Every artist, whether they are a writer, a musician, a painter, or photographer, has influences. Some broadcast their influences more than others. But we all have them, and different influences work upon us to different degrees. As an aspiring author and storyteller, I do not mind telling you that one influence in particular overrides all others where I am concerned. That influence is the work of the Dutch director named Paul Verhoeven. Verhoeven frequently alludes to things in audio commentaries that have to do with his childhood in The Netherlands during the second World War. One thing he mentions at least once is how the Germans would put the corpses of his countrymen on display in public. Both as a method of controlling local resistance, and to signal to the Allies that the Germans could and would kill Dutchmen if they encountered sufficient trouble. So if one wants to search for an influence upon Paul Verhoeven‘s methodology in terms of storytelling and depicting violence, World War II is the first, last, and possibly only place to look.
A common, and sorely mistaken, theme in reviews of Verhoeven‘s films is that he directed it, ergo it will not be subtle. No offense to the reviewers concerned, but fukk you. The difference between Paul Verhoeven and what Hollywood feels to be acceptable is not subtlety, but rather that Paul knows when to be subtle.
If there is anything that Zwartboek proves about Verhoeven, it is that: he knows when to be subtle. It is one thing to be full of little subtleties and wink at your audience and say “oh look how subtle I am!”. But subtlety is just like swearing, and if you overuse it, it will lose all of its meaning. Not to mention that there is a universe of difference between chaste or infantile and actually being subtle. But I digress. To date, Verhoeven has made two films about the struggles of his countrymen in World War II. Both of them have been voted in various polls conducted in The Netherlands as being among the best films that the country has produced. The first of these, Soldaat Van Oranje, is now thirty-five years old. It is as powerful today as it was in 1977, and shows that some of the biggest battles of the war involved small groups of civilians in which few, if any, bullets were exchanged.
Zwartboek began as a supplemental to Soldaat Van Oranje. For fifteen years, Verhoeven and his usual Dutch screenwriter, Gerard Soeteman, struggled to turn the concept into a finished screenplay. According to Verhoeven, most of the barriers to finishing the screenplay were resolved when they made the central character female. One only wonders exactly what the nature of the plot problems they were having actually were. All kidding aside, however, Zwartboek tells the story of a Dutch Jewish woman who, in a failed attempt to escape from the occupied territories in her homeland, witnesses the brutal slaughter of her family and resolves to fight as part of the resistance. One task she is assigned early on in the proceedings is to seduce a German officer. Said German officer turns out to be one of the few Germans in the film who has a shred of decency, a virtue that gets him into a lot of conflict with his fellow officers throughout the story.
What makes the story interesting, aside from the more or less total absence of American characters from the film, is the extreme shading of each and every character in the story. None of the heroes are a hundred percent good, save for maybe the heroine, and I can only think of a small handful of villains in the film who are out and out evil. But where Zwartboek really excels is in how it uses the different thumbings of its nose at expectations concerning whose side each character is on to illustrate some rarely-discussed points of the war. As the heroine is imprisoned and tortured by countrymen who are understandably angry about how they have suffered at the hands of the Germans, all without trial, I am sure I am not the only one who, whilst watching, had to reflect on the fact that these are supposed to be the “good guys”.
Unusually for a Paul Verhoeven film, the story is entirely told in flashback. The central flashback is bookended by a “present day” in the Israel of 1956. By setting the “present” part of the story in this time, Verhoeven and Soeteman solidify a point of the story that is only spoken by the heroine towards the end. It never really ends. But there is a more subtle element to the ending that I think a lot of viewers miss, and perhaps it is for the best since having a good case of PTSD might be necessary to really grok the point being made. Although the Rachel shown in the 1956 part of the story has a loving husband and beautiful children, no matter how old she gets or how many joyous occasions visit her in her life from that point going forward, part of her will always be stuck in the Hague of 1945. This realisation, more than anything, is what caused this viewer to sniffle and shudder as the ending credits began to roll. Carice Van Houten nails the part of a woman pushed past the limits of tolerance for degradation in pursuit of survival.
Obviously, the subject of World War II is a very personal one to Paul Verhoeven, but the manner in which he approaches the subject is unlike that of pretty much any other director. As I said, the heroine, Rachel, is presented as an outright hero, but with only one or two exceptions, she is the only person in this film this can be said of. And whilst Zwartboek is, like all of Verhoeven‘s Dutch films, relatively bloodless and restrained in terms of violence, the tone of brutality throughout the film is pervasive. In one scene, as Rachel is working undercover to try and help in the rescue of certain resistance fighters, we see her working a mimeograph in the basement of a building in the Hague. At a somewhat lower volume, the screaming of prisoners can be heard. It is a truly haunting scene, one that only gets put out of the mind because the general inhumanity actually increases from that point.
Needless to say, I own the Blu-ray Disc of Zwartboek. Unlike the pig’s breakfast that was the DVD, the luscious photography and powerful attention to detail on the film really shines through. One has to wonder, however, if the DVD was deliberately made as awful as it was.
Nonetheless, if you wish to see an example of why the European film leaves the American equivalent in the dust, then Zwartboek is a film you should check out immediately. If you are totally unacquainted with the awesomeness that is Paul Verhoeven, you should run, not walk, to see it.
And on that note, thank you for reading. I am going to take a little bit of a break from posting with such frequency for now, because various elements are burning me out. But with that in mind, keep watching this space. You just never know when I might tell you something that makes your head spin.
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