World War Two film number 3: Black Book

Black Book

IMBD Summary

In the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during World War II, a Jewish singer infiltrates the regional Gestapo headquarters for the Dutch resistance.

Theatrical trailer

A dense and intense film which offers a unique perspective of the war through the eyes of a Jewish woman whose family are slaughtered before her eyes and who decides to avenge her kin by joining ‘la resistance’. So much happens in this film and so many issues are raised that even as I write the first few lines, I am sure this will be the longest post by far as yet. Don’t be deterred by length, some of the points this film raises are the most interesting to be discussed so far and I would welcome and further discussion on any of them.

The film opens in a Kibbutz in Israel in 1956, the setting for a reconciliation of two young women who knew each other in Holland during the war. One asks the other in disbelief, ‘You are Jewish?’ How can she not know if they knew each other during the war? I wonder. And so the story begins.

It takes us back to September 1944 and into Holland and a young Jewish girl, a former singer, is hiding out with a family who treat her much like a servant. I wonder how such a thing was arranged and how many people lived like that. It’s the tail end of the war and to start with there is a sense of calm and order, playing out time until the ‘Tommy’s will be here and Holland will be liberated.’  I confess I don’t know much about the role of Holland in the war, and what happened there, so I watch with anticipation. The style of the film makes it somewhat inaccessible at times, certainly at the start feeling like a some sort of high drama television series, but I try and look beyond and absorb the events it is trying to portray. After her hideout is accidentally bombed by American aircraft, the dramatic entrance of her ‘saviour’ instils both wonder and terror as the figure of the night knows all of her details, her name, her family, her immediate danger of imminent transportation to Poland, and offers assistance. Who is he? Us. Who is us? Us is us. She asks, ‘by us you mean the resistance?’ Her saviour offers an alternative view of the end of the war ‘your Tommy’s have been cut to pieces at Artnhem.’ I wonder where the nickname Tommy came from? And for that matters, the other oft used term in this film ‘Kraut’. First thing to learn about.

Rachel and her family join a large group of huddled Jews carrying their belongings ushered along by the ‘saviour’ Van Gein. As Rachel revels in being reunited with her family and they declare never to separate again, the whole boat is machine gunned. It was a trap. The Germans take aim and fire, and her family fall about around her, as she manages to escape into the water only to watch the scenes before her worsen as the Germans pillage the bodies. She stares at the face of the officer as her face hardens with the call of revenge. I can’t help thinking about all the people grabbing their opportunity to make their own little bit in life, grabbing from other people, manipulating situations to their own gain. It seems to have happened even more so during the war than in normal life, but the characteristics remain present today. I look at the men shooting and pillaging the bodies, under order of their officer. Why not say no? Don’t they know this is wrong? But they have no choice. Is there a choice when you serve in the armed forces? Your only choice is follow your senior officer or pay the penalty. And the penalty is serious.

The next time we see her, Rachel has a new identity. A blond  and fesity young woman on a mission, with nothing to lose. Smuggled back in a coffin, she joins the resistance and becomes Ellis de Vries. She is a bold character, with more tenacity and strength than the other women I have seen shown in these films yet. She has no fear and she is not intimidated. She comes up with more creative solutions than her male counterparts and her character shows real resourcefulness. Later in the film, she is travelling with one of her counterparts, Hans, on a train when it is stopped and all are asked for their papers and to open their suitcases. Instead of obeying Han’s order to pull the brake while he shoots, she slaps him round the face and mocks an argument between lovers, flouting off with both their cases, full of equipment and information, under her arms arousing no suspicion.

The films I have watched so far reveal certain interesting tactics made by people who are trying to divert others. Ice Cold in Alex showed a group of men posing as Arabs in the desert sugaring petrol on a German line to stifle their engines. This film shows a large light being covered and uncovered with a book as a signal to a plane above for a drop. I am thoroughly enjoying this insight into the minds of people who are having to turn away from common ways of life and find ways to communicate or disrupt- true genius comes from the need to be inventive. As well as the need for resourcefulness, Wartime bought restrictions and limitations including rationing. What did people crave? What did they miss? When chocolate is dropped to Rachel’s resistance group, they say they haven’t had it for two years. What else was so restricted? The realities of the scarcity are evident in the scene when we see young children scavenging in disposed pots, fighting over scraps. A friend of mine, Bran Carter, wrote to me recently with some tales of his childhood in the war:

‘As a country boy there were also compensations. Meat was very scarce and I was able to sell the rabbits I snared for six shillings- a princely sum then.  And we got nine pence a pound for rose hips to turn into syrup for the babies. War babies, with their free orange juice etc were the healthiest generation ever seen in this country.’

I didn’t know about this austerity-driven health kick the country got. I resolve to learn more (learning resolution two).

