Black Book – Zwartboek (2006) Dutch Resistance

Black Book

I watched Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book aka Zwartboek when it came out in 2006 and absolutely loved it. That was four years before I started this blog. If I wanted to review it, I had to rewatch it. It does happen that a movie we liked a lot doesn’t hold up as well when we watch it again. Unfortunately this was the case here. It’s not a bad movie, it’s very entertaining, but I think a resistance movie must be a bit gritty. Black Book most certainly isn’t gritty, it’s so flashy and glossy, it could be an US production. Sure, you’re going to argue, that it’s logical, after all Verhoeven’s not only the director of Soldier of Orange but also of Starship Troopers and Total Recall. Although his first European movie in 20 years, Black Book has written “Hollywood” all over it (apart from the nudity, that wouldn’t go down so well in a US production).

The movie starts in Israel in 1956 and then rewinds to 1944. The main story is set in the Netherlands. The young Jewish woman Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is in hiding when a bomb falls on the house of the people who hide her. A policeman who works for the Dutch resistance helps her, her family and a lot of other Jews to escape. The boat on which they should be brought to Belgium is attacked by Nazis, and everyone, except Rachel who manages to escape, is killed and all the money and jewellery is stolen. Rachel watches all this and sees the men responsible for this attack from her hideout.

There isn’t much she can do and so she eventually joins the resistance. During one of her missions she meets Nazi officer Muntze (Sebastian Koch). Under the false identity of Ellis de Vries, she seduces him, becomes his mistress and starts to work at the Nazi headquarters. It’s easy for her to seduce Muntze because she is very pretty and used to be a well-known singer, but that doesn’t mean he’s foolish enough not to see through her disguise.

Unfortunately her disguise is also discovered by others and she’s lured into a trap and henceforth suspected by the Resistance to be a double-agent. Things get even more dramatic when Muntze is arrested as she has developed feelings for him. When the Netherlands are finally liberated, Ellis/Rachel gets a chance to uncover who betrayed her.

Black Book is visually appealing, it’s well structured and well-paced and a really entertaining watch, but overall I didn’t find the anti-war message all that pertinent. It seems Verhoeven wanted to show that there were good and bad people on both sides and that the Dutch, like many other European people had ambiguous feelings.

Black Book is entertaining and worth watching but I think Soldier of Orange is far better and when it comes to other Resistance movies I can think of many better ones. These are just a few, which I have all reviewed here as well:

Army of Shadows,

Roma, Città Aperta-Rome Open City,

The Army of Crime,

Flame and Citron,

Max Manus,

Lucy Aubrac

I’m particularly fond of resistance movies, so if anyone has suggestions, I’d be very glad.

Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje (1977) Dutch Resistance

I think it was obooki who first suggested I watch Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange – Soldaat van Oranje in a comment on my Starship Troopers post. I’m certainly glad he did. It’s like a companion movie to one of Verhoeven’s latest movie Black Boek – Black Book. While I thought Black Book was quite good – although not as good as many other resistance movies – I’d say Soldier of Orange is far superior and deserves to be named among the best.

I have a predilection for the WWII sub genre of resistance movies and I’m aiming at watching them all sooner or later. Most of the really good movies I’ve seen were either French or Nordic in the broadest sense (including Germany and the Netherlands).

Soldier of Orange is based on the autobiographical novel of the Dutch resistance leader Erik Hazelhoff Roezelma. It tells the story of six upper-class university students whose lives are profoundly changed by WWII. While one of them becomes a member of the German-Dutch SS, the others are soon joining the resistance.

The two best friends Erik Lanshof (Rutger Hauer) and Guus Lejeune (Jeroen Krabbé) are the two main characters. While Guus is a resistance leader, Erik is at first reluctant to even join but the longer the Nazi occupation lasts, the more he feels the urge to do his bit.

