WWII Film Review – Black Book (2006)

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Opening in Israel, the film Black Book takes us on a tale of betrayal and underground resistance. Rachel Stein reflects on her time as a Jew in hiding, living quietly in the Netherlands at a pastoral country farm.

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Her refuge is unexpectedly destroyed by a freak accidental bombing and Stein is now propelled into a world of betrayal and sacrifice. Taking on the identity of singer Ellis de Vries, she seeks safe passage out of danger with fellow Jews through the Dutch Biesbosch. There, she and the whole party are ambushed by a German patrol boat who proceed to loot the Jewish corpses as if they knew they were coming. Ellis is the sole survivor and the scene is a terribly sorrowful and moving scene indeed.

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The film then follows Ellis as she joins the resistance and must take on the unenviable task of becoming “intimately connected” to the Nazi occupiers in too many ways to be pleasant. She ends up being bed-partners with SS-hauptsturmführer Ludwig Müntze – stamp collector, widower, and Nazi. He’s not an idiot, however, and figures that Ellis is a Jew –  a fact he seems to wield over her skillfully.

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Unfortunately, the film is pretty raw. This is definitely not a film for children. The director, Paul Verhoeven, seeks to show us the brutal and heartless Nazi profiteers, a noble task to be sure. Unfortunately, he does so with typically a cheap cinematic parlor trick – nudity. He employs the admittedly troubling imagery of bare, dead breasts being stripped of stowed jewelry, which could have been communicated so much more successfully in other ways. In other scenes, we must endure naked and drunk Under-führers who are using the war for sex and treasure as a corrupt summer camp counselor might use his position to sow oats. These scenes are successful at showing real depravity, but they are visually defiling scenes that could be more successfully accomplished with a bit of creative effort. Come on, directors, don’t be so predictable.

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Keep alert for the cheap and amateurish gimmicks that follow the stunted moral compass of the Cannes and Hollywood elites. Sigh…

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Even so, it is clear Ellis has few moral convictions. As a Jew, she was merely one by association. Her behavior, decidedly contrary to the Jewish law, makes one marvel that she bothered to identify as a Jew at all. She had few moral qualms and as such, she should have easily shed the Jewish moniker altogether. But internal ethical inconsistencies never seem to set off a light bulb in Ellis’ mind, so life gets hard for her.

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The film successfully shows the dangers and sick realities of deep cover subversives and spies, and captures they ugliness of war quite well. If it were not for the unnecessary scenes of nudity, I’d give this film very high ratings. Here at this blog, however, where such simple-minded cinematic tricks are viewed as cheap candy for simple-minded school boys, employing gross nudity will always ruin a film’s rating. So avoid this film if you cannot find an timeline-based “skip guide” or a service or device that does it for you (like Clear Play), or watch with discernment and caution if you must. Once again, the all too common let-down is present: good historical film and storytelling ruined by the base side of man.

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