I was quite struck by setting and costume in this film, sumptuous sets, dark wood panelling, stylish dresses, beautiful hats, wonderful cars. The ‘baddie’ look of the German’s is at once intimidating and extremely evil looking. I am sure the costume department did their fair share of research and so feel assured the German dress is an authentic representation. So it was the Germans who chose such a ‘look’. I recall reading somewhere the German’s employed Hugo Boss to design their uniforms. They don’t put that in their advertising. I wonder if it included the long black leather coat. I think guiltily of my own long black leather jacket, but I am sure I only bought it and love it only because it is more the Matrix than SS.

The role of the resistance is an interesting one. Are they terrorists or freedom fighters? People doing the right thing or the wrong? They can be construed in totally different lights by different people. Their own internal struggle, doing bad things to do the right things, killing people to save other people represents an ambiguous world which is an interesting one to explore through any form. This film finds it difficult to quite find its place on this issue. It jumps very quickly, rushes through important scenes and glosses over some of the more interesting conundrums offered to these people. On the other hand, it does offer some glimpses of the compromises made by the group who were willing to give their lives for the fight. Two of the key characters of the resistance group, Hans and Theo, offer alternatives in approach. Hans, hardened, militant, focused. Perhaps to the point of derision. Theo, timid, thoughtful, pensive and crippled by any action considered ‘wrong’ in the real world. Theo, ” Omigod. We took 5 lives. What have we done?” Hans, “It was them or us. Take off their uniforms. We can use everything.” Do our moral gates shift in times of warfare?

Smaal, Rachel’s father’s friend, plays an important role in the film as he appears at key changes in Rachel’s life so we can see the stages of her transformation. He is also a lawyer for those involved in the resistance. He readily admits people of the resistance have no rights, but commits as a lawyer to try and help them defend themselves. Was the war before it was commonly agreed that all human beings were entitled to a fair trial. I remember the human rights charter we are all familiar with was developed after the world wars in response to some of the things that took place. If people are held without trial now, we are outraged. Then I think of Guantanamo, and think, maybe things are still the same after all.

When Ellis takes her creative leave of her colleague aboard the train, she swoops into a German’s officers cabin further down to take advantage of the protection he could afford her, to try and woo him in the few minutes it would take the checking officers to make their way down the train. She succeeds. As his taking to her is evident, her group decide to make use of this new found flirtation and she is asked to get close to Officer Muntze, high up in the Sicherheitsdienst (SD), their security service equivalent, to gain information regarding some newly captured colleagues.

She eventually becomes employed by the Nazi office and involved herself in society there, becoming closer and closer with Muntze as time goes on. She learns that he too lost his family during the war despite the fact that Goering had ‘sworn that no English bombs would fall on Germany’. He shows a humility which is oft neglected in German characters. He is definitely a ‘goodie.’ In every world war two film I have watched so far, there is a multitude of viscous Germans depicted, merciless, angry and heartless in their duty. Then in each film, there is also an antidote to that stereotype, someone more affected by humanity than nationality and who finds himself compromised morally. Muntze is that character in this film. He demonstrates that war affects every man and woman, regardless of race or nationality. Everyone killed is someone’s loved one.

Torturing techniques are explicit in this film with those captured members of the resistance suffering villainous demands for information. Was torturing a known and accepted form of information gathering? Were these awful things carried out by all armies during the second world war? In the end, Tim, one of the group, revealed the details of his resistance group, and named his father as the leader. Can I honestly say I would have done differently if I had been held under water to the point of drowning for an hour? Were the Kuipens a real family involved in the resistance, I wonder.

Rachel becomes adept in her covert role, and discovers the secret of another German officer, Guntze, the very man she saw in charge of the slaughter of her family. He has a deal with Van Gein. Wealthy Jews, told they would be smuggled to safety and to bring their treasured possessions by Van Gein, are then targeted in the dead of night by Guntze, and profits are split. This continues the theme from ‘Sarah’s Key’ of the Nazis not only massacring the Jews, but people around them finding their way of benefiting from the massacre. Not only slaughtering them for no reason, but stealing from them. Even Guntze’s commanding officer states, ‘Robbery of rich Jews. There is nothing wrong with that.’

The darker side of Theo comes out when a fumbled attempt to capture Van Gein turns into a brawl, and he turns into an angry, demonic crazed individual shooting Van Gein multiple times with hatred. As soon as he stops, he relents and returns into the former timid Theo. ‘ I shot a man. I am just as bad as the Nazi’s.’ Interesting how a man so timid, can turn and become so extreme. His anger is palpable. I wonder, if one tries so hard to repress anger, will it always come out so much stronger than those that allow themselves to express it freely. Do we all have a demonic side, that, pushed to our own certain limit, we would reveal in exactly the same way? His immediate retreat back to his former self suggests that is his natural state, but shows how such a circumstance as the war can put pressure on people and change them from their natural state. Ellis tries to reassure him ‘that was justice’ but you can see how difficult it must have been to justify such an act to yourself.

