After seeing Michael Verhoeven’s new movie, “The Unknown Soldier,” and Paul Verhoeven’s new movie, “Black Book,” both of which were presented last month at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival, one arrives rapidly at the conclusion that it is a very bad idea to lie to anyone by the name of Verhoeven.
Born just five days apart in July 1938 (Michael in Berlin; Paul in Amsterdam), they met only once before this Israeli encounter, in 1968, and appear to have very little in common. But neither, it turns out, is the type to forgive or forget.
Michael Verhoeven, the scholarly scion of a distinguished German theater family, was drawn by youthful rebellion to study medicine. Unable to solicit his perplexed father for financial support (“What do you want to do this medicine for?”), he got through school by working in show business, then went on to make his name as the director of such pillars of German new cinema as “The White Rose,” “The Nasty Girl” and “My Mother’s Courage.”
Now, for the first time, he presents a documentary — the devastating and multifaceted exposure of crimes against humanity committed by the German Wehrmacht during World War II, alongside the exposure of contemporary German reactions to these revelations.
It may seem axiomatic that German soldiers butchered civilians, principally Jews. But in Germany, until just a few years ago, a myth regarding the division of labor between the SS (genocidal goons) and the Wehrmacht (clean fighting force) persisted. This reassuring fiction was shattered by a traveling exhibit of archival photographs portraying members of the Wehrmacht partaking in atrocities, sometimes posing, like a pleased Hemingway with his prey, next to all-too-fresh human corpses.
Verhoeven follows the exhibit along its tour of Germany, training his camera alternately on the docents and on the roiling crowds outside, then breaks free into his own uncompromising attempts to tease the facts from the morass. The result of his historical research is awful: He concludes that the Wehrmacht was responsible not only for its own crimes but also for all SS actions. “They were the boss,” he said, outraged. “The SS had to follow the Wehrmacht.”
His indignation has been building up for quite some time. When Michael Verhoeven was 15 or 16, he “started asking questions.”
“We had one young teacher, a man whose subject was history,” he remembered. “When I asked him about the Third Reich, he said he specialized in medieval history and I should ask someone else.”
In a way, he added, “the postwar years were the best time in our country, a new beginning.” Then the Nazis came back: in justice, in politics, in schools. “Therefore I had to struggle with those teachers. The Third Reich did not exist in Germany of the 1950s.”
“I got into this because I never got any answers,” he said.
Everything is turned upside down in “The Unknown Soldier.” The redemptive heroes of postwar Germany, those honorable fighters for the fatherland, are revealed to be base, barbaric murderers. The real heroes, the quiet officers who refused directives to kill civilians, remained concealed behind the veils of shame that shielded the notorious majority who followed orders, unknown until the photo exhibit. In a particularly disheartening juncture, it emerges that no reprimands were made against these principled, rebellious officers. Genocide simply marched on without them.
According to Verhoeven: “They should have been the heroes of the new Germany. This is what was hidden, that the Wehrmacht contained good people. I was always told there was no resistance except for two or three famous cases. That in fact, it was impossible to resist…. But Gestapo files show hundreds of thousands of instances of defiance.
“Can you imagine that all these cases were hidden from the world?” Paul Verhoeven, the rascally Dutch bad boy of Hollywood, known for such sci-fi action fare as “Total Recall,” “Basic Instinct” and “Hollow Man,” attained his doctorate in mathematics and physics at the age of 25, mostly because he applied late for film school and his father suggested filling the time with something else. He atoned for this transgression by creating a posy of short films while in school, including the prizewinning “Let’s Have a Party.”
He, too, grew up an antsy, inquisitive teen gorging on American movies in postwar Europe — only on his side of Europe, teachers had a better tale to tell: that of the Dutch resistance, valiantly striving for queen and country against the Nazi invaders. It was a nice story. It was also not quite true, a fact that Verhoeven discovered in the 1960s and has carried with him, in his own black book, ever since. “To my absolute amazement and moral disgust, I began to find out what really happened in the heroic ‘resistance,’” he said in an interview. “Nobody had told me that! Nobody even talked about it. And let me tell you, it was worse than what I put in the movie.”
This is hard to imagine. At the nadir of “Black Book,” when the self-possessed heroine, Rachel Stein — aka Ellis de Vries — is humiliated by her compatriots, members of the audience who thus far had withstood the movie’s assault could be seen covering their eyes in pain. Rachel’s saga of survival (magisterially embodied by Clarice van Houten) is a potent vehicle for the acid, unforgiving eye Verhoeven casts on the misery that was end-of-war Holland.
“Black Book” reduces its viewers almost to tatters, but inspires through its masterful artistry: a riveting narrative line; clear, magnetic cinematography, and flawless ensemble acting (Sebastian Koch and Thom Hoffman are equal to van Houten’s high standards). It is not a nice story — but, inspired by the stories of three real Dutch resistance fighters, it has the virtue of being “true.” Its motor is Verhoeven’s compulsion, against the history he was taught by flawed schoolteachers, to display reality as it really was. “It is the story we were not told,” he said with whispered fury.
Set in the last months of the war, from September 1944 to May 1945, “Black Book” is a cataclysmically triumphant film, presenting with relentless inexorability the various ways in which in Holland, the center, did not hold. The queen was in Canada. The Nazis pursued Jews, while following the advance of their own military collapse. The Dutch looked forward to the arrival of “the Tommies” while nurturing, till the gothic, bitter end, useful ties to the SS. Even the Dutch who tried to assist persecuted Jews, or seemed to, evinced dripping disdain for their Jewish compatriots. Crippled by personal failings and by the dim pull of individual interests, the resistance was pockmarked by all manner of treachery. In “Black Book,” as in Holland at the end of the war, the ghastliest crimes are committed by the least suspect, and the few moments of salvation flow from the unlikeliest and most meager sources.
By the end of this movie, no one remaining alive can feel confidence in any other. It is the ultimate human disaster, and the earth still trembles, uncertain, under each and every individual.
“The Unknown Soldier” was shown in a one-time private screening last month in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and will be distributed by First Run Features. “Black Book” will be released by Sony Pictures Classics.