With the help of their friend Robby and his radio they get into contact with the resistance in England. The first mission they organize goes very wrong. One of their friends is captured, tortured and executed. Erik and Guus manage to escape but from now on they must be extra careful. Erik soon notices that he is followed. It’s obvious that someone has betrayed them and they are quite certain to know who it is. It must be one of their British contacts.

The first part of the movie is set in the Netherlands. It shows how Erik changes. While at first this is only an adventure for him which he doesn’t take too seriously, when he discovers he’s followed, he know he has to make a decision. Although his love interest, Robby’s Jewish fiancée, is in the Netherlands, he decides to escape to Britain and operate from there.

The second part is set almost entirely in the UK. Erik and Guus meet the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina, who is in exile in the UK. She wants to get in contact with the Dutch resistance and establish a connection between the resistance in England and those at home.

Shortly after their arrival in the UK, the two men are sent back again to fetch some of the Dutch resistance leaders.

The movie contains all the typical elements one would expect in any resistance movie; adventure, danger, missions, betrayal inside the own ranks, torture, executions. What makes Soldier of Orange especially good is that it rings so true. The characters are quite complex and so is the Dutch society which is depicted. The movie doesn’t idealize anything, it shows how many traitors and collaborators there were among the Dutch. It is one of the Queen’s biggest concern what she will do with those after the war.

The picture was remarkably fresh and from that perspective the movie could be very recent. The colors are intense and crisp, it’s really enjoyable to watch. The music however is dated. I’d say it’s a typical 70s war movie score.

What surprised me was how cheerful and uplifting the tone was. Most resistance movies are slightly depressing. This one is not. Erik and Guus are both rascals, they enjoy women and adventures and while they would be glad if the war was over, the idea to cheat on the Germans amuses them so much that almost feel it’s all worth it. Their cheerfulness is quite infectious.

All this together would have made me like the movie but what makes me love it is Rutger Hauer. Ever since I watched Blade Runner for the first time some years ago, I thought he was an extraordinary and very charismatic actor.

From the point of view of the tone, I’d say Soldier of Orange is at the opposite end of  The Army of Shadows – L’armée des ombres and Flame & Citron (Flammen and Citronen) which are both depressing and full of angst. The Army of Crime and Max Manus occupy the middle ground.

Here are the resistance movies I’ve reviewed so far:

Lucie Aubrac – French

Rome, Open City – Roma, città aperta – Italian

Female Agents- les femmes de l’ombre – French

Tomorrow We Live – British

The Army of Crime – L’armée du crime – French

Winter in Wartime –  Oorlogswinter – Dutch

The Army of Shadows – L’armée du crime – French

Max Manus – Frihedskæmperen Max Manus – co-production Norway/Denmark

Flame & Citron – Flammen and Citronen – co-production Norway/Denmark/Sweden…

I have seen many more pre-blogging and will need to rewatch some of those. Do you have any favourites?

Lucie Aubrac (1997) A True Story of the French Resistance

I’m fascinated by Resistance stories and one of my projects is to watch at least all the French resistance movies that I can find. Claude Berri’s Lucie Aubrac is one of them. Like many other resistance movies it is based on a true story.

Lucie Aubrac is a quiet movie and despite some scenes of great violence, including torture, it has a gentle keynote.

At the beginning of the movie Lucie and her husband live in Lyon. He is in one of the resistance groups and, one afternoon, when they meet in the apartment of one of the members, he and his friends are arrested. If it wasn’t for his wife, who invents a cunning plan, he wouldn’t have been released so easily.

After this incident, they know, they have to move. Lyon isn’t safe anymore. They leave their apartment, get new passports and travel with their child to the South of France.

There are many different resistance cells all over France and Lucie’s husband is in the one that is in direct contact with de Gaulle. This is, of course, dangerous and it doesn’t take long and he is arrested again. Arrested and tortured, like his friends.

And that’s when the story takes off. Lucie’s love for her husband is so strong, she will do everything to get him out and save him from the firing squad. Her plan is amazing and to think that it worked amazes me even more.

