The meeting of History and Ideology

Zwartboek: The Property of the Dead

In Senior Thesis, Walter Benjamin on January 31, 2010 at 5:22 pm

Zwartboek (Black Book) has been on my list of films to see since I first heard about it. I imagined hating it, expecting it to be the zenith of attempts to cash in the historical anguish of the Holocaust, infused with an extra layer of trashiness in the form of Showgirls-style eroticism. But Zwartboek is quite possibly the best Holocaust film I’ve ever seen.

(Warning: there are spoilers in this post if you have not seen the film)

Zwartboek (2006) is Paul Verhoeven’s World War II film. Yes, the same Paul Verhoeven who directed Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Starship Troopers, and Hollow Man. Yes, that’s the same Paul Verhoeven who directed Showgirls, the infamous cult film that is either a scathing critique of patriarchy through the case study of the Vegas entertainment industry or a rampantly objectifying sexploitation film featuring more of Elizabeth Berkeley’s body than Jessie Spano would ever approve of… depending on your perspective. So when the synopsis of Zwartboek told me that it was about a Jewish woman who joins the Dutch resistance and seduces a SD officer, my mind pretty much leaped ahead to the most disgusting depths of impossibility, imaging what deplorable scenarios Verhoeven had come up with this time. But not only was I pleasantly surprised, I am actually genuinely hard-pressed to think of a World War II/Holocaust film better than Zwartboek.

As I was watching film, I found my snap judgments about the film’s quality and politics oscillating frequently. It definitely borders on a “Good Nazi” myth in the character of Müntze, which turned me off especially in the scene where Rachel/Ellis bursts in to the Resistance warehouse and exclaims dramatically, tears nearly streaming down her face, “Get Müntze out!” Indeed, by the end of the film Müntze and Rachel (with the possible, minor addition of Theo) are the only characters that the film has not displayed committing morally reprehensible acts. We can of course infer that Müntze, by virtue of being a high-ranking Nazi, is morally culpable. But if, as a methodology, we strictly focus on what the film portrays on-screen, then he is morally clear.

But this is jumping ahead a bit. The immense strength of the film, as opposed to the obvious benchmark of Schindler’s List, is that everyone is human. The are no horrific one-dimensional monsters; even Franken, the SS officer whose unit killed Rachel’s family, is seen drunk, fully naked flirting with Ronnie and Rachel, looking completely helpless, earlier he plays the piano with Rachel at a high society party. No one (with the two possible exceptions of Müntze and Rachel) is unambiguously morally righteous. Everyone is a real human being, replete with the capacity for morality and immorality, justice and injustice, and all of the contradictions that such humanity entails. Müntze, who rounds up Resistance fighters in The Hague, collects stamps. (“And a man like that collects stamps.”) Gerben Kuipers, the head of the Resistance, argues with Rachel about the value of a “Good Dutchman’s” life compared to a “random Jew”. When Franken, who runs the operation to extrajudicially murder and loot rich Jews, frames Rachel for betraying the Resistance, the other Resistance members are quick to jump to anti-Semitic stereotypes and scorn her for her “dirty Jewish trick.”

In particular, the way Verhoeven reveals the Resistance to be more concerned with helping their own than with helping Jews is very convincing and very realistic. But at the other end of the spectrum, I feel somewhat conflicted about the way the film makes you start to sympathize with Müntze when he is caught after The Hague is liberated and especially when he is executed under Kautner’s order. I think Verhoeven could have made the point about everyone’s intrinsic humanity without going as far in this direction as he did. Likewise, when Hans vindictively shoots Franken it feels a little too Hollywood, a little too “everything works out in the end.” Of course, this moment is mitigated when we learn of Hans’ true intentions for killing Franken. But I wonder why Verhoeven did that segment the way he did, unless it was just to tease the viewer and play on our Hollywood tastes for resolution and unity. Perhaps.

At the other end of the spectrum, we have the post-liberation scene of the Dutch collaborators (including Rachel, for being Müntze’s secretary) corralled in a warehouse where they are locked, beaten, and humiliated. I found this to be pretty believable and well done – up to a point. When Rachel refuses to strip for the drunk men harassing her, they strip off her clothes and dump a bucket of feces from the prison cell over her naked body. This may have been just a bit excessive.

All in all, I found that my main complaint about the film is that it tends too much toward this excess, these sorts of dramatic extremes. But I actually don’t think this is really that much of a criticism. After all, film is not supposed to be completely realistic and entirely true to life. It dramatizes events in order to make a point. And on a prior level, even if we take an extreme example like Italian neorealist cinema where a film depicts completely unremarkable events and unremarkable people, the film is always already choosing what we see and what we don’t see. So we should give up on an illusion of a “realistic portrayal.” With this in mind, I think I can accept even Verhoeven’s hyperbolic “bucket of shit.” Zwartboek goes to these extremes in, for instance, Müntze and the “Good Nazi” myth. But it has these excesses on all sides, and in that way creates a holistic sense of everyone’s humanity.

