even be inclined to overlook them except for who the film’s director is. I can’t believe these are innocent or unintended moments from Jesus Seminar participant Paul Verhoeven, who has on more than one occasion proven that as a theologian, he makes a great film director and anti-Christian bigot. I mean, this is a man who said that he wanted to make a movie about Jesus The Man (i.e., Not Jesus The Christ, or Jesus The God) but said he was warned “not to do the movie in the United States because they might shoot me” and so as a safety precaution, he will write a book instead, though “of course, they might shoot me for even writing the book.” No amount of contempt will suffice, so here is the former Luther at the Movies in reaction to this fatuous Eurochic hate:
Yes, you remember how the perpetrators of the Jesus Seminar scam — where casino-inspired card flips passed for real scholarship — were mowed down, Mob-style. You remember how the streets ran red with blood when The Da Vinci Code sold skatey-eight million copies and then went on to make more than $200 million in fundamentalist America. And, of course, there was that dirty bomb that went off on publication of the Gospel of Thomas and that continues to make several area codes in the Mid-Atlantic states uninhabitable.
Hint, Paul: There actually IS a religion that has led its followers to assassinate a Dutch filmmaker for blasphemy. And it’s not especially fastidious about the media used or the physical location — ask the makers of Danish cartoons and British magic-realist novels. I dare you, double-dog-dare you, to make a film debunking its central doctrines or divine claims or holy book. But you’re nowhere on the track of that religion. Until you do that, you’re nothing but a poseur, taking advantage of … how does one asshole put it … the fact that Rome does not issue fatwas.
¹ Honestly, the win for Van Houten’s performance is why the Skandies are a far better awards/poll than any other. We remember early-year films, don’t discriminate (much) against foreign films, and remember genre pics. Van Houten had no hope with, e.g., AMPAS, because she appeared in a Dutch film that was released in March.