This isn’t a very fast paced or dramatic movie, as I already said, it’s rather quiet and gentle. The focus is on the two main characters, Lucie (Carole Bouquet) and Raymond (Daniel Auteuil), their love and courage. The role of the nasty German is played by Heino Ferch.

If you are interested in the story of Lucie Aubrac here is the link to her book Outwitting the Gestapo.

The movie is available with English subtitles but I couldn’t find an English trailer.

Uprising (2001) TV Movie on the Rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943

Uprising is a made for TV movie based on the true account of the rebellion in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. A group of young and very determined Jewish people managed to do what some of the biggest armies weren’t capable of doing, namely fighting back the Nazi’s for a few weeks. It’s not a flawless production, some of the dialogue is  a bit “What-the-Heck”, including the fact that all the actors talk with a heavy accent, but apart from that I found it very interesting. The actors are mostly good and it focuses on a few historical facts I hadn’t known too much about and that I found very interesting. I can only hope it’s accurate. At least it felt so.

The movie begins with the Germans entering Poland and Warsaw and forcing all the Jews to live in the ghetto. They endure famine, illness, daily abuse. The conditions in the ghetto are harrowing. The most controversial role is played by Donald Sutherland as Adam Czerniakow, head of the Jewish council. He thought that by collaborating with the Germans he could save the Jews from being deported. When he realized his error and the daily transports to Treblinka started, he committed suicide.

The rebellion is led by Mordeachai Anielewicz (Hank Azaria), Yitzhak Zuckerman (David Schwimmer),  Kazik Rotem (Stephen Moyer) Tosia Altman (Leelee Sobieski) and Mira Fruchner (Radha Mitchell). The danger to smuggle out information from the ghetto to the Polish side and weapons back in, is shown in great detail. Those people were incredibly courageous. Still they had to fight at lot of internal opposition. The Jewish Council didn’t want to support them as nobody wanted to believe that the camps were extermination camps. When they finally coudln’t doubt this anymore and Czerniakow had committed suicide, more and more people joined them. At first they planned little terror attacks until the Nazi’s seent tanks to erase them.  The Nazi leader Stroop is played by Jon Voight, accompanied by filmmaker Dr.Hippler (Cary Elwes), who was responsible for propaganda. In Goebbel’s name he films The Eternal Jew – Der Ewige Jude, a horrible piece of shit that should help make Germans hate the Jews, as – according to Goebbels  – they were not sufficiently anti-Semitic.

The movie can’t be compared to The Pianist, that’s for sure, but it’s well worth watching and quite informative too. David Schwimmer is surprisingly good in this and so are most of the other actors. Many, I’m sure,  will be delighted to see Stephen Moyer in his pre True Blood days.

It’s often been said that it was hard to understand that the Jews didn’t fight back. This movie shows why they didn’t or couldn’t and what happened when they did and how incredibly difficult it was to organize a rebellion. Most of these young people didn’t make it but some did. Their story is a testimony of how courageous people can be.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine – A Captain’s Honor (1982)

What an excellent movie. Even better than I thought it would be. It’s my second Schoendoerffer and it is as good as the more famous Dien Bien Phu.

L’Honneur d’un Capitaine or A Captain’s Honor is part court-room drama, part infantry combat. It is a thought-provoking look at the way France tried to come to terms with the war in Algeria. It shows one nation’s struggle to face the injustice it committed in the name of peace-keeping.

20 years after his death on the battle field Cpt. Caron is publicly accused of having been a torturer and an assassin. The man who accuses him is a famous professor of sociology who claims having known Caron well enough to be sure of the accusation. The accusation happens during a TV show. Some of the guests leave in outrage. It isn’t only about Caron. It is about what really happened in Algeria. To this day there is a rift in France. On one side are those who claim that the French army has tortured in Algeria and on the other are those who say it didn’t.

Caron’s widow decides to drag the incident to court. She wants justice for her husband and his reputation. Her uncle, a famous lawyer and member of the Parisian high-society, advises against it but finally gives in and even wants to help her in court.

