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CARRIE and the SHOWGIRLS Liberate Nazi-Occupied Holland!
Thinking back on seeing Paul Verhoeven's BLACK BOOK (Zwartboek), I was reminded of one of the first routines presented by the great Syd Caesar (in the World War II Coast Guard show, "Tars and Spars," and a subsequent movie version). It was called something like "Smiling Jack and Smiling Jim," based on a popular comic strip, and Caesar made it into a parody of a war propaganda film. Jack and Jim were American fighter pilots, who went through terrible hardships at the hands of their Luftwaffe counterparts. From out of the sun, the German airmen had the advantage, scowling down upon them, their planes making ominous growling noises. But Jack and Jim were always SMILING! [And, of course, Jim lost "The Girl," but died bravely (still smiling), in time honored Hollywood tradition.]
This bizarre affinity was prompted in my mind by the series of horrid experiences Dutch Director Paul Verhoeven (SOLDIER OF ORANGE, CARRIE), and his co-writer Gerard Soetman, put their Jewish heroine, Rachel Steinn (Carice Van Houten), through -- and her general reaction to them. If Job were a woman, she would be Rachel.
But instead, she is "Smiling Jill."
We meet Rachel (emphasis on the first syllable, pronounced gutturally) by accident.
A tour bus pulls up in front of an Israeli kibbutz in 1956, on the eve of the Suez Crisis. Among the passengers are a Canadian couple, an Episcopalian priest and his Dutch wife. The wife wanders around and hears some singing coming from a school. Does she recognize one of the voices? Yes, she does! Why, it sounds like the old friend she knew as Ellis de Vries from the Nazi officers club, at The [occupied] Hague, back in World War II. Sure enough, there is Ellis, but now she is Teacher Rachel (Van Houten), among the kids, singing -- smiling!
They do some catching up. At least, the priest's wife, once known simply as Ronnie (Halina Reijin), is pretty frank. Ronnie's husband is the Canadian soldier with whom she was last seen on the front of a tank by her old friend, in The Hague, during V-E Day celebrations. His having become a priest means she doesn't have to be bothered too much with sex, Ronnie confides, thank goodness.
Rachel just smiles.
After the bus leaves to return to Tel Aviv, Rachel goes down by Lake Kinneret, and begins to think back:
Holland, a morning in the late summer of 1944. The Allies have rolled across France, taken the important Dutch port of Antwerp, and British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery is preparing a "single thrust offensive" designed to liberate Holland and the other low countries, while opening the way to the German industrial Ruhr, ending the War "by Christmas."
Dark haired Rachel Steinn (now with a long-A, for safety's sake) has been sequestered in the country among a Christian family by her parents. She serves the dozen Christians as a maid and cook, forced to recite from the New Testament for her meals, taking with a smile their jibes about the trouble Jews have caused them, criticisms, and general belittlements. We are later surprised to find that, before the War, she was a successful, wealthy cabaret singer in Rotterdam, which might explain some of the farm family's fundamentalist dourness toward her.
["If the Jews had listened to Jesus," the family patriarch tells Rachel over their breakfast oatmeal, "we wouldn't be in the state we're in now."]
One afternoon, she is sunning herself by the canal when a handsome Dutch boy, Rob (Michael Huisman), sails up in a small boat. They are just getting to know each other, when an allied bomber, forced onto the deck by German interceptors, motors all knotted with others in a growling cacophony, climbs over their heads jettisoning its bombs. One nearly blows up the couple; another hits the Christian house, killing everyone inside.
Cut: Rachel and Rob are snuggled in a sleeping bag, under a tent in the ruins. She has been cooking for him, she is smiling, and she wants him to wash the dishes. [This is a recurring pattern.] Suddenly, a tall dark man, wearing a long overcoat and fedora, stalks in on them, shining a lantern. He is van Gein (Peter Blok) from the resistance, he says, and has traced the boyfriend's sail number. [The logic of this sleuthing may be double-dutch.] They are to gather their things, round up friends and family, bring money, and all report to a barge which will carry them to Allied safety in Antwerp the next day.
