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.
She is the Jewish Resistance heroine as showgirl. Before the war, Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) was a cabaret singer. Now, as the main body of the story begins–I’ll leave the frame for later–she is alternately in hiding and on the lam, though still spunky enough to sunbathe on the beach, sing along with her old records (using a carrot to mime her microphone) and kick up her legs flirtatiously when passing the German troops, evidently on the theory that a girl is best concealed in plain sight. With her heart-shaped face, wide-awake eyes, abundant curls and full-lipped overbite, Rachel brings to mind a kewpie doll that’s reached the age of consent. And consent she does, even after she’s been bombed, chased, betrayed to the Nazis, nearly drowned and made witness to the murder of her family, all within twenty minutes of screen time. The horrors to which she has been so quickly subjected serve only as the occasion for the dark-haired fugitive Rachel Stein to be reborn (literally, out of a casket) as a blond member of a Resistance cell, bearing the new name of Ellis de Vries. Among her first significant actions: to lip-lock her smoldering comrade Hans (Thom Hoffman) and then snuggle up to Holland’s conspicuously handsome Gestapo chief, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch).
Back at the hideout, Ellis’s comrades decide she ought to lift Müntze’s interest or something even higher, so she can infiltrate Gestapo headquarters. “How far would you be prepared to go?” asks the Resistance leader, as the camera dollies in on Ellis’s face. Her eyes speak the answer: She is brave, and Müntze really fills out that uniform.
At this point, you might want to stop my account, having guessed that the next part will be a description of breasts and pubic hair. Nobody stopped Verhoeven. In the interest of giving the people what they want, he was prepared, as always, to go as far as an R rating could take him. (So too, I might add, was his lead actress, who is every bit as game as she is polished.) I suppose the standard justifications for this pandering would be that it’s realistic, or that it intensifies your experience of the character’s duplicity. A performer by profession, Rachel has been forced to play a role to survive. Now, as Ellis, she chooses to live an even more dangerous imposture–one that may get her killed by the Gestapo or taint her fatally in her comrades’ eyes.
But I detect no effort in Black Book to suggest such rationalizations, let alone to develop them. Verhoeven simply tosses in your face those old-school entertainment values–anybody in the house want some tits and ass? here they are!–and lets them coexist with the film’s sturdier elements. As a result, you become aware of watching Black Book on two tracks at once, external and internal. You’re diverted (or offended) by the shameless showmanship of the picture while being moved (or troubled, or challenged) by the events within the story.
The most determining of these events, carried out within that first twenty minutes, is the looting of corpses. In a nocturnal scene staged for maximum horror, Verhoeven fixes one idea indelibly in your mind: The murder of Europe’s Jews was a profit-making enterprise. From this point on, the plot of Black Book (written by Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman) is largely an exercise in following the money. Racist ideology motivates almost nobody in the film, except for the Resistance leader. (He’s unwilling to save Jews when he could be rescuing “good Dutchmen.”) Religion motivates only fools (a Resistance fighter who won’t fight) and monsters (a vindictive mob that summons imprisoned collaborators “to church”). Patriotism gets some lip service, and lust appears as a complicating factor; but greed sets off and sustains the intrigue, even for the characters who don’t care about loot. Ellis is one; she’s out solely for self-preservation and revenge. Müntze is another; he just wants whatever private peace he can salvage from a war he knows is lost. Still, these two are at the mercy of despoilers who are carrying out one of history’s most heartless smash-and-grab campaigns.
Since I’m not a scholar, I’ll have to let others debate the justice of this interpretation of the past, and weigh the accuracy of Black Book‘s portrayal of near-universal corruption and compromise. Assuming, though, that Verhoeven’s worldview is at least plausible, I will make three points about Black Book.
First: Verhoeven is expert not just in moving along the action and pumping up the thrills but in sustaining a basic sense of materialism. Objects count for him: a vial of insulin, a bar of chocolate, a microphone, the notebook that gives the film its title. These things repeatedly matter to the story, almost as much as the bank notes and diamonds.
Second: Although it’s inappropriate even for a materialist to mix art and porn, the suspension of norms is also a theme of Black Book. Through most of the story, Ellis feels it’s inappropriate that she can’t grieve for her losses. When she does finally break down, it’s for the most inappropriate cause.
Third: The cynicism of the main flashback story carries over, with outrageous effect, into the movie’s frame. At the beginning and end of Black Book, Ellis is a Rachel once more, and is living on a kibbutz in Israel. The year, significantly, is 1956.
This implied continuation of one war into another is Black Book‘s main contribution to the tradition of revisionist provocation. There will be no peace for Ellis de Vries–and no salvation for Rachel Stein, beyond the sheer animal resilience of being a showgirl.
Because the much praised Zodiac is concerned with the desire to impose order, and with our perpetual failure to do so, you might say it’s something like a Kubrick film, though realized with an empathy that Kubrick disdained. Because of this theme, maybe you’ll also excuse the lateness of my review. Like Zodiac‘s characters, I tried to control circumstances–press screening schedules, deadlines, the kids’ bedtimes–and like them, I screwed up.
Now I can offer only a tardy echo: Zodiac is, as everyone says, an unusually complex and ambitious true-crime story, and (more important) a deeply engaging study of three obsessed men.
Or four, if you count the title character: the serial killer who announced himself to the San Francisco newspapers in 1969, issued a string of communiqués and taunts (some in code), terrorized the region, disappeared, reappeared and has never been conclusively identified. As a crime story, Zodiac is utterly inconclusive (unlike, say, Dirty Harry, which based its plot in part on this case). You don’t get any answers–just the satisfaction of riding along with people who are caught up in this mystery.
They are two professionals and an amateur: police inspector Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), newspaper police reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and editorial cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an overgrown Eagle Scout and puzzle enthusiast known in the newsroom as Retard. Once the initial murders are out of the way–the film deliberately front-loads its violence–Zodiac settles into the story of these men and their intertwined, ever accelerating downward spirals.
Zodiac is a long movie, but one with a steadily quickening pace. The longer you watch the film, the more absorbing it becomes–which is enough to set it apart. What I really like about Zodiac, though, is that it is neither the usual product (a producer-driven marketing ploy dressed up like a movie) nor the usual alternative (the latest auteurist masterpiece by director David Fincher). Zodiac is Fincher’s film, certainly; but it also belongs to screenwriter James Vanderbilt, cinematographer Harris Savides and the entire cast. For a change, the major studios have given us a whole movie. Just like old times.