Moral relativism at its finest!
Written By: Gerard Soeteman & Paul Verhoeven
Directed By: Paul Verhoeven
Zwartboek is an interesting movie, because it takes on a role not seen in most World War II movies, the fantasy thriller. A good number of critics and movie goers were put off by Zwartboek because of the supposedly non-serious nature of the story. Apparently, it is impossible in any way to tell a story about WWII that isn’t either true, takes everything one hundred percent seriously, paints the Germans as the evilest of the evil, etc.. I happen to disagree and think the time period of WWII is just as fertile for fantastical thrillers as it is for serious looks at the Holocaust. Make no mistake about it, Zwartboek makes sure to place its characters in peril and then have them survive these situations all the while you know these situations would never happen in real life or if they did the people involved would be dead. But, storytelling exists to create drama, to entice the audience and to ensnare you in its web. Zwartboek manages to do that, Paul Verhoeven crafts a well put together thriller full of suspense with healthy doses of real looks at the war as well as a lot of moral relativism.
The moral relativism is what hit me the hardest in Zwartboek. To often those of us from the sides that won the war, as if wars can actually be won, like to think that we are somehow far morally superior to the evil Nazis and miscreant German collaborators. Zwartboek dares to ask if we really are any better than those who we hate so much? Yes, what the Nazis did was reprehensible and they deserved all the repercussions they faced. But, what about the Dutch who the moment the war was over turned on their fellow man and took to beating and abusing other Dutch people who had “aided” the Nazis during the war? Dutch women were paraded through the streets, stripped naked, their heads shaved, beaten, raped and killed. This was done to them because some of them had the audacity to do what it took to survive a time of war, even if all that entailed was bringing coffee to a Nazi officer. Surely for that great war crime those women deserved to be raped and murdered? When you think about the great atrocities performed by the Nazis one can get lost, but what everyone needs to do is to take a step back and think about what the supposedly “good” nations did during the same time period or after the war. I know that I don’t consider any Dutch person who took part in the raping, degradation or murder of Dutch “traitors’ after the war had ceased to be any better than the Nazis. I’m sure this makes me a bad person in the eyes of some people, but I’m okay with that. Zwartboek has been maligned by some people because it is willing to take a hard look at the behavior of the “good” guys in relation to the Nazis, and something tells me Paul Verhoeven is okay with that as well.
There’s no need to go into great detail about the sets or the look of Zwartboek, because like most great WWII films it gets the visuals right and everything looks and is shot gorgeously. The acting does deserve a mention however, because across the board it is tremendous. Carice van Houten is sublime as the lead Rachel Stein/Ellis de Vries. She is vulnerable and strong, she is real. She doesn’t hide behind her sexuality, she uses it to her advantage and then it gets used against her. I hope that we will see more of her as well as more of Sebastian Koch who played Ludwig Müntze. He was just as excellent in Das Leben Der Anderen as the supporting character of Georg Dreyman. He conveys emotion with his eyes and his body language better than any actor currently going. I could keep going down the list, there wasn’t a weak spot in the entire cast of Zwartboek.
Perhaps the ending of Zwartboek is dragged out a bit too much, pushed for just a bit more drama than was needed. Although, I would contend with anyone who tries to pin a happy ending on Zwartboek, just because Rachel lives doesn’t mean it is a happy ending in any way, just ask Müntze. There’s also the typical Verhoeven flare of going a bit too splashtastic with the blood in certain parts and overdoing the sexuality in a few scenes, but not all. Outside of the one sex scene between Ellis and Akkermans the nudity and sex is used wisely, but in that scene it seems over the top and just for the shock factor.
2006 was a great year for foreign, to me at least, movies and it seems that Zwartboek has unfortunately been overlooked next to giants like Das Leben Der Anderen, Volver and El Laberinto Del Fauna. But, do yourself a favor and don’t miss out on Zwartboek if you get a chance to see it. Zwartboek is a war thriller of the highest order and worth a watch for anyone.