Black Book (2006)

Paul Verhoeven directs this WWII-era drama. It reminds me a lot of The Lives of Others, perhaps because it costars Sebastian Koch, who is in both films, and because both films deal with the Nazi Stasi.

It was a long film: 2 and a half hours. But there was a lot to be shown. I think what stands out to me most in this film is the depiction of the ravages of war and nationalism/patriotism on humanity. But let’s face it: we are all now used to seeing images of Nazi war crimes being played out for us on the screen. We are no strangers to the firing squad and the looting of Jewish riches by Nazi soldiers.  This is certainly at the heart of the Jewish distaste over any recreation of Holocaust imagery: to try to is, in itself, a blasphemy against the atrocities and suffering. But, Nazi-era films keep coming out. So there must be a Hitler or a budding SS in our midst that someone’s trying to allegorize for our collective subconscious to clue into.

Back to my point about depicting humanity’s deep plunge into the absurdly unethical in times of war: Though we are used to “seeing” the Nazi crimes, in this film we also are treated to what happens when the Nazis leave Holland, and the Dutch are left to punish their own traitors. They are just as brutal and inhumane to those who they feel betrayed Holland and sided with the Nazis. The point is that nationalism is nationalism is nationalism, and none of it works very well if you’re trying to maintain a sense of ethics and compassion for your fellow man.

Luckily, we have a few characters who are able to bridge the gap between all the patriotic-war-games-hoopla, and see each other for who they were: Rachel Stein and Muntze. Love, the great equalizer, made their relationship work, but it was also what ultimately brought them to suffer more. It’s amazing that in this film, Muntze, the highest-ranking Stasi, is able to fall in love with a woman he knows to be Jewish. Even more amazing is that Rachel is able to be honest with him, on quite a few occasions, when the viewer is thinking: don’t tell him that! But she is a symbol of purity and her character is the reason the film works: because without her as a gauge to show the atrocious behavior of the others, we might just have a lot of killing to watch.  And Muntze is the same: who would have expected a compassionate Stasi official?

I think films like these remind us that even in the midst of chaos, we can stay true to ourselves, to reason, to reasonableness, and to ethical behavior.

It is interesting that the film is framed around Rachel’s flashback of the events of her youth because later in life, it must have been in the 60s or so, she is in Israel on a Kibbutz, and as the film ends and she is walking back through the barbed wire with her husband and kids, there is another war going on around her. Clearly we know what war this is: between Jewish Israelis and Arab Palestinians. Clearly we know that we are supposed to make the connection between the Nazis in Holland and the final scene. This can be taken several ways. It’s hard to tell what Verhoeven was getting at. But like most films, we bring to the final meaning what we want to, and sometimes we want to leave it open because there are no simple explanations or solutions. But with a good film, a well made film, a smart film, we can go back through the film to fill in the blanks left open for us in the end.

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