Painful en­ter­tain­ment

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

WHEN I ad­mit that I’m an ad­mirer of the Paul Ver­ho­even films Show­girls ( 1995) and Star­ship Troop­ers ( 1997), I tend to get rather pity­ing looks. It’s com­mon knowl­edge, isn’t it, that th­ese films, es­pe­cially the for­mer, are gross, facile en­ter­tain­ment that pan­ders to the low­est com­mon de­nom­i­na­tor?

I’ve al­ways thought they con­sti­tute a scathing cri­tique of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. RoboCop ( 1987) and Ba­sic In­stinct ( 1992) also use genre thrillers ( sci- fi, sexy po­lice pro­ce­dural) to probe Amer­i­can val­ues. In fact, since he started mak­ing films in his na­tive Nether­lands in 1971, Ver­ho­even has been a sub­ver­sive, cheer­fully at­tack­ing re­spectable so­ci­ety and de­mol­ish­ing per­ceived myths.

One of his most in­ter­est­ing films was Sol­dier of Orange ( 1977), in which he took a dis­en­chanted look at the re­sis­tance move­ment in The Nether­lands dur­ing World War II. He re­turns to the theme in an even feistier mood with Black Book , his first Dutch film since 1983.

Ver­ho­even was born in 1938, so he was a young child dur­ing the war, but the ex­pe­ri­ence of Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion must have been vivid. He has said that, at the age of six, he was made to walk past bod­ies of hostages shot in the street by Ger­man sol­diers.

As he did in Sol­dier of Orange , in his new film Ver­ho­even ex­plores the plight of Dutch Jews, es­pe­cially women, dur­ing this bit­ter, con­tested pe­riod, and also the ex­tent to which the re­sis­tance move­ment was in­fil­trated by traitors.

His cen­tral char­ac­ter is Rachel Stein ( played by the mag­nif­i­cent Carice van Houten), who is first seen in 1956 at a kib­butz in Is­rael where she is re­united with Ron­nie ( Halina Reijn), an old friend. An ex­tended flash­back re­turns us to Septem­ber 1944, when Rachel, who for­merly had a ca­reer as a singer, is hid­ing out at a farm, un­der the re­luc­tant pro­tec­tion of a fam­ily of de­vout Chris­tians. Fol­low­ing the first of sev­eral nar­row es­capes from death, Rachel is briefly re­united with her par­ents as the fam­ily at­tempts to es­cape into Al­lied ter­ri­tory; they are be­trayed, but once again Rachel sur­vives.

She changes her name to El­lis de Vries and joins the re­sis­tance, even­tu­ally in­fil­trat­ing Gestapo head­quar­ters and be­com­ing the mistress of Gestapo chief Lud­wig Muntze ( Se­bas­tian Koch). From here on the film, scripted by the di­rec­tor and his reg­u­lar writ­ing part­ner, Ger­ard Soete­man, delves into the ac­tiv­i­ties of the re­sis­tance, its dif­fer­ent fac­tions, the men who be­trayed it and the chaos and con­fu­sion that char­ac­terised the im­me­di­ate post- war pe­riod.

Ver­ho­even de­scribes Black Book as ‘‘ a thriller in­spired by true events’’. He claims most of the char­ac­ters are based on real peo­ple and that the black book of the ti­tle, which al­legedly con­tained the names of traitors and col­lab­o­ra­tors, was the prop­erty of a lawyer based in The Hague. But he also in­sists the film is en­ter­tain­ment, and that’s why it makes some peo­ple so un­com­fort­able.

Re­port­edly the most ex­pen­sive Dutch film made, it has lav­ishly staged ac­tion and a sweep and scope more com­mon to Hol­ly­wood epics than to Euro­pean art films. In­deed, the film is a cross be­tween the two, the work of a di­rec­tor who is as much at home mak­ing Hol­ly­wood epics as he is mak­ing more in­ti­mate dra­mas.

Should we be en­ter­tained by a story about wartime be­trayal, about the strug­gle of Jews to sur­vive in the oc­cu­pied Nether­lands? It’s worth re­mem­ber­ing that films made dur­ing the war — Casablanca , for ex­am­ple — suc­ceeded in be­ing both divert­ing and invit­ing se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion of wartime themes of jus­tice and be­trayal. So to ac­cuse Ver­ho­even of be­ing too en­ter­tain­ing is surely to miss the point.

More prob­lem­atic, for many, is the idea that a Jewish wo­man would fall in love with a Ger­man of­fi­cer, al­beit one who, as de­scribed in the film, is hav­ing be­lated mis­giv­ings about the whole­sale de­struc­tion his coun­try is caus­ing.

De­spite the con­tro­versy, Black Book was out­stand­ingly suc­cess­ful in The Nether­lands, sug­gest­ing au­di­ences were will­ing to re- ex­am­ine the painful events of the past as pre­sented so per­sua­sively by the coun­try’s ar­guably most ac­com­plished di­rec­tor.

* * * UN­FOR­TU­NATELY, there’s noth­ing very en­ter­tain­ing about West , a lugubri­ous look at wasted lives in Syd­ney’s west­ern sub­urbs from wri­ter­di­rec­tor Daniel Krige. That’s not to say it’s not a film of qual­ity, or that it’s in­ac­cu­rate in its dis­mal de­pic­tion of young peo­ple deal­ing in drugs or me­chan­i­cally go­ing through the mo­tions of joy­less sex. And the per­for­mances of the young ac­tors are uni­formly ex­cel­lent.

First among them is Khan Chit­ten­den, so good in Club­land and very fine here as Pete, a loser who lives with his more charis­matic cousin, Jerry ( Nathan Phillips). Jerry is hang­ing out with the se­ri­ously sexy Ch­eryl ( Gil­lian Alexy), and Pete fan­cies her, too.

Ch­eryl is get­ting bored with Jerry be­cause his job in a fast- food restau­rant pre­vents him from spend­ing the evenings with her, and loy­alty seems to be a word miss­ing from her vo­cab­u­lary. Mean­while, Pete, who has been robbed of the pro­ceeds of his drug sales by Ken­wood ( An­thony Hayes), takes a par­tic­u­larly bru­tal re­venge, egged on by Ch­eryl.

The di­a­logue is re­lent­less in its four- let­ter words, and the de­pic­tion of th­ese bored, list­less, vi­o­lent char­ac­ters, while quite pos­si­bly true to life, is so nasty that in­ter­est flags. De­spite the tal­ent that’s gone into this doubt­less wellinten­tioned ex­pose of Aus­tralia’s youth, the end re­sult is deeply de­press­ing.

Love and war: Se­bas­tian Koch and Carice van Houten in a scene from Black Book , a thriller based on true events and be­trayal in Dutch re­sis­tance forces dur­ing World War II

Se­ri­ously sexy: Gil­lian Alexy is ap­peal­ing, but West is de­press­ing

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.