Victims and Survivors:
The Nazi Persecution of the Jews in the Netherlands 1940-1945
by Bob Moore
in Paperback from Amazon
"At another time, on another battlefield, my radio call sign had been "Gabriel," because the archangel and I have a lot in common..."
A Dutch actress fresh on the American cinema scene -- somewhere between a Rita Hayworth and Cate Blanchett with more than a little Marlene Dietrich -- illuminates and glamorizes a tale of Nazi greed and barbarism as the regime was spinning toward its defeat in World War II. Director Paul Verhoeven's film, more in the mold of Jean-Pierre Jeunet's "A Very Long Engagement" and its saga-long focus on a beautiful central figure in a drama of spying and intrigue than your average citizen-in-wartime movie, almost justifies its length. Certainly, the fascination with this astounding actress is worth every minute.
While stereotypes are hard to avoid, the mindset here is to portray good guys and bad as individuals with shadings of character. Expectations along Nazi-Jew plotlines are shot down with developments that have the feel of historical probability, while elements of clownish staging and situation seep into the scenario now and then.
The story is set as a flashback in the mind of Rachel Rosenthal (spectacular Carice van Houten) as she sits on a beach near her Israeli kibbutz in 1956 and looks back... back to Holland in 1944 where she is being sheltered from the Nazi in the house of a Christian family whose stern Dad (Bert Luppes) requires her to recite a passage from the New Testament and submit to his mini-sermons before she can break bread and enjoy a meal. "If the Jews had listened to Jesus, we wouldn't be in the state we're in now," is what passes for profound wisdom in his household. The lady's taste for whimsy and irony are expressed as she uses a spoonful of molasses to draw a cross on her porridge for the unamused benefit of her benefactor.
In a moment of serendipity that could also be called coincidence, she vixenously accepts the flirtations of a lone man on a sailboat -- just as a bomber is loosing its weapons of limited destruction, one of which lands on her Dutch family's house. As she and her newfound friend hide out, away from the Nazi troops who come to investigate, they're found by Van Gein (Peter Blok) who represents himself as a resistance fighter warning them to take their possessions and leave. If he found them, the Nazi's will be calling soon as well. When they ask his help he volunteers to take them to a boat departing by river to a safe zone.
But, it's a trap, and the boatload, which includes her family, are mowed down with machine gun fire by a suddenly appearing SS boat skippered by one of the more loathsome villains of the piece, ubergruppenfuhrer Guenther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) who, we will learn, has a key position in the German leadership hierarchy through astute political maneuvers of self-preservation.
The only person on the boatload of Jews who escapes is our Rachel which she accomplishes by jumping into the river. Soon afterward, she hooks up with the resistance, which puts her in a loop of people dedicated to freedom from their savage masters. She's given the name of Ellis de Vries. On a mission to deliver spy material she acts as the lover of one of her team members as a ruse to avoid being searched, but when that plan seems to be misconceived she devises an instant piece of misdirection that puts her in a private room occupied by Gestapo chief Ludwig Muentze (Sebastian Koch, "The Lives of Others" -- a young Powers Boothe lookalike if ever there was one).
Understanding full well the useful resource they have in the beauty and quick-minded intelligence of their newest member, resistance leader Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) asks her how far she's willing to go in further contact with Muentze. "As far as Herr Muentze wants to go," she declares with grave certainty after a long moment of soul-searching.
Thus begins a game of intrigue, subterfuge and unexpected romance, along with full-frontal nudity (performed in the name of the cause, with blameless objectivity) and an almost anything-goes methodology and high humore to mask true intentions. Van Houten's talents include one of her cleverest ploys, to sing for the Reich party elite with captivating guile. The film's title refers to a document that contains the details of the scheme that is the mystery behind the tale.
Though a few groan-producing moments of over-obvious play-acting spoil a scene now and then, the two and a half hour-long tale never quite loses it. Under the masterful hand of screenwriters Gerard Soeteman and Verhoeven, and a fresh, effective cast, its attributes far outweigh a few weak elements.
Most of all, the constant threat on the survival of our lady in the center of the drama, heightened by her distillations of charm and fearlessness, make it a case of outrageous attraction, if not love. We are quite in her thrall, from her first close-up (so well photographed by cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub), and as a screen introduction of a major talent, it parallels the best of them. She brings an excitement of presence that's all her own. Brava van Houten! We've seen quite a bit of her here and I forgive Verhoeven for lingering. When this kind of chemical bond emanates from the screen, you can't blame the director for a little indulgence.
Nor can you fault the Netherlands for choosing this film (in Dutch and German) for their official 2007 Best Foreign Language Film entry in the next Academy Awards.
~~ Jules Brenner