Black Book is a Dutch movie about a Jewish woman (Rachel, alias Ellis) struggling to survive in the Netherlands in 1944 and 1945 as World War II winds down. It opens with her in Israel in the 1950s, and then the story is told in flashbacks, so we know she did ultimately survive.
But not easily, certainly. We first see her living secretly with a Dutch family grudgingly doing what they see as their Christian duty to assist an erring soul who needs to be brought to Christ. After her hiding place is destroyed, it looks like she’ll have a chance to escape with her family to territory already recaptured by the Allies, but that goes horribly awry. Falling in with the Resistance, she ends up with the assignment of seducing one of the two Gestapo bigwigs calling the shots in the occupied Netherlands, which is about as fraught with peril as you’d expect. In the immediate aftermath of the war, she gets caught up in the sometimes violent chaos of accusations and counter-accusations of who did what and who was on what side, which again look for a time like they will have lethal consequences for her.
In reading a little about this movie beforehand, I saw a couple of mentions of it being, in some sense, based on a true story. But then I watched it, and so much of it seems unlikely that I did considerably more reading about this film after the fact.
Evidently it’s not really based on one specific story, but pieces together numerous elements based on different true stories, different actual incidents from the war, augmented by plenty of purely fictional embellishment. But at least some of the far-fetched stuff is among the material taken indirectly from real life.
There are certainly things to criticize about this movie, but I have to say I was pretty much into this from start to finish. It would be in the top 25% of movies I’ve written about so far in terms of holding my interest, but really that vastly understates it. This is an almost two and a half hour subtitled movie. You’d be hard pressed to find many if any other subtitled movies of over two hours that would be in that top 25%.
I don’t mean top 25% in quality. There are plenty of foreign films like The Death of Mr. Lazarescu or Army of Shadows (also about the Resistance) that I recognize deserve to be in the top 25% in quality. That’s not unusual for a long, foreign film. If anything, it’s to be expected. But to be in the top 25% purely in terms of watchability, in terms of my being engrossed throughout, in terms of my not having to force myself to stick with the film through the slow parts, that’s really impressive for a long, foreign film.
Black Book is a movie that there’s a realistic chance a person who has an aversion to subtitled foreign films would find entertaining and worthwhile.
So it’s exciting and gripping, but there are indeed elements that strain credulity.
One such incident that seems especially unlikely on the surface turns out to be one of the ones based on actual events. After the Germans surrender and the Allies take over the area, the Germans insist that the Allies turn over a certain German prisoner that they (the Germans) have passed a death sentence on, on the grounds that it’s an internal German military affair. The Allies do so, and the man is executed.
In real life—I discovered in my post-movie reading—the Allies other than the Soviets made a conscious decision to leave the German military intact, so as to keep their options open. The idea was that they might want the Germans (after Hitler and the Nazi regime are gone of course) to join them in an immediate war against the Soviets to drive them out of Eastern Europe, and for that they’d want the German military to remain as cohesive a fighting force as possible.
So since they were no longer at war with Germany, they treated the German military as one might expect they would treat a neutral army or the army of a potential ally. Part of this was indeed not interfering with internal German disciplinary matters. If anything they wanted the Germans to act against desertion and corruption and such within their ranks, as they hoped to keep them a viable fighting force to pit against the Soviets.
There are at least two known cases of Allied forces turning over German soldiers to the Germans to be executed in that immediate postwar period.
Whether it could have happened in the way it did in the movie, with as significant a personage as it did in the movie, maybe not. But at least things vaguely like that happened in real life.
As I watched the movie, I struggled a bit with how Rachel/Ellis herself seemed insufficiently traumatized by all she was going through. A character comments to her early that in these times she needs to learn not to be so trusting, but you can make a case she never really does learn that.
Not that she’s ditzy or stupid or anything like that, but she’s surprisingly open, surprisingly able to see the best in people, surprisingly able to get close to people.
