Stuart’s Log: BLACK BOOK (2006)

December 12, 2013 § 1 Comment

“Like every Verhoeven film, it’s very unpleasant: it’s about surviving in a world populated by assholes, and that’s his philosophy.” – Jacques Rivette

When I first read this comment by Jacques Rivette, waxing enthusiastic about the commercially and critically despised camp extravaganza Showgirls, I dismissed it as just another amusing provocation in an interview already packed with inflammatory remarks. This was the legendary but largely solitary French filmmaker unfiltered, goofing around, talking out-of-turn, and his expressed opinions, while valuable as products of one of the greatest minds in cinema, hardly counted as meaningful criticism.

Catching up with Black Book, Paul Verhoeven’s triumphant return to Dutch filmmaking after a twenty-year stint in Hollywood, I realized that Rivette’s comment was shockingly on-point, and goes a long way to getting at what is so unique about this frequently misunderstood filmmaker. Verhoeven’s film career has run the gamut from respected European auteur (his 70s Dutch films were nominated for Oscars and marketed with comparisons to Bergman and Fellini) to Hollywood schlockmeister (Showgirls, as if atonement for his earlier critical successes, swept the Razzie awards of 1995), and he remains something of an anomaly, whose strange artistry is still largely unaccounted for in serious film discourse.

Black Book follows the exploits of a Jewish singer Rachel Rosenthal (Carice Van Houten) as she runs an obstacle course of compounded catastrophe in Nazi-occupied Europe. Before the film has reached the sixty-minute mark she has witnessed the murder of her entire family, joined the Dutch Resistance, and seduced an SS official, all of which only scratches the surface of this brazenly melodramatic and exhaustively contrived film.

Most of Verhoeven’s great American films—Robocop, Total Recall, Showgirls—are about at-first naive individuals making do in a world brimming with corruption and double-cross. Black Book has the most in common with Showgirls in its real-world setting, in its hyper-exaggerated illustration of a cutthroat, male-dominated world, and in its focus on a female innocent’s struggle to survive and adapt therein. Rachel, just like Nomi, braves one crushing disillusionment after another, relying on her wits and commodified sexuality to navigate a formidable hierarchy of institutionalized inhumanity.

Verhoeven is free of cinema’s usual attitudes toward sex as something either shameful or transgressive—rather he treats it as a necessity of survival, standing firmly behind anything his female heroes must rely upon to get ahead. His camera never leers, but rather embraces erotic excess giddily and guilt-free. A threat perhaps to the critical respectability of his movies (and one of the big sticklers for those who question where Verhoeven’s satirical sensibilities end and his exploitative hypocrisy begins), but it goes hand-in-hand with his total commitment to his protagonists, by equal turns victims and accomplices–fleshed out enough to command serious moral and emotional identification even as they continually act on their most basic instincts.

As Verhoeven runs Rachel through a gamut of inflated atrocities and shamelessly melodramatic plot twists, he arrives almost effortlessly at a serious commentary on wartime Holland, how the Dutch Resistance, just as much as the Nazis against which it fought, was prone to vile anti-Semitism and rank opportunism. Rivette’s comment is so piercing because, in attributing to Verhoeven such a crude philosophy, he touches on the fundamental coarseness of his movies even as he illuminates why they are often so powerful. If it’s a crude philosophy, then it forms the basis for one of the more ethically challenging films about Nazism. In a world populated by assholes, morality is stripped of the usual absolutisms and survival is never an unqualified cause for celebration. – Stuart


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