Before they go to court, they try to gather information and this part gives the movie another dimension. It links WWII, Indochina and Algeria.

At 17 the future Cpt Caron was part of the French Resistance, he later served in Indochina and was captured by the Vietminh. This is illustrated by original footage, many of it taken in battle and in the prison camps during the liberation. Those French soldiers looked exactly like the Jews in the German camps.

The drama that unfolds in court is very gripping. We really want to know what happened. Did he, or did he not do it? In order to find out, they have convoked former soldiers and officers who served with or under him. They take apart each and every element of the accusation. The film moves back and forth between the court in the 70s and the battlefield in Algeria in the 50s.

During 18 days Cpt. Caron led a special alpine infantry unit. Three of the men of this unit had been captured by the fellaghas (anti-colonialist rebels). This usually meant torture and slow death at the hands of those rebels. The Cpt. tries everything to get the men back. During these 18 days many unpleasant things happen. Algerian informants are tortured, killed and disappear. After a while it becomes apparent that it isn’t so much about whether it has really happened, everything does indeed point into that direction, but whether Caron gave the order.

It is fascinating how they deconstruct the accusations bit by bit, but every time they have proven that it may be a wrong accusation, another one is brought up.

Without giving away too much, I’d like to describe one scene that I found particularly  amazing. Caron and a few of his men are at the foot of a mountain, while the rest of them are somewhere high up. It is said that during this part of the campaign an Algerian prisoner was killed. And indeed, the soldier in the court room states that Caron gave the order. He was up there with the men. Another officer however testified that, no, he hadn’t given the order. He was standing next to Caron during te whole incident. What had happened? Caron told them to bring the prisoner down (descendez-le in French) but they had understood to take him out (also descendez-le in French). Depending on where a person who says “descendez-le” stands, it could either mean “take him out” or “bring him down”.

This is just an example how the movie works, what type of complexities it shows.

It is a movie that makes you feel very uneasy (if you are French). The thing is, if the Cpt, who was such an exemplary officer, is found guilty, one can assume that torture and murder was a fairly common practice. But if he isn’t found guilty, if he is innocent, this does not automatically mean that these atrocities didn’t happened. This is where the movie excels, it it is excellent at showing the psychology of those who want to believe either the one or the other.

I haven’t found a trailer but attached the scene in which Caron’s widow watches the Indochina footage. There are no subtitles but that doesn’t matter as they only speak a few words in the beginning.

Roma, Città Aperta aka Rome, Open City (1945) Roberto Rossellini’s Neorealist Masterpiece

Rome, Open City, which is part of Roberto Rossellini’s War Trilogy, was first meant to be a documentary. It eventually  became a movie which incorporated a lot of original footage, in part due to the shortage of film. The black and white movie Rome, Open City is one of the most important movies of the Italian Neorealist movement. Apart from a famous cast, including Aldo Fabrizi and the great and talented Anna Magnani in one of her best roles, Rossellini hired many people from the streets to enhance the authentic feel.

It’s a fantastic movie and one of the most important movies of European film making. Furthermore it’s another one on my list Children in War Movies as children play an important role.

Roma, città aperta takes place towards the end off WWII. At the core of the story are the Priest Don Pietro Pellegrini, the widow Pina who is about to get married to Franceso, her little son Marcello and Giorgio Manfredi, the head of the resistance. Because Giorgio almost gets caught he hides and the priest and his friend Francesco try to help him and organize his escape. Francesco has a girlfriend, Marina, but he keeps her at arm’s length knowing very well that he is about to leave. Marina, a vain and weak woman, gives away his hiding place to the Gestapo. On the one hand she wants to take revenge, on the other she is venal. Since the war began she regularly sells her body to all sorts of people, also Germans. When bribed by a sleek German commander and his lesbian assistant she gives in. In exchange she gets drugs.