I come across my first Hitler impression in this film. Hans, the hardened revolutionary, dons a fake moustache and raises the spirits of his comrades when they return from shooting Van Gein. He mimics the gestures, mocks the accent and  pontificates on how Fuhrer would react when he learns about the death of the source of one of his income streams. Most entertaining for both myself and his colleagues.

Guntze’s anger at van Gein’s death reaps an immediate retaliation. He orders ’40 pieces. Delivery today’, 40 hostages to be shot in revenge.  There is no humanity in this man. There is no compassion. Soldiers of the war are mere pawns and at his disposal to use as he wishes to try and get what he wants. He is almost stooped in his tracks. The previous evening, Muntze had discovered Rachel’s true Jewish roots and forced her to reveal her triue identity. She tells him what she has leaned of Guntze and the next day he is confronted. Unfortunately Guntze had been prewarned and had hidden all evidence of his involvement, and instead turns the tables on Muntze for his negotiations with the resistance. Negotiations with the resistance were strictly forbidden by order of the Fuhrer. Muntze begs ‘The Russians are in Berlin!’ attempting to persuade his colleagues no more blood need be shed, but is simply told his attitude is defeatism. The rules are still the same now. We cannot negotiate with terrorists, but this film clearly leads us to believe it would be the right thing for the two to talk. No-one else getting shot, Tick. No more retaliations. Tick. I suppose it depends on whether you agree with the terrorists/freedom fighters or not.

The war ends amid much jubilation, and our doomed couple manage to escape their pursuers. They both proclaim they fear the end of the war more than the war itself. Rachel has been set up so her resistance group believe she betrayed them, and Muntze, as a prominent figure of the German army is a wanted figure, as well as being wanted for the death penalty by his own people. The end of the war brings no peace for them as they are on the run from their respective groups. I wonder who else felt the same. No relief when the end of the war came. No celebration. The celebrations itself are wonderfully portrayed, happiness etched on every face, absolute ecstasy. I cannot imagine how glorious this must have felt for most. After 4 years of oppression, of everything being dictated by the war, it simply dissolves, and one is free to choose once more what to do with one’s life. What an extraordinary feeling that must have been. And in amongst the jubilance, traitors are pillaged and stripped and made to hold signs saying ‘whore’ and ‘thief’.  They are mocked and laughed at in public. It’s strange how a moral boundary can shift so quickly. Was this a reality? Were people, as Rachel was when she eventually was captured, told to strip for the amusement of the drunk revellers? Were they covered in shit as a form of entertainment, as she was? I find it hard to believe people could find such joy in other people’s distress, but maybe these crimes were adequate for such a punishment. How were the ‘traitors’ decided? Did they receive a fair trial?

Unfortunately during the celebrations Muntze is recaptured. Despite the fact the war is over, despite the fact the Germany was defeated, the decision of the German military tribunal to issue a death warrant for Muntze because of his negotiations with the Resistance is upheld. The German Commanding officer, Kautner, states ‘British military law does recognise the jurisdiction of German military tribunals in the field even after the capitulation. Article 153. General Folks is allowing ‘us German’s to discipline or own men.’ I am gobsmacked by this. Of all of the things I have learnt from this film, of the ever growing list of things to learn about and understand better, this is the one that ahs taken my breath away the most. How many German’s were killed after the war under this article? I wonder how many were through grudges sustained from failure such as this one appeared to be. How could a German officer still be able to make such a decision when they had been defeated and exposed in such a manner?

The film then starts to take a frustrating number of turns as it climbs to crescendo in the final 40 minutes or so. Too many people are involved, accusations fired, friends killed. If you wish to know the outcome of the life’s and loves of these characters, I suggest you watch the film as writing out the plot would take me all week. The story eventually returns to Rachel who used the money stolen from the rich Jews during the war, to set up the Kibbutz we started the film with. I feel relieved, exhausted, shocked, somewhat intrigued and sure I will never ever watch that film again. But I am so glad I watched it and I can’t wait to learn more about what it’s shown me.

One more interesting little fact to keep me going…. The German’s made 15 copies of everything…. Wow.

New words learnt: capitulation: the act of surrendering or yielding.

Watch this space for a bit of research on the issues this film has raised. Next film The English Patient, about a young nurse at the end of the war caring for a severely burned soldier.


2 thoughts on “World War Two film number 3: Black Book

  1. Thanks Debs, I’ve never heard of the film, but it sounds as if it’s very ‘dark’ and deep.
    Just a thought…….Did you view it between watches, or during them 🙂 xxxx

  2. Ha ha! I viewed it non stop for weeks!! Glad you like the review Mr Dowdeswell! I am just getting back to my research following the small interlude of the exam – otherwise known as temporary loss of all faculties apart from ability to pull ropes and read compasses. Watch this space for the next entry in the next few days. Might I see you in Nidri this year good sir?

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