Political Film Society - Newsletter #277 - April 15, 2007

April 15, 2007

Black BookDirected by Paul Verhoeven, Black Book (Zwartboek) begins at the Stein Kibbutz in Israel, where a Dutch tourist encounters Rachel (played by Carice van Houten), a teacher, whom she had not seen for 12 years. The scene then reverts to 1944. Rachel and several Jews are to escape from the Nazi occupation of Holland by boat, having loaded themselves up with money, courtesy of Mr. Smaal (Dolf De Vries), a lawyer, and as arranged by Dutch police officer Van Gein (played by Peter Blok). But SS troops under the command of Günther Franke (played by Waldemar Kobus) open fire on the boat, killing all on board except for Rachel, who jumps into the water and observes as Franke loots the dead bodies of money and valuables. Clearly, someone was the fink, but now Rachel must survive, so Smaal arranges to have her join the Dutch underground as Ellis De Vries. In one escapade, she meets SS officer Ludwig Müntze (played by Sebastian Koch), who fascinates her with his stamp collection, and she soon inveigles her way into his bedroom and plants a bug in his office. Expecting that Nazi rule is ending, Müntze has been negotiating a ceasefire with Smaal on behalf of the resistance to avoid further bloodshed. Meanwhile, several members of the resistance have an auto accident, exposing arms that they are smuggling, so they are arrested, tortured as terrorists, and are under a death sentence. Realizing that Ellis is a Jew, Müntze demands to know all. After she reveals that Franke has been hiding the loot from the dead Jews, Müntze accuses Franke, but the latter’s safe contains no loot. Franke then has Müntze arrested for the crime of negotiating with the resistance. The resistance group tries to execute an escape of its comrades, but the plot is foiled. The informer’s identity is still unknown. Meanwhile, Müntze escapes, and the plot thickens further. Then comes liberation day. A savage Dutch mob captures women who had sex with the Nazis, and Ellis is humiliated until rescued by Canadian soldiers and Dr. Akkermans (played by Thom Hoffman), a resistance leader who later tries to settle a score with her for loving Müntze. The mob also apprehends Müntze, who soon appears before a Canadian officer. However, Nazi General Käutner (played by Christian Berkel) demands the right to execute him, since a death sentence had been authorized, and one of the terms of German surrender is to permit the German military to discipline its own men. The fink is finally revealed as a resistance leader. Rachel is able to recover the loot, which is used to start the Stein Kibbutz. For the portrayal of the mob alone, the Political Film Society has nominated Black Book as best film exposé of 2007. MH

300The film 300, directed by Zack Snyder, is based on a comic book by a graphic novel by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley that seeks to portray life in Sparta and the Battle of Thermopylae from August 11-13, 480 bce, between a coalition of twelve Greek city-states and the army of the Persian Empire. The entire production is so verbally camp, along with bulging biceps, deltoids, pectorals and abdominal sixpacks, that the film is destined to become a cult classic for bodybuilders and their gay admirers, though the latter must endure a homophobic reference to Athenians as “boy lovers” and an anachronistically effeminate portrayal of the Persia’s King Xerxes (played by Rodolfo Santoro). Voiceovers throughout seek to explain life in Sparta, where babies who look weak are subjected to infanticide. Boys are trained to fight and are removed from home at age seven, trained to endure pain without crying out, forced to survive in the wilds as a rite of passage, and finally are accepted as warriors who are prepared to fight to the death. King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler) is the prime example of a boy who becomes a man through the rigorous training. However, the film will definitely insult historians. Women have more of a role than would have been the case; in particular, Queen Gorgo (played by Lena Headey) at one point nods approval when Leonidas is poised to send a Persian emissary and his entourage to their death down a well, and she is later permitted to address the Spartan council. The latter scene occurs when a nonwhite Persian emissary urges Leonidas to give an offering of Spartan earth and water as a sign of submission in order to avoid war. The nonverbal “kill the messenger” response is clear evidence that Spartans are the true barbarians; the tendency of Leonidas to screech defiantly rather than confidently testifies to further Spartan lack of sophistication. In any case, despite opposition for the war from Spartan politicians, who have been bought off secretly with gold from the Persians, Leonidas leads 300 warriors to a battle expecting as a result to “dine in hell.” Along the way, he picks up a few Arcadian volunteers, though in actuality the Arcadians numbered 1,120, and other allies brought the total to 7,000. The Persian army, however, is demonstrably much larger. According to Herodotus, the infantry numbered 1.7 million, 80,000 were in the cavalry, Arabs and Libyans (displayed in the film as Africans) accounted for 20,000, though he perhaps exaggerates with a total figure of more than five million when he adds Persia’s navy, support troops, and the armies of Persia’s Greek allies. Leonidas picks a narrow passageway into the Greek heartland to maximize his odds, and the battle features human waves, spearthrowing, magicians, masked infantry, a giant, and large animals. All 300 are destined to die heroically, though one Spartan father grieves unspartanlike over the death of his warrior son. Those with some knowledge of the actual history will be disappointed that titles at the end fail to mention that the Spartan sacrifice gave Athens ample time to prepare its fleet for a decisive victory over Persia the following month. Crude symbolisms abound. For example, an Abu Ghrabian pileup of dead bodies reminds filmviewers of Bush’s fight to “preserve” Western civilization. The slaveowning Spartans in the film pride themselves on being “free” men despite their rigid authoritarian political structure and flatter themselves that they do not employ slaves as soldiers, unlike the Persians. For Iranians, the movie is a travesty of inaccuracies, particularly of Xerxes. MH