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What would you sacrifice for love? For Rachel Stein, a young Jewish woman who goes incognito for the Dutch Resistance movement and ends up falling for a Nazi officer, love trumps the horrors of the past, her religion, and nearly her life.
|In Black Book , Rachel (Carice van Houten, R), a spy for the Dutch resistance, inadvertently falls in love with Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch, L), a Nazi officer. Photo by Jaap Vrenegoor, © 2006 Content Films, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics|
Artfully directed by Paul Verhoeven, Black Book is an intriguing tale of betrayal, vengeance, and love that encapsulates the vast human capacity to endure in the unrelenting quest for self-preservation. The story revolves around the beguiling Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten), a Jewish woman torn between her allegiance to the Resistance fighters who saved her life, her love for Dutch Gestapo Officer Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who spared her despite knowledge of her true identity, and her desire to seek vengeance for her family's tragic demise. Her lover is enmeshed in a moral dilemma of his own. As a high-ranking official, he wrestles with his conflicting loyalties to the Nazi regime and the Jewish woman whom he loves. Rachel and Müntze must each negotiate their inner conflicts within their own worlds, and as their relationship fractures their alliances with the Resistance and the Nazis, respectively, both learn that the only way to resolve their inner conflicts is follow their hearts instead of the groups with which they are aligned.
Set in Holland during the tail end of World War II, Black Book follows Stein, once a nubile and carefree singer, after she is sent into hiding with a gentile family in rural Holland. After her hiding place is destroyed and an escape attempt is mysteriously foiled, Rachel learns she must rely on her wit and keen instincts in order to survive. It is here that her transformation begins--her character illuminating the ways in which extreme circumstances unveil the depths of strength and bravery in the most unlikely of individuals.
Soon after, Rachel is rescued by a leader of the Resistance movement. He takes pity upon her and offers her a Dutch alias, shelter, and steady work. However, she is soon willing to trade her security for a shot at vengeance when called upon to serve as a femme fatale on a mission with members of the old boy's club of Resistance workers. In the process, Rachel connects with Ludwig Müntze, head of the Dutch Gestapo. Their chance meeting proves serendipitous after a botched attempt to transport weapons (during which Resistance fighters are taken captive) begets the need to infiltrate Nazi headquarters. Stein summons her feminine wiles to seduce Müntze and soon finds herself schmoozing with high-ranking Nazi officials and privy to inside information. Ironically, her clandestine efforts to help the Resistance only further entangle her in the Nazi inner circle, where she ends up working for (and sleeping with) the enemy. After a series of suspicious events leads her former comrades to believe she is two-timing both the Nazis and the Resistance, she finds herself torn between doing what is right for her compatriots and what is right for herself. All the while, her affair with Müntze is evolving from political stratagem to personal romance, despite the fact that he's become wise to her game. Her struggle for political justice and personal freedom continues long after liberation day.
|Directed by Paul Verhoeven--best known for exploitative movies like Basic Instinct , Showgirls and Starship Troopers -- Black Book combines the moral ambiguity of foreign film with the explosive action of Hollywood blockbusters. Photo by Jaap Vrenegoor, © 2006 Content Films, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics|
Unlike many war films that use broad strokes to define good and evil in black and white, Verhoeven eloquently manages to illustrate the minutia of human relationships and the subtle hues of morality. Although Rachel initially felt sickened by her tryst with a Nazi, her feelings shift when she recognizes Muntze's personal compassion for the Resistance fighters. When Rachel and Müntze come to understand each other as individuals, not merely as Jew and Nazi, their ulterior motives--be they political or sexual--are replaced with genuine emotions.
How could a woman who risked her life to seek vengeance for Jewish blood spilled by Nazi hands months later choose to put her life on the line for her Nazi lover? In a sense, Rachel's body is the site where political resistance and allegiance to (or rejection of) one's group is negotiated. Is Rachel a woman first, and a Jew second, or vice versa?
Visceral desires and logical judgment are pulled taut by competing alliances within Müntze as well: Is he first a man in love with an intelligent, beautiful woman who happens to be Jewish, or a high-ranking Nazi official who must answer the call of duty at all costs? It is the intersection of conflicting aspects of identity that prove both emotionally searing and intellectually fascinating. Their relationship calls into question how individuals negotiate the varied layers of identity differently within different circumstances--the same layers of individual feelings versus group identity that interfaith couples must contend with today. In the end, the desires of the flesh win out for both protagonists.
In an era defined by visually stunning blockbuster hits and a handful of subversive indie flicks, a hybrid between the two is a cinematic rare breed. Yet Black Book is the offspring of such seemingly incompatible genres: an action-packed thriller seamlessly woven into a historically based, character-driven yarn, with moral fortitude to spare. Through the relationship between Stein and Müntze, Black Book manages to hit the same level of gut-wrenching moral dilemmas and psychological torture as the dramatically intense Sophie's Choice . The pacing and verve of Verhoeven's dynamic cinematic style captures the urgency and critical nature of every decision, every turn, every moment. Perhaps most compelling is the truth (and the importance of the black book) that is shrouded in layers of secrecy until it unravels at the very end.
Black Book is a return to epic cinema; a brillliantly crafted story that appeals equally to the desires of the heart and the mind. It will leave viewers reeling long after the credits roll.