Thursday, April 26, 2007

Critics and Collaborators

The reviews were mixed for Paul Verhoeven’s worthy film Black Book. Not surprising given some of the implications of the film. There are some mysterious twists to this tale of intrigue amongst the Dutch Resistance to their National Socialist occupiers, which will not be revealed here. The film uses a flashback device, opening in a 1956 Israeli kibbutz, so it should not be too much of a spoiler to write that it ends there as well.

As the credits roll, the kibbutz comes under rocket attack as our protagonist walks back to her home after remembering the story which has unfolded on-screen. Throughout the film she rhetorically asks, will this ever end? With his ending Verhoeven makes it clear that it has not ended yet. Israel’s “peace-loving” neighbors, the Egyptians, were only too happy to pick up where the Nazis left off. This obvious point was lost on one audience member, who actually asked us to explain the ending as we walked out of the theater. It’s 1956 in Israel. Suez War with Egypt? Evidently did not ring any bells.

Drawing a clear moral parallel between the Egyptians in 1956 and the National Socialist in the 1940’s probably is not the best way to win over old media film critics. It’s depiction of the duplicity and anti-Semitism within of factions of the resistance probably did not win many friends amongst European critics either. Thematically, it brings to mind Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic Army of Shadows. However, Melville’s film is actually more charitable in its portrayal of collaboration and disloyalty within the French resistance. When Simone Signoret betrays her colleagues, they set out to execute her, despite fully understanding and sympathizing with her motives. It is simply a case of tragedy begetting tragedy. Black Book on the other hand, tends to show motives for collaboration as baser and less ambiguous.

Critics who may have dismissed Black Book for whatever reason missed out on a good film. It was the Dutch entry for best foreign film this year, but did not make the cut with the Academy. Perhaps it is just as well, as it might have drawn votes away from the remarkable Lives of Others, both of which featured German actor Sebastian Koch. Black Book also boasts a score by one-time Art of Noise member Anne Dudley, featuring some swing and sweet band music appropriate to the era. Though not quite at the level of Lives or Army, Black Book is a superior film, that some people seem to have difficulty getting. Wonder why?