By Sally Campbell
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Review of "Black Book", Director: Paul Verhoeven
Issue 313

Dutch film director Paul Verhoeven has spent the past two decades making a name for himself with trashy Hollywood films such as Basic Instinct and Showgirls, as well as slightly heftier satirical action flicks including Robocop and Starship Troopers.

Black Book, set in the Netherlands at the end of the Second World War, supposedly marks his return to his roots as a serious filmmaker. He and his colleague Gerard Soeteman say they have worked on the script for over 20 years.

The film is flashy and fast-paced, as you would expect from Verhoeven. But he also has an agenda. As he puts it, “It used to be common sense that the Dutch and the Resistance were heroes, and the Germans and their Dutch sympathisers were villains.” Verhoeven prefers to take “a postmodern look with plenty of alternative interpretations. People were neither heroes nor villains.”

It is certainly true that the end of the war was messy, that there were opportunists on both sides. It is also true that people who were associated with the Resistance meted out some nasty punishments after liberation. But at best Verhoeven can’t see the wood from the trees, and at worst he distorts the truth. The story he presents is so tightly focused that the context – the brutalising effects of war, the Nazi occupation – is lost. It becomes impossible to understand the characters’ behaviour.

The film centres on a young Jewish woman, Rachel, who seeks refuge with a Dutch family. The viewer is immediately confronted with the anti-semitism of this average Dutch family – for instance, Rachel has to recite a psalm about Jesus to earn her dinner.

She attempts to escape to the south of Holland, which is already liberated, along with her family and a boat-load of other wealthy Jewish families. They are ambushed and murdered by Nazis. Rachel is the only survivor, and the rest of the film follows her attempts to discover who tipped off the Nazis.

She faces anti-semitism from all quarters along the way. This was a key point that Verhoeven wanted to make – of 140,000 Jews in the Netherlands before 1940, 110,000 were killed. So we see Rachel fighting members of the Resistance who prefer to rescue “Dutchmen” being held by the Gestapo, rather than saving Jews.

This is the point at which things become distasteful. The only character who does not seem to mind that Rachel is Jewish is the local head of the Gestapo, who she falls in love with. So we have the “bad” Nazi (who could have walked straight off the set of the TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo) who steals from wealthy Jews and hides away the loot, and the “good” Nazi who spends most of his time saving lives.

We are given a picture of a Resistance full of opportunists and traitors, who use Rachel for their own means and then turn on her. Things take a turn for the worse after liberation, when the horrific torture and humiliation doled out by the Resistance are far worse than anything we have seen the Nazis do.

Verhoeven probably thinks he has made a serious historical picture, and the film has won many plaudits, but in some ways it is similar to his Hollywood blockbusters – another flashy, good-looking, but empty and cynical tale.

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