Sod had not yet overgrown the mass graves, nor had the gaping holes been fully plugged in Poland’s cities, when Andrzej Munk decided to show his countrymen that their resistance to Nazi occupation had been an act of drunken slapstick. Do you want to see a provocation? Try Eroica, released in 1957, in which Munk summed up the partisan movement–then fresh in living memory–in the figure of a horny lounge lizard, who served his country by stumbling blindly across enemy lines.
Since Munk had been a partisan himself, and was a Jew, too, he had the right to raise his middle finger if he felt like it. So did Jean-Pierre Melville, and for exactly the same reasons. Though far less sardonic than Munk in his view of the struggle against Nazism, Melville was just as anti-heroic in his great Army of Shadows. Released in 1969, it represented the French Resistance as a kind of gangland operation carried out by grim men bundled in hats and overcoats.
So much for Casablanca. Cinema’s romantic image of the Resistance, formulated while the battles were still raging, became for Munk and Melville a myth that needed debunking. This target shifted, though, for a later generation of filmmakers who had no firsthand experience of the fighting. Younger writer-directors, who grew up wondering about the role their parents played in the war, have tended to question not the character of the Resistance but rather the myth of its popularity. For example: In his insidiously amusing A Self-Made Hero (1996), Jacques Audiard tells a fable about a dreamy and protected young fellow who, like so many Frenchmen, begins his career as a Resistance fighter on May 8, 1945.
Now, half a century after Eroica, we may add Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book to the revisionist list. It’s actually his second entry. Before he became the bad boy of Netherlands film with Spetters and The Fourth Man, and before he became an international bad boy with Basic Instinct, Showgirls and Starship Troopers, Verhoeven made the World War II epic Soldier of Orange (1977), a fiction adapted from the memoirs of a Dutch Resistance leader. Its principal characters are college friends, some of whom resist the Nazis and some of whom collaborate. This is the emphasis you might have expected from a director born in July 1938. Soldier of Orange concentrates on the choices made by his elders.
Beyond that, Soldier of Orange bears the emotional traces of a childhood marked by war, with all its chaos, absurdity and amorality. You might say these qualities are now fully in play in Black Book, the film that returned Verhoeven to the Netherlands after a long absence and brought him back to the subject of World War II. Or, just as plausibly, you might say Verhoeven puts into play a talent lavishly cultivated in Hollywood for ultraviolence and the old in-out.
In Black Book, Verhoeven asks you to consider the degrees of compromise that may lie between resistance and collaboration–to wonder where you would draw the line and on what basis you would draw it. At the same time, he flaunts his willingness to deliver vulgar thrills, making you wonder where tough-minded drama leaves off and prurient interest takes over. Of course, as Verhoeven knows perfectly well, the second question becomes trivial in the context of the first. But then, if there’s no distinction to be made between art and pornography, there also can be no salvation for Black Book‘s protagonist.