Rachel and her friend go to the Steinn family notary, Mr. Smaal, in the town. She asks for a portion of her family fortune -- say, 100,000 guilders. He looks in his black book, where he lists such accounts. Can't be done. Well, 50, 000 guilders? Okay.
[According to a disgruntled Dutchman at the IMDb, the sum would have been the equivalent of $30,000 -- $200,000 in today's money.]
Off the couple go to the barge, where Rachel finds her father, mother, and brother whom she has alerted, along with a couple of dozen other Jewish refugees. A number, including mom and dad, are dressed as if they were going to the opera. Van Gein, still in his long coat and hat, sees them all off, and the barge begins to putt-putt up the canal toward Antwerp.
Suddenly, out of the mist grumbles a German patrol boat, loaded with soldiers carrying MP40 9mm submachine guns; rat-a-tat-tat! [This is a recurring theme.] That annihilates Rachel's family and friends.
[Does in young Rob, too, establishing a rule: Do not go to bed with this girl unless your look forward to a shortened life expectancy.]
Rachel herself appears shot in the right forehead and plunges overboard.
Cut: It is night, and through the mist, Rachel [it was only flesh wound, a scratch to her forehead, apparently], neck deep in water among the reeds, is watching at a distance of a hundred feet the Germans on the barge, under the direction of a Gestapo officer, strip the bodies of her family of their money and jewelry.
Close Up (following Rachel's line of sight): The flare of a lighter. The piggish-looking Nazi officer inhales deeply from his cigarette. "Excellent," he says, looking down at his haul of loot.
Cut (underwritten transition here?): Rachel has been taken in by the Resistance, an uneasy group of Communists, nationalists, and fundamentalist Christians. Gerben Kuipers (Derek deLint), their leader, and a new flying squad chief, Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman), a doctor, make the smiling Rachel over into redhead. [This is a recurring theme.]
She is given two initial tasks.
First, though she seemingly has completely forgotten the death of her family and lover, she is the only one who can identify the presumed traitor, van Gein, and so, she accompanies Hans Akkermans' assassination team to find him. The murder is botched, and if not for a curse the wounded van Gein utters, enraging the team's pacifist driver, who empties a borrowed pistol into him, the target might have escaped. [The best single sequence in BLACK BOOK.] But Rachel has performed well, better than some of the pros.
Then, because Field Marshal Montgomery's "single thrust offensive" [Operation Market Garden] has failed, bringing depression and famine upon the Dutch, the Resistance desperately needs new operatives. Rachel joins Akkermans, who has a thing for her, to smuggle weapons, money, etc., by train. When a spot check of identity cards is made, Rachel ducks into a first class carriage, and by chance, interrupts a Gestapo SD chieftain, Major Ludwig Muntze (Sebastian Koch, LIVES OF OTHERS) playing with his stamp collection. They chat, and he gives her cover when the compartment is inspected. She tells him she has some stamps he might like, and with a smile, gets his number.
Suddenly, because of some boys playing in the street, a Resistance truck full of contraband arms crashes. German soldiers appear, find the weapons: rat-a-tat-tat! Following a gun battle, Communist Leader Kuipers' son, among others, is captured. Kuipers, guilt-stricken, breaks discipline when word that the lad is being tortured reaches the group. In a plan to rescue him, he gives Rachel a new identity, that of Ellis de Vries, a Dutch cabaret singer.
[Rachel must dye her hair blond down to her pub*s (shades of BASIC INSTINCT), which she does in the presence of Akkermanns, with a mock grin and a shriek, when the peroxide stings her tender flesh.]
The newly minted Ellis contacts Major Muntz, who happens to run the central headquarters, and brings him a box of postage stamps from the Dutch East Indies to his office. She soon has a job as the Major's personal secretary in the prison complex, and is able to plant bugs there so that the Resistance can monitor Gestapo plans.
