March 29, 2007
Film director Verhoeven defies Dutch Shoah myth in ‘Black Book’ thriller
"Black Book" is a first-class thriller, pitting the Dutch resistance against the Nazi occupiers in the waning months of World War II, and it holds plenty of unexpected plot twists.
The real surprise, though, is that unlike other depictions of that era, not all the underground fighters are heroic, not all the Germans are evil, and even among the Dutch who opposed the Nazis' anti-Semitism was widespread.
Such a movie rattles our favorite stereotypes and dramatizes some odd statistics. In the land of Anne Frank, proportionally more Jews were deported and killed than in any other country in occupied Europe, while notoriously "anti-Semitic" Poland has more gentiles listed as rescuers of Jews by Yad Vashem than citizens of any other nationality.
The film's central figure is the beautiful Jewish Dutch cabaret singer Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), who joins a resistance cell after seeing her parents gunned down by Wehrmacht soldiers.
She is assigned the task of seducing Ludwig Müntze, the chief of SS intelligence in Amsterdam, portrayed by German actor Sebastian Koch, who also plays the politically torn writer in the Oscar-winning "The Lives of Others." But as the resistance forays fail again and again, the Jewish woman falls under suspicion of betraying her comrades.
The storyline is so ingeniously plotted, and the boundary between good and evil crossed so subtly, that it would be unfair to reveal more details. But preferring ambiguous realities to national fantasies, the gripping movie shows that even in the resistance, strong men and women could break, old political quarrels continued, and some idealistic people could turn in their fellow fighters for money or safety.
During face-to-face interviews, van Houten and director Paul Verhoeven gave their takes on the film and its meaning.
As Stein, actress van Houten goes through the odd metamorphosis of a gentile actress portraying a Jewish woman who pretends of be a non-Jew.
Her first concern, she said, was that "without dark eyes or a big nose, I wouldn't look Jewish enough for the part," but a suggestion that she cover her blue eyes with brown lenses was rejected.
Now 29, van Houten was born well after the war, but she recalled reading "The Diary of Anne Frank" several times in her teens and felt an immediate bond with her. Her grandfather, she also noted, had been in love with a Jewish girl.
Director Verhoeven returned to his native Holland after making his mark in Hollywood with such hits as "Robocop," "Total Recall" and "Basic Instinct."
Earlier, he had come to audiences' attention with the Dutch film, "Soldier of Orange," a more conventionally patriotic resistance story. He described "Black Book" as a "correction" to "Soldier of Orange," that gives "a more realistic depiction of history."
"I wanted to show in an absorbing way what reality was like then. This is a postmodern look, not black and white, but in shades of gray," he said.
The new look includes an unblinkered view of Dutch anti-Semitism. Not just among the villains but among the good guys who opposed the Nazis and gave shelter to Jews.
In one scene, Stein is given refuge on a farm, but is lectured by the family patriarch that "if you Jews had listened to Jesus, you wouldn't be in this situation."
At another point, when members of the resistance cell discuss whether Stein betrayed them, one voices the opinion that "you can never trust a Jew" -- and no one dissents.
Verhoeven, who grew up in Nazi-occupied Holland, said that Dutch society at the time was rife with latent anti-Semitism, but that most of his countrymen did not realize that their Jewish neighbors were being sent to their deaths, not just to perform forced labor.
Much of the anti-Semitism disappeared as the Dutch came to know the full extent of the Holocaust after the war, he said, though even in the 1950s such expressions as "Jew tip," meaning no tip at all, were common.
But statistics cited by Verhoeven about Dutch attitudes during the war are sobering. He estimated that during the German occupation, some 15 percent of the population was pro-Nazi; less than one-tenth of 1 percent actively resisted; and the remaining 85 percent were bystanders.
Just in recent years, some young Dutch historians have confronted their countrymen with such unpleasant truths, and Verhoeven said that "Black Book" was not only a considerable success in The Netherlands, but was chosen to represent the country as its Oscar entry.
The film's dialogue is in Dutch, German and English and, in the opening sequence set in Israel, even in Hebrew.
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