When the Gestapo arrests Giorgio, Pina runs after him into the street and is shot by the Germans. This is an extremely famous scene, one that stays with you for a long time. What follows Giorgio’s and his friends’ arrest is similar to all the other Resistance movies I have seen. The men are tortured. The priest isn’t tortured but also questioned and when he doesn’t say anything, he is executed. The children of the street, among them Pina’s little son, witness the execution of the beloved gentle priest with horror.

Rome, Open City is gritty and realistic. It shows many details of the life in Rome during WWII. How the people lived in close quarters, how they struggled to provide themselves with food. It also shows how many people were active in the Resistance. All the main characters are part of it, also the priest which is an important detail that wants to show how unified the Italians were in their fight against the Germans.

Rome, Open City is a classic. It has many memorable scenes and dialogues. It also analyses the deeper meaning of war and guilt. The priest states more than once that maybe the war happened for a reason. With a central character being a Catholic priest it’s obvious that the movie is saturated by Catholicism. The church  takes an active part in fighting evil.

This movie is a must for cinephiles and people interested in war movies alike. If you need the subtitles it will be a bit difficult to follow this movie. Although I speak Italian I had to watch with subtitles as they can’t be turned off and noticed that far over 50% of the dialogue, which is very fas,t is missing.

Les femmes de l’ombre aka Female Agents (2008) Women in the Resistance

Not every slick-looking movie with good-looking actresses on the French Resistance is a good movie. Unfortunately not or Les femmes de l’ombre would have been great. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad it’s just not great. If you want an entertaining period drama, this is your movie (ok, there are a some torture scenes that dampen the experience a bit but nice clothes and make-up make up for it). It’s a little bit like Black Book aka Zwartboek but less convincing. The theme would have been interesting and worth dedicating a movie to.

Based on true events, it follows the story of Louise Desfontaine (Sophie Marceau), a sniper with the French Resistance. When things heat up in France she leaves for England and joins the SOE. One day she is contacted by an agent who happens to be her brother Pierre (Julien Boisselier) whom she suspected of being a collaborator. He hires her and four other women to rescue a British spy who has been captured in France by the Germans. The Germans aren’t aware of his identity and think he is German. The women will have to team up, two disguised as nurses, two as exotic dancers (yes, you will see them topless, it’s a French movie) and the fifth will place bombs under German cars.

The five women are a composite group, one is an ex-prostitute (Julie Depardieu), one the ex-girlfriend (Marie Gillain) of the Nazi officer (Moritz Bleibtreu) who tries to hunt them down.

What at first looks like a success soon goes awry. Louise’s brother get’s caught and we all know what that means.

The women go back to Paris on another mission and here things goe definitely very wrong as one gets captured and immediately crumbles under torture (one finger nail off and she spits it all out).

I can really not say why exactly I wasn’t too convinced. Because I have seen the brilliant L’armée du crime aka The Army of Crime before? Or some of the movies on Nordic Resistance that are truly good? I think it is in part due to a slightly off-key cast. Every woman wears heavy make-up which is nice, only Sophie Marceau has to look somewhat stony faced and unattractive (she isn’t successful, she’s too beautiful to look unattractive). I think the producers and directors were aware they would be criticized for their choice of too pretty women and tried to balance this out by not showing a heavily made up Sophie Marceau. She is the sniper after all… Why, if they didn’t want her to look her very best, did they not cast another actress? Because she is a great actress? I always suspected her to be far from accomplished, and she really isn’t too good. I would have preferred her to look as beautiful as she can and not try so hard to look efficient. (I’m thinking of Demi Moore as G.I. Jane who was much more convincing.) I think you can actually be cold-blooded without looking it. And I am not a big fan of Moritz Bleibtreu either. At least not in supposedly serious roles (I have seen him in German movies in which I found him very good). Julien Boisselier and the other four actresses are very good, especially Julie Depardieu and Marie Gillain.

Les femmes de l’ombre aka Female Agents is entertaining, just don’t expect to much of it. If you want the real deal, watch L’armée du crime.