The Fog of War Resistance

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Sony Pictures Classics

A scene from the movie Black Book.

Black Book is different from the many other movies about the resistance during World War II. It is sexy where they tend to be romantically chaste and wistful. It is realistic — that is to say it shows the underground to be rife with morally ambiguous behavior instead of universally populated by idealist-martyrs. And in action terms it moves like a runaway train — murders, gun fights, chases, torture sessions, follow one another in dizzying succession — in contrast to most such films, which tend to focus on people standing around looking dour and anxious while moodily plotting to blow up the munitions train. Most significantly, perhaps, it is directed by Paul Verhoeven, who achieved both controversial success (Basic Instinct) and near-universal condemnation (Showgirls) for his hard-driving, raunch-laden American exercises in big-budget sex and violence.

It's hard to take a guy like that seriously and already some critics are calling Black Book "vulgar," mainly, it seems to me, because it so radically subverts genre anticipations. Or, possibly, because it more than fulfills their deeply suspicious expectations of a Verhoeven movie. I think they're wrong. I think they're so transfixed by the movie's reckless pace and its often dim view of the human behavior that they ignore the grim and sobering message it imparts.

The film tells the story of a young Jewish woman named Rachel Steinn (Carice van Houten) whose resistance name is Ellis de Vries. After seeing her family betrayed and butchered as they attempt to flee Holland, she joins the underground and is asked to seduce the local Gestapo Leader (Sebastian Koch, lately of The Lives of Others). Soon she's planting a microphone in his office — and falling authentically in love with this civilized, slightly depressive man, who fastidiously ignores what's going on in the torture chambers beneath his headquarters.

In all fairness, the Gestapo figure seems just a little too good to be true. One suspects that such "good" Germans as there were, probably served quietly in the Quartermaster Corps. On the other hand, we do learn that he has suffered a personal tragedy that may have turned him against noxious belief, and remember that we are seeing him through Ellis's bedazzled eyes and curiously innocent nature. We are always aware that she is not an ideologically driven woman. In van Houten's very brave performance — it's hard to think of an actress who has ever been so naked, literally and metaphorically, so often in pursuit of a characterization — she's all heart, instinct and good nature. Above all, she is calmly acceptant of her circumstances. This is what is, she seems to say, and there is no choice but to make the best of it.

While the turns in her fate or the constant failures of the underground's operations might lead any reasonable person to suspect betrayal, she just keeps forging rather cheerfully on. She treats the steady anti-Semitic mutterings of her colleagues similarly. Well, she seems to say, anti-Semitism has always been an endemic ugliness — why should these guys, however high their ostensible principles, be any different? She clings to her innocence even after the war, when she is accused of collaboration and is first brutally degraded by the Dutch, then almost murdered by a collaborator who is the last person we suspect of leading a double wartime life. The Saturnalia of liberation is more shocking, more bitterly ironic, to Verhoeven than the grim reaping of wartime and he does not blink at showing them. They are, in fact, the most shocking and subversive and hard to accept of all his images. We didn't want to see people we've always thought of as heroes in an anti-heroic light. And now we don't want to see people we think of as noble victims turn into ignoble victimizers.

That's especially so in this context: a "foreign" film that's paced like a Jerry Bruckheimer action spectacle, one that keeps stripping its leading actress and placing her in one sexually charged situation after another, while challenging the essential good guy/bad guy conflict of almost every movie ever made about "the good war." It discomfits us and makes us dubious about the filmmaker's intentions.

But wait a minute. World War II is now over 50 years past. Isn't it possible at last — without diminishing the indelible horror of Nazi Germany's war crimes — to imagine a degree of moral obtuseness among those who fought them? Isn't it also possible that such imagining can be triggered by a hugely enjoyable movie like Black Book — slickly made, sexually provocative, violently stirring, a movie that seems to be looking for nothing more than a good, melodramatic time but somehow transcends that, er, basic impulse. Human nature always includes its opposite, which is inhumanity.

That's not a thought movies especially like to entertain. And its not one we expect to hear from Paul Verhoeven, who was drummed out of Hollywood for committing the town's only unforgivable sin: making controversial, high profile movies whose box office performances were not worth their trouble. In such circumstances it's simple to read Black Book as a possibly desperate attempt at a comeback, a retreat to his native land and to the sort of material with which he first established his international reputation, Soldier of Orange, his 1977 resistance drama of a much more conventional kind. But in his 69th year, Verhoeven is perhaps something of a split personality: a man who cannot unlearn the headlong American way of making movies that he learned comparatively late in life (he was 48 when he came here) and a man who may also have an aging eye angled at his eventual place in cinema history. Black Book is, I think, an attempt to satisfy both these impulses. Such mixtures of motives rarely work in the movies. But this time it does. Verhoeven has something fascinating to say about characters whose motives are as messy as his own, and he does it in a tumbling, heedless, but finally irresistible rush of action and imagery. We are obliged, at least this once, to give the devil his due — and to consider the possibility that he may even be, in this instance, the angel of bleak truthfulness.