Amsterdam — A dreamy expression slowly spreads across Geza Weisz’s handsome face as he watches scantily clad young black women dancing around him at an Amsterdam nightclub.
The scene appears in “Only Decent People,” a dark and provocative Dutch-language film that examines the fraught relations between the country’s Jews and other minorities and stars Weisz, a Jewish Amsterdammer and a major movie star in Holland.
Based on a 2009 best-selling novel by the Dutch Jewish author Robert Vuijsje, the film was the second most popular in Holland last year, drawing 350,000 viewers in more than 100 theaters – a substantial number in a nation of 16 million.
But its stereotypical depictions of Moroccans, Jews and black Surinamese have drawn intense criticism in a country where the lessons of colonialism and the Holocaust have instituted a strict standard of political correctness – a standard that some say only a Jewish artist could breach.
“If ‘Only Decent People’ were written by someone who was not Jewish or Surinamese, it would’ve have been seen as pure racism,” said Bart Wallet, a non-Jewish historian and expert on Dutch Jewry. “It is met with greater understanding because Robert Vuijsje is a Jewish man who has a Dutch Afro-Surinamese partner.”
In the film, Weisz plays a rebellious and dark-complexioned David Samuels, the only son of affluent Jewish intellectuals who endures discrimination because he looks like a Moroccan. Estranged from both the Jewish community and the wider Dutch society on account of his looks, David embarks on a quest for black lovers that leads him to witness not only violence and promiscuity among Holland’s black underclass, but also the racist attitudes of his Jewish friends.
The film traffics freely in racial stereotypes: blacks are lazy and greedy; whites are unhygienic; Jews are slave traders; Moroccans are violent. Such sentiments, combined with the film’s depiction of group sex and borderline rape, helped make “Only Decent People” a commercial success, but they also brought latent prejudices to the fore – bolstering the claims of critics who have argued that the film fosters rather than critiques Dutch racism.
Since its release, Vuijsje has been the target of a death threat and been denounced by members of Holland’s black community. One black artist rehashed centuries-old claims of Jewish complicity in the slave trade.
“The film’s popularity made them feel uncomfortable in a country which celebrates such messages,” said Anousha Nzume, a black activist and artist, referring to Holland’s 500,000-member black community, roughly two-thirds of whom are immigrants from the country’s former South American colony of Suriname.