She trusts and is grateful to the people who purport to want to help her and her family escape. She bonds with members of the Resistance. She appreciates how the Nazi she’s sent to seduce comes across as a decent human being in some ways, and she starts to develop feelings for him. Her collaborationist co-worker who parties hard with Nazis in an amoral, pragmatic, self-interested way, becomes a gal pal to connect with.
Yes, she’s shown on one occasion puking when she sees a Nazi she recognizes as one who gunned down members of her family, but that’s the exception. Mostly she doesn’t come across as scared, bitter, distrustful, angry. She hasn’t had human emotions crushed out of her as she’s gone into survival mode.
But maybe that’s just meant to be a reflection of what kind of person she is. Maybe she’s of a personality type that psychologically she needs to hope and trust to survive, she needs to find a person or people to believe in and open up to the way other people need to believe in unlikely religious hypotheses.
I don’t know how common or how plausible it is that a person would respond to such horrible trauma the way she does. Maybe it can happen. (Though I still don’t know that I can buy the whole thing about her feeling all romantic toward the Gestapo leader.)
Maybe what I found most interesting about the movie, what most kept me engaged, is the way it dealt with a part of the war so rarely addressed, and it did so in a way that showed what an intriguingly morally ambiguous time that was.
For the whole part of the war covered in the movie, there’s not a lot of suspense any more about who’s going to win. The Allies have already landed in Europe, and the Soviets are routing the Germans in the East. The outcome is settled; all that’s left to be determined are the details.
But during that time, of course, soldiers are still killing each other, Jews are still being hauled off to death camps, Nazi occupation governments are still running the areas they remain in control of. It’s not like everything stops. On one level it’s all as pointless as the kneel down plays at the end of a football game, but people are still doing what they’re doing.
Yet, these actions are different because the context is different. Germans are having to make decisions with one eye on the fact that they’re likely to be judged by the “victors” shortly. People who are about to lose power are thinking in terms of what they want to do that they might never again have a chance to do. Certain opportunities for corruption are closing forever, while other very new ones are opening.
There’s lots of wheeling and dealing going on amidst the uncertainty and instability. And the movie portrays both sides as being very flawed.
In fact one of the things I would expect to bother people the most about this film is the paucity of heroes, the almost moral equivalence between the Nazis and their enemies. You learn that anyone, including Dutch who seem to be friendly toward the Jews, members of the Resistance, members of the Allied forces, might be a bad guy, might be sending people to their death because it enables them to line their pockets. And then when the war ends, many people on the Allied side are depicted as willing and happy to form ugly, retaliatory mobs.
That part I actually didn’t have a problem with. If anything I appreciated the film puncturing the myth that one whole side in any war can be good guys. I’m never surprised when people behave like assholes when it’s to their benefit and they can get away with it.
I felt myself balking a bit more at some of the Nazis being portrayed as more human than we’re used to in movies. Not so much low level soldiers; I suppose some of them might still have a conscience, might still have some decency, and just have been caught up in the circumstances. But that whole thing about humanizing the Gestapo leader, I don’t know.
Though to argue the other side, I suppose you could attribute some or all of the human decency on the Nazi side to circumstantial pragmatism rather than to character, in which case it wouldn’t be so implausible.
So it’s not that there’s close to a moral equivalence because Nazis aren’t such bad folks after all. It’s that some Nazis are behaving themselves and wanting to do what will make them liked, because they realize their time is running out and pretty soon their fate will be determined by their present enemies. I’m sure that’s the kind of thing that can make one that much more inclined to treat a prisoner better, to work out humanitarian truces with Resistance leaders, to spare a Jew one discovers, etc. If it still looked like the Nazis were going to be on top indefinitely, I don’t know that the Gestapo guy would be soul searching about his place in the world and whether he needs to seek out a more honorable path.
By the way, bonus points to the film for the way the Nazis all matter-of-factly refer to anyone fighting against them, especially the Resistance and anyone other than conventional military forces, as “terrorists.” Presumably a swipe at a certain country prone to similar language use today….
So, a compelling story set in a morally complex and fascinating time. Solid recommendation for Black Book.