Ellis also makes friends with fellow secretary Ronnie (first seen during BLACK BOOK's Israeli opening scene), a flamboyant, red-haired good time girl. It turns out that Ronnie's boss is none other than Captain Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus), and Ellis immediately recognizes him as the officer who supervised the slaughter of her family and boyfriend. Part of the secretaries' duties is to process records of those deaths.
They have an additional duty: organizing parties for the Nazis. They act as hostesses for Major Muntz and Captain Franken. That extends to Ellis sleeping with Muntz and joining a threesome with Ronnie and the entirely naked Franken (one duty performed with a smile, the other after an up-chuck). Ellis's gift for singing sentimental ballads places her in demand with General Kautner (Christian Berkel). She croons -- yes, smilingly -- such favorites as "Ich Bin Die Fesche Lola," "Ja, Das Ist Meine Melodie," and "Ich Tanze Mit Dir In Der Himmel Hinein." [Later, Captain Franken joins her with a creepy embrace and some whistling, popular in the Pre-War).] Elise is so smooth in performance that Ronnie jokingly compares her to Mata Hari: "You are Greta Garbo . . . in the flesh."
[Those Dutch East Indies postage stamps might remind us that the famous World War I spy and dancer, Mata Hari, was really a Dutch woman, Margaretha Zelle, who learned her exotic steps when the wife of a Naval officer in Java. She was portrayed by Greta Garbo in the film MATA HARI (1931).]
The elaborate jail break plan moves forward under Akkermans, Ronnie can't resist tearing off her halter-neck evening dress whenever champagne is poured on her (a symbolic theme?), and Ellis de Vries discovers that she has fallen in love with the Nazi Major Muntz. There is no shortage of explosions or nudity ahead, and the 245 minute film still has more than an hour to go!
But the questions driving BLACK BOOK have yet to emerge: Is there a spy in the midst of the Resistance Group? Who was behind the scheme to turn in escaping Jews for their money and property?
Despite a gorgeous production design by Wilbert van Dorp (THE PILLOW BOOK, Peter Greenaway), and a very brave, mostly competent cast, the problem with BLACK BOOK is that, for a picture which purports to be serious, Karl Lindenlaub's glistening cinematography is wasted on a preposterous comic book tale. Zoom! Bam! Wow!
I felt unmoved by the film's events, as presented, but too embarrassed to laugh.
See DER UNTERGANG for how the look and depth of such a motion picture may be accomplished.
Carice Van Houten is certainly a striking presence, but her portrayal lacks human impact. A young woman who had gone through what Rachel/Ellis had, suffering those personal losses, being rejected at some point by almost every group in the film, would not look or act as she does. And we have not mentioned her being transported in a coffin, or [as an homage to De Palma's CARRIE?] being drenched in the nude by a Bessemer Converter-size cauldron of human feces.
The real fault belongs to Paul Verhoeven, making Holland's most expensive film ever, who changed his main character from a man to a woman. For what reason? Verhoeven is a talented iconoclast, who wants to show us that no group -- not the Germans, certainly, but also not the Dutch, the Jews, the British or the Canadians -- were without guilt at the War's end. But his long standing streak of sadism and misogyny, for its own sake, is just below the surface of these themes in BLACK BOOK, and it ruins his picture.
One problem with BLACK BOOK, which should be an asset, is that the various characters speak Dutch, German, Hebrew and English. They are a Tower of Babel shifting blame from one party to another, but questions have been raised about how well the arguments are presented. Several of the English speakers (British and Canadian officers and soldiers) did not strike me as very convincing, and reading threads on the IMDb, I found some Dutchmen didn't think much of a couple of their countrymen's performances either. [Johnny de Mol (Theo the Pacifist, who hates bad language) seemed singled out more than others.] So, inadvertently and ironically, the finger pointing is reflected, here, too.
There is a great film in this subject, but sadly, BLACK BOOK is not it.
DER UNTERGANG: An impressive drama of factions buckling under the despair of World War II --
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Movie Mood: Action Movie
Viewing Method: Press Screening
Film Completeness: Looked complete to me.
Worst Part of this Film: Script