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A 'Black Book' of Unlisted Memories

April 19, 2007 By:
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Rachel (Carice van Houten) and Rob (Michiel Hulsman) face World War II terror in "Black Book."
There are some hot Holocaust numbers in the anything-but-little "Black Book," Paul Verhoeven's Dutch treat of a film that he calls on to reassess how much more hollow was Holland's role in helping the Resistance movement than previously recognized.

What would Anne Frank say? Or, for that matter, do? For one, she would need to put her hands over her eyes -- in some cases, for the over-the-top topless scenes more indicative of his haven of nudity "Showgirls" than the serious treatment this Verhoeven venture truly turns out to be.

But Anne Frank, he says in our frank talk, would have been shattered in her shuttered attic to discover the truths.

"She would have been highly amazed," believes the much-honored filmmaker. "She was living, of course, in a secluded situation, but she was ultimately betrayed."

Opening this Friday, "Black Book" is a "yellow pages" of cowardice -- dialing up the memories of those Dutch who ditched moral obligations and turned in Jews during the war.

Has the world gone topsy-turvy turncoat? The tiptoe through the tulips seen here is one trampling over Jews' lives in an effort to collaborate.

Who could collaborate such actions? According to the filmmaker, "all the story lines in 'Black Book' have their basis in true events. Most characters are based on real people."

A "Black Book" of unlisted memories? The auteur of the more black-and-white "Soldiers of Orange" (1979), which soldiered on in its requisite lopsided depiction of the Dutch as unilaterally on the Jews' side, has returned home to Holland to make his first film in six years. It is, in some ways, an effort to make up for what he has considered blindsiding the truth, calling this film "a correction to the heroic 'Soldier of Orange.' "

But, of course, as a good filmmaking soldier, he was only following the orders of the book at that time, the substance of its tale, the direction of its dialogue. Here, Verhoeven takes a different page from history.

According to notes on "Black Book," the filmmaker's basic instinct was to color his work in a gray that was gruesomely realistic, taking any Hollywood sheen off a topic many other auteurs take a shine to. "It used to be conventional wisdom that the Dutch and the Resistance were heroes, and the Germans and their Dutch sympathizers were villains," a vantage veered from by Chris van der Heyden in the 2001 book, Grijs Verleden, which offered "a postmodern look with plenty of alternative interpretations. People were neither heroes nor villains. They could be heroic while behaving like villains and vice versa. Jan Campert's story is a good illustration of that."

An illustration soaked in blood betrayal as Campert, a member of the Resistance, was recently revealed -- years after his coronation as a savior -- to be a soldier complicit in the corruption of Jewish justice.

Verhoeven has veered from his fantasy-laden efforts of the past -- "Total Recall" recalls his talent in all its obvious glory; one of the most imposing and improbable works of art he has offered -- to create what must be considered a breakthrough and break with sci-fi finery.

For those chomping to chastise him for taking on such a serious topic -- one he is well familiar with as a child, having lived during the times -- take note: This is no "Showgirls" of the Shoah. What it is is a showcase of Verhoeven's considerable talents to tackle the difficult and damning side of mankind.

"After the war," he says, "there was the feeling of a need for positive feelings -- there was a joke that it seemed every Dutch person was in the Resistance."

Who could resist the notion of Holland as hero? "That was the perception for a long time."

But in the past 20 or so years, some of that conceit has changed, thanks to more research revealed by "young academics not as prejudiced" to the truth as previously, "looking at statistics and in the archives."

Putting the past on the shelf was not always comfortable for the Dutch, who, says Verhoeven, "slowly realized attitudes during the war were more questionable than previously thought."

Indeed, it is as depicted in "Black Book," filled, page after page, with names and numbers of numbing actions in which noble gestures were negated at times by the bartering and bargain-hunting some Dutch sought as return for their rescue of Jews.

In some cases, lives were exchanged for a fortune; such trades for transit transgress the treasured image of Dutch generosity, twisting the age-old question, "Is it good for the Jews?" to "Is it damaging to the Dutch"?

The Dutch can handle the truth, asserts the director, including its queen, who, aware of the history in which some of her countrymen demanded a king's ransom to save a Jewish life during the war, "went to Israel seven, eight years ago, and apologized for what we as a nation had done."

Robo-copping to a plea for forgiveness by a people plagued by their past? Forgive Verhoeven if he's not alarmed by the impact his film may have on his compatriots. Verhoeven's vision seems to be vindicated. "The reception of the movie in Holland last year was quite positive," he says, albeit "not so with the critics. I am not the critics' darling."

Rather, the director holds dear the way his fellow Dutch dulled their knives for him, saving the scalpels not for the script but for their own sense of sadness in how history had played out. "In some ways," weighs in the director, "they were not unprepared for the vision."

Indeed, he says, some had even been prepared for a "siege hell" mentality: "At the time, some Dutch felt that becoming part of the Third Reich may have been the thing to do. But after Stalingrad in '43 -- in which the Soviets crushed the German 6th Army -- "there was a much stronger resolution to go into the Resistance. It was only when the tide turned that this happened."

That intensified tide was hard to hide from as the Germans became less germane a wartime force to reckon with.

As far as a force to be reckoned with ... Verhoeven's vicissitudes as filmmaker have a language of their own. He admits his American ambitions were ambushed with what he calls "a difficulty with the language," a less than easy grasp of English while still producing an oeuvre of gripping films.

Which is why, he concedes, his sci-fi fantasies got more high-fives from critics and public than those efforts that focused on reality in which language proved more a key player.

"I was forced by my late arrival in the U.S. to express myself in a genre way," stripped of what he would have preferred to do -- "Showgirls" shows up in the conversation as the pole vault he felt forced to make instead of the more vaunted intellectual scripts that intrigued him.

"My work in the U.S. is defined more by the fantasies," fantastic though they are, because "I felt better protected by not being too close to real issues."

Get real is how he re-evaluated his career after an empty experience making "Hollow Man," his last project: "After that, I had a spiritual crisis," recalls Verhoeven. "It forced me into making a move. I felt I could not express myself anymore."

Starship trooper that he is, he left the scene for six years all the time still working on the "Black Book" project, a film that had engulfed his interest -- and that of Gerard Soeteman, who came up with the story and screenplay -- for the past 20 years.

Verhoeven feels on familiar ground; here, language has a homecoming, with a script that's predominantly in Dutch.

If the film occupied his memories for so long, it shared space with recollections of the German occupation, "of seeing the buildings before me blown up by the Germans; to see all that defines you in a certain way."

Paradoxically, certainty eludes him in a different dramatic way, as he confesses that "moral ambiguity interests me," reflected in many of the pages of the "Black Book" book, in which Germans, Jews and Dutch ditch preconceived notions of what is right for the empirical empire they are forced to embrace.

The ending of "Black Book" is bracing; the film -- framed with the heroine remembering her live-or-die daring adventures during the war as she creates a new life on an Israeli kibbutz -- is no glory without the guts.

And it took guts by the Dutch director to divulge a perspective so unholy in Hollywood, where happy endings often happen without risk.

"To portray the ending as paradise would have been a cheat," says Verhoeven of a conclusion that would have made for a Milton meltdown.

And no one should feel cheated by calling on "Black Book." u


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