Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book, like so many World War II films before it, plays out as a memory. Its first scenes are a tourist bus arriving in a fortified community in Israel, where a woman taking photos is caught off guard seeing her wartime friend teaching Hebrew at the rural school. “Ellis?” she asks. The teacher, Rachel Stein (Clarice van Houten), hadn’t heard her nom de guerre in years. After the two briefly reconnect and exchange addresses, Rachel sits by a lake, losing herself in the water as those years pour over her: it’s 1944 and she’s hiding in a family’s attic. It feels like a start to a stereotypical war drama meant to grab prizes from major festivals and awards ceremonies. It sets up Verhoeven’s great sleight of hand, as he pulls the rug with every turn, putting the viewer in Rachel’s shoes as she tries to survive in a world of pure disorientation.
Within minutes of being introduced to the Christian family hiding Rachel, they’re killed by an American bomber that recklessly drops its payload to gain altitude against a German fighter; it’s the kind of amoral, un-ideological randomness that guides the film. She quickly has to go further into hiding, but gets tipped off by a man who seems to have ties with the Resistance that there’s a way across the border if she has money. This has her at the door of Mr. Smaal (Dolf de Vries), a lawyer and family friend who’s helped keep safe money and other valuables for Jews in hiding. She gets what she can from Smaal for the crossing, where she’s coincidentally reunited with her family before they’re all killed in a Nazi ambush along the river. She’s once again on her own. This whiplash opening doesn’t even feel like a first act so much as the entirety of some other film, a more conventional one, condensed into a couple of dozen minutes and violently shot apart by the machine gun fire of reality.
From there she embeds with a Resistance cell led by a Dutch nationalist Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint), foregoing her Jewish identity by dying her hair blonde and adopting the name Ellis de Vries. After a time helping in Kuipers’ soup kitchen, he puts her on more covert operations, like aiding in picking up a supply drop from the Allies. While accompanying another of the enigmatic yet charismatic fighters, Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), on a train voyage delivering smuggled supplies, she ducks into a carriage with a Nazi officer to avoid detection from Germans checking everyone’s papers. She doesn’t realize at the time that the man she’s charming, Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), is the Hauptsturmführer in The Hague, leader of the SS’s policing operation in occupied Holland. The Resistance sees an easy window to infiltrate, and goes about having Ellis seduce Müntze to gain access to police headquarters, all while she’s slowly starting to put together the mystery of her first betrayal.
Black Book plays out more like a mystery thriller than a war film, perhaps sharing more DNA with John Sturge’s legendary western by way of daylight-noir Bad Day at Black Rock than it does the kind of moralistic portrayals of WW II done by Hollywood, embodied by the difficult yet nostalgic productions of Steven Spielberg. It’d be unfair to say that Spielberg’s films Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan don’t play into the grayer parts of conflict, they revel in them, but he still lives firmly in the theoretical “post” fascist paradigm of Axis and Allies where—through even more mud and blood than the First World War, a conflict that proved there was no such thing as a “just” war between nations—the seemingly ideological conflict becomes the emphasis, even though at the root of it probably was just nationalism. There’s a moment early on in Black Book where the Resistance fighters raise a glass of gin to the Queen, with all but one standing up. The group derides their communist comrade.
When Rachel’s first in hiding, she recites a newly memorized Bible verse at grace before she’s given her dinner. The head of the household remarks that the Jews would’ve never gotten into this mess if they’d just listened to Jesus in the first place—even the most generous of the Resistance, those on the side of “good,” are outright anti-Semitic. In one of the most provocative twists of the movie, she finds that her best ally is actually the man who, in terms of position, should be her greatest enemy. Müntze quickly suspects Ellis of being Jewish and a spy when she’s seducing him, yet still gives in to her out of loneliness and disillusionment as the fascist dream he fought for is crumbling around him. He’d once held hope until Göring’s promise that no Allied bombs would drop over Germany was proven to be another fatal bit of arrogance, and Müntze’s family was killed by a direct hit in a bomb shelter. Through his alienation and her constant fight for survival, they both find humanity looking back at them from where they least expected it.
What makes Black Book such a stunning, unexpected film is that adherence to relativism in portraying a conflict that has reified its Heroes and Villains narratives before it even began, and continued long after it ended. There are obviously villains in the film, the SS-Obersturmführer Günther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) and the Nazi collaborators are some of the most self-assuredly repugnant characters from Verhoeven’s rogues gallery of disgusting men. The heroes are harder to pin down. Rachel’s an easy character to root for, yet even when her actions are righteous there’s always an ambiguity with the means. Verhoeven, too, has always had a grayish portrayal of the Resistance, with his earlier Dutch-hit Soldier of Orange following a friend group as the war puts them on different paths; interestingly the “hero” played by Rutger Hauer sort of accidentally winds up being the most central figure in the Resistance while also being one of the least convicted of his peers. In Black Book, after the liberation the Dutch soldiers engage in public humiliation rituals and run a torture prison that the Canadian military calls fascistic. For a movie coming out in 2006, it’s impossible not to see the comparison with Abu Ghraib, the prison run by torturous American “liberators.” The film circles around to where it started: a fenced-off village in Israel. The screen slowly fades to black as alarms sound and people run for cover. Rachel hasn’t found peace after the war; in fact, the war seems to have never ended.