Verhoeven's Holocaust

A melodramatic WWII flick from the director of Showgirls

Movie Guru

by LaRue Cook

Like most films that have a plot centered on the Holocaust, Paul Verhoeven's Black Book is filled with bad Germans. There are the obligatory good ones, though. Then there's your sympathetic Jew followed by members of the Resistance eager to help in the noble cause of toppling the Nazi regime.

The script is mechanicalâ"one of those three-act jobs that come directly out of Robert McKee's Screenwriting 101. Step 1: Take a historical backdrop like the Holocaust and insert a Jewish heroine (here it's a Dutch Jew named Rachel). Step 2: Create conflict (her entire family is killed by the SS while trying to cross over to safety). Step 3: Thicken the plot by having the Jewish lead fall in love with a Nazi officer (Hauptsturmfuhrer Muntze) while attempting to exact revenge as a secretarial spy for the SS.

To be fair, Verhoeven does liven up a tired premise. It's more action-packed thriller than what normally constitutes a movie plugged as an art-house foreign title about the Holocaust. He goes places most critics find a bit crude, and rightly so. When Rachel has a bucket of feces dumped on her half-naked body in an interment camp, you don't really want to watch. At the same time, you nearly laugh out loud when she tells Muntze to just put away his gun and kiss her.

But it's the Verhoeven way and it's no surprise, considering the director's past love affairs with overwrought melodrama ( Showgirls ), moderately priced star vehicles ( Basic Instinct ) and rip-roaring summer blockbusters ( Robocop ). His films aren't for the moviegoer who wants to change the world. Black Book doesn't shed any new light on the intolerance and cruelty that so many Jews underwent during World War II. And since that's what Americans have come to know and expect from films about the Holocaust, everything that isn't dense historical fact seems rather implausible and out of place.

We find Rachel (Carice van Houten) as the film opens living in an Israeli kibbutz as a teacher. It's 1956 and danger doesn't appear imminent, but low and behold a tourist happens upon Rachel and remembers her from the war. Dissolve to 1944 and Rachel is hiding in a farmhouse with a Christian family who makes her recite a Bible verse before they'll give her any food.

But the house is bombed, setting off a whirlwind of events that leads to the death of her family and to her becoming part of the underground Resistance. She changes her name to Ellis, dyes her hair blonde and works her way into the bedroom of Muntze, who's the SS's top man. She still falls for him, though, because he's not your run-of-the-mill Nazi. Muntze (Sebastian Koch, back to ward off socialism as he did in 2006's The Lives of Others ) is actually negotiating with the faction of freedom fighters to stop the killings and wait out the end of the war. Not to mention he collects stamps, and no Hitler-fearing Nazi does that.

(Fair warning: If you have any thoughts of seeing this mediocre film, don't read on, for plot spoilers await you.)

Ellis' allies turn out to have ulterior motives, however, and like any quality spy film good guys become bad and everyone is on his or her own. The SS ousts Muntze for negotiating with the Resistance. Ellis gets branded a traitor after plans fail and she's assumed to be the one on the inside tipping off the Nazis.

As the war comes to an end, Ellis and Muntze are on the run and don't know whom to trust. Even the head of the Resistance and Ellis' family lawyer turn out not to be who they seem.

Although it sounds convoluted, Verhoeven does manage to tie his loose ends quite nicely. Yet he opts to close outside the frame narrative with a shot over the kibbutz as soldiers fire guns and war continues to surround Rachel. It's a foreboding statement about the constancy of war that seems forced, which is a feeling that pervades this film.

There's a push and pull that just isn't natural, a jerky flow of stop and start emotions that's exhausting. The high-intensity scenes appear without warning. One minute you're watching star-crossed lovers gaze into each other's eyes, and then bombs fly out of the sky. Perhaps that's the reality of war. Maybe Verhoeven is trying to show us nothing is as it seems during war and that duality is ever-present (i.e. not all Germans are Nazis and not all the allies were saints). Thing is, it's sort of a moot point since every other film about the Holocaust already made the same assertions. All Verhoeven added was a lot more sex and a few more explosions.

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Spielberg's Holocaust

Arguably the best Hollywood Holocaust film ever produced, Schindler's List (1993) manages to be emotionally gripping without ever seeming heavy-handed. That's especially surprising given the fact that director Steven Spielberg, who won an Academy Award for his work on Schindler's List , has rarely shied away from schmaltz.

The movie is based on the wartime ventures of Oskar Schindler, a Czech businessman who moved to Krakow, Poland in 1939 in hopes of making his fortune by selling inexpensively manufactured metal wares to the resurgent German war machine. In the early going, he employed Jewish dissidents to work in his factory because their labor was cheap; by the end of World War II, his operation had become the means by which hundreds of Jews escaped an almost certain death at Auschwitz, at great personal cost to Schindler himself.

As much a subtle character study as it is a Holocaust movie, the film is the story of how Schindler evolved from a shameless privateer to discover the humanity that lay dormant within his callused soul. Six-foot-four Liam Neeson stands tall in the leading role. His transformation from an imperious philanderer to a man of conscience is accomplished with subtlety rather than soliloquizing; slowly but inevitably, we see the mounting moral uncertainties crack the aloof veneer of his patrician countenance.

Other standout performances come from Ben Kingsley as Itzhak Stern, a steadfast member of the local Jewish Council who becomes Schindler's right-hand man, the angel on his shoulder; and Ralph Fiennes as SS officer Amon Goth, one of the most memorably abhorrent Nazi commandants in modern movie history. It is Fiennes' genius that Goth comes across as the devil in jackboots not through mad histrionics, but because of the casual wantonness with which he indulges his cruelties.

Filmed almost exclusively in moody black and white, the 195-minute Schindler's List is a long and often grim journey, but a rewarding one. The only blatantly manipulative moment is in the present-day epilogueâ"in which the actual survivors from the factory are shown walking in solemn procession past Schindler's grave. But by that point, Schindler's List has driven home its message of hope and redemption in the face of atrocity with such stirring clarity that we not only forgive, but embrace Spielberg's lapse into sentiment. â" Mike Gibson


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