Black Book (Zwartboek), as has no doubt been written elsewhere, is something of a departure from the more standard genre of World War II films that has lasted from the 40s up until relatively recently. Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan represent good but nevertheless pretty textbook examples of this trend. While the former film is based on a Holocaust account and the latter takes combat as its focus, the films pit good against evil as one would expect from WWII films: Allies = good; Axis = evil; male hero; etc. Oskar Schindler may have had his faults, but he was really one of the good guys, whereas Ralph Fiennes’ character, sniping Jews from his concentration camp penthouse suite, embodies the worst of the records about Nazi officers. Incidentally, Spielberg’s films and the general lack of genre variety about the Holocaust reflect the nearly global inability to see WWII and especially the Holocaust with anything other than the tried-and-“true,” regurgitated outlook that dominates both popular and academic histories. Alan Alda said in Crimes and Misdemeanors that “comedy equals tragedy plus time,” and while no one here suggests that it’s time to start joking about the Holocaust, its status as untouchable except within prescribed boundaries is remarkable, to say the least. It is actually more acceptable to joke about and offer alternate theories or histories of 9/11 than the Holocaust and all things related, though 9/11 is significantly more recent. Spielberg’s outspoken disdain for Roberto Benigni’s La Vita è Bella (Life Is Beautiful) confirms Spielberg’s highly conservative outlook regarding the Holocaust and his unwillingness to visualize that history through alternate spectacles. Undoubtedly, this reality regarding Holocaust history has a complex and long-established history, one that won’t be studied here. Still, this point is important to acknowledge.
A sort of counter-argument manifestation of this phenomenon might be seen in a recent news item, in which a self-exiled German man, repeatedly accused of Nazi war crimes, was finally deported by the US back to Germany last week after a higher court overturned a ruling by a lower one, which had argued that the man should remain in the US and not face trial on account of his delicate health. While this anecdote doesn’t disprove the seriousness with which the Holocaust is still taken, it illustrates that the atrocities committed are not (yet) ancient history. People who suffered, people who fought, and people who committed horrors are still walking the earth. Perhaps it’s for precisely this dual reality—the temporal distance and the physical closeness—that makes a film like Black Book worth making and, possibly, worthwhile.
A final observational tangent related to Black Book is this: it happens to be in style right now to blur boundaries between pretty much anything: truth and falsehood, good and evil, beauty and ugliness, reality and illusion, etc., etc. This has been an increasingly popular theme in film, particularly, and it probably has more to do with liminality than hybridity. Whereas hybridity is a both-and, liminality connotes the problem when ambiguity surfaces at an in-between level. Black and white are not as interesting as grey; neither-nor but also, kind of, both. This being the case, it’s not surprising that Paul Verhoeven (who blurred lines between, for example, human and machine in Robocop and Total Recall) would make a film like Black Book.
The vision of humanity in Verhoeven’s films isn’t very bright. His most utopian film to date might be Starship Troopers, which may have valorized bravery, but it still really amounts to squashing a lot of giant alien bugs. Black Book begins with a war that is winding down and ends with a war that is just starting up. Following the pre-flashback prelude, the character of Rachel is found in Nazi-occupied Holland about a year before liberation. Following the flashback, we see her back in Israel, where she’s settled following WWII, and the Suez Crisis begins just before the closing credits. In the Netherlands, Rachel, a Jew, is living in hiding with a family who imposes their Christian faith upon Rachel. It is implied that she only eats when she successfully memorizes Bible verses. This early vilifying of religion continues throughout the film with a forceful presence. Verhoeven’s atheistic reaction to Nazi evils is ironic in light of the victims of Nazism. This extreme cynicism in the film rather forgets that faith was one of the few things capable of sustaining not only the Jews but the other victims of the Holocaust. While this might seem a digression, Black Book associates religion with self-righteousness, impotence, and ignorance on numerous occasions.
Perhaps most important in setting apart Black Book from its related genre is the role of the woman as heroin. The traditional WWII film, even in its only slightly nuanced Spielbergian version, rarely heroizes the female above the male. If the woman is given heroic status, it is by virtue of assisting the man. This has entailed the art of feminine seduction, as illustrated in films like Where Eagles Dare and a Sophia Loren WWII film, which I think is called Operation Crossbow. The only differences between those films and Black Book is that Black Book shows the audience a lot more of the seduction and it keeps the woman at the narrative’s center. In theory, this could give her more agency as a person than the more common trope of the heroine only defined by giving her body for the cause. To ensure that Black Book succeeds, the film emphasizes the willingness, the free will with which Rachel operated. Having lost her family (her sense of self through social connection), she maximizes her new role as woman-only, not “daughter” or “sister.” As a mere “woman,” Rachel pits her imposed self against the imposers, only to find that among those imposers are others who, like her, have been reduced to an idea. The Nazi officer she is sent to seduce shows her the gray space between good and evil, where they desire to make a home. The postwar chaos, replete with atrocities of the Allies, reveals a world in which the two characters are again unwelcome and, worse, marked for the crimes that let them survive the previous regime. Rachel’s fate in the postwar prisoner camp is punishment – punishment very distinctly tailored to her as a woman – for surviving in the only way (as the film has it) that a woman can survive. Herein again is the aforementioned cynicism. Aside from these concerns, however, Black Book ably defeats much of its own cynicism through free will; determination over determinism.