A further thought on that scene. It is an interesting moment in that scene where Rachel refuses to bare her breasts for the cackling men. As a viewer, one’s first thought can’t help but be “Wait, she’s already shown her breasts a hundred times in the movie – to Nazis no less. Even Franken, the man who killed her parents and brother, has seen her naked. Why won’t she do it now?” The only consistent interpretation would be that she did what she needed to in order to survive or to achieve the goal of her political commitments (working for the Resistance). That’s why she was willing to strip for Müntze and Franken, but not for the free Dutchmen. It’s an interesting moment where we can ponder Rachel’s ownership of her sexuality and her body.

Once the Tommys liberate The Hague, the film feels like it starts to plod, going on a bit longer than it should. But this is one of the film’s strengths. Things don’t just magically end and resolve when Holland is liberated. The film centers around an operation that Franken runs in collaboration with a handful of Resistance members to set up fleeing Jews to be murdered and robbed of their money and valuables. Hans Akkermans, Smaal, and Van Gein are his primary Resistance collaborators. The title of the film is taken from the black book that Smaal carries, in which he records all of the dealings and setups with Franken. But the film is masterful in the way that it makes us forget about this primary storyline as we get caught up in what seems to be the main story: the quest of the Resistance to rescue Gerben Kuipers’ son and the other captured members. But the film does not end with liberation precisely because its story has not ended, and indeed, never does; in Rachel’s words “Doesn’t it ever stop?”

After Rachel shows Kuipers the black book and convinces him that she did not betray the Resistance, they both abduct and passively murder Akkermans. The scene is exceptionally well done: Hans is being smuggled into Belgium in the same kind of coffin Rachel was smuggled in with the Cross on top of the coffin loosened just enough to allow air inside. Gerben and Rachel find Hans and seal him inside, screwing the coffin shut. Hans tries to bribe Rachel to let him live by pushing money and jewelry out of the hole at the bottom of the Cross. Rachel pushes the stolen items back in with him and uses the locket that contains pictures of her parents and brother to screw down the Cross and suffocate Hans. Here perhaps we see the revenge of the dead against Hans? Or the memory of the dead spurring Rachel to act? We watch Rachel and Gerben sitting by a lake while we hear the rasps of Hans’ last breaths escaping from the coffin. The hearse is shaking slightly in the background. Rachel says it’s about time they open the coffin up and let him out. Gerben agrees. Neither moves. His breathing stops.

Then there is a brief dialogue between Rachel and Gerben:

Gerben: “What do we do with the money?”
Rachel: “It’s not ours”
Gerben: “It’s nobody’s”
Rachel: “It belongs to the dead”

Flashforward to Israel, 1956. Rachel is married with children and living in a Kibbutz that bears her family name, Stein. We pan away from her and her family to a sign that reads “Kibbutz founded with funds of World War II Jewish victims.” A military jeep drives by. We pan to the other side where the jeep unloads Israeli soldiers. The film ends.

When I watched the film, I understood what was happening to be IDF soldiers training on the Kibbutz for military operations. The Kibbutzim, far from being socialist utopias, were very early on converted into military and intelligence outposts. (See: Michael W. Williams, “Pan Africanism and Zionism: The Delusion of Comparability. Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Mar., 1991), p 353) So I read the end of the film as a sort of warning about Israel perpetuating violence in the Tripartite Aggression (the so-called Suez Crisis). To again echo Rachel’s words – “doesn’t it ever stop?” – we see here that, no, it doesn’t. Israel continues to create war and state-sponsored oppression.

Wikipedia on the other hand says that the “soldiers arrive to protect the kibbutz as the Suez Crisis begins.” This would make sense if the kibbutz were in the south and the body of water near it were the Gulf of Aqaba, though I had assumed the kibbutz was on the Dead Sea. I would be curious to know if Verhoeven has explicitly stated anywhere what the actions of the Israeli army were at the end and where exactly the fictional kibbutz is located.

Short of that information, however, we are left with a few interesting interpretations on the matter of how we relate the dead of World War II to the kibbutz, which is founded with the property of the former. On the one hand we could read it very easily as a sort of “Never Again” scene wherein we see not only the memory of the dead Jewish victims protected by Israeli vigilance but also the assurance that there will be no more Jewish victims added to the death toll. We could even take it a step further and say that Israel belongs to the dead, built with their funds. But does this necessarily mean that Israel is what those Jewish victims would have wanted? Can we say that they “live on” in Israel? Does it matter?

“Only that historian who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” -Walter Benjamin, Thesis VI

But I want to tie this in with another line of Rachel’s: “Strange. Everybody’s dead and I can’t cry for them.” I think there is a connection between the inability to mourn and the perpetuation of violence. There is no resolution in the film, even in the end, because Rachel still cannot mourn for her dead family. She has invested (quite literally) all that she’s has left of them into building a chunk of Israel and this depletes her emotional capacity. It is a failed and futile pursuit to make the dead live once again.

“This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.” -Walter Benjamin, Thesis IX

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