As World War II nears its end, a young Dutch Jewess attempts to survive amidst the cruelty of the Nazi occupation in its waning months.
The Story on the Screen
Black Book (Dutch title: Zwartboek) chronicles the journey of a young Dutch Jewish singer named Rachel as she struggles to remain free from capture and to help other Jews to survive in the dangerous environment of the Nazi-occupied Netherlands during the waning months of World War II. Although the film does not revolve around a single, overarching action or mission on the part of its main character and is more of a tale than a story (see, "The Difference Between a Story and a Tale"), most of Rachel's efforts may be said to stem from a single type of intent—that of keeping.
When we-the-audience first meet Rachel—at an Israeli kibbutz in 1956—she seems to have achieved a happy stability in her life as a grade school teacher. But it is here that a chance encounter with wartime acquaintance who happens to visit the kibbutz on a Holy Land tour sparks the recollections that constitute the bulk of the story.
When we first meet Rachel, she seems to have achieved a happy stability in her life. But a chance encounter sparks the recollections that constitute the bulk of the story.
Rachel's wartime story begins in 1944 in her native Netherlands, where she is being hidden from the Nazi occupation by a Christian family in the attic of their farmhouse. When the farmhouse is accidentally destroyed by a low-flying Allied bomber, she is forced to flee or risk capture by the German forces who arrive in response to the resulting fire.
Rachel's wartime story begins when she is forced to flee Nazi capture, which leads to a journey of escape.
With the help of a local boy, she finds temporary refuge that is interrupted in the dead of night by a mysterious stranger named Van Gein, who suggests that she is in danger of capture, offers to help her flee through the Biesbosch to the liberated part of the country, and advises her to bring along enough money and valuables to allow her to get by comfortably in her new locale.
After visiting her father's attorney, Mr. Smaal, to obtain paper money and jewels, she rendezvous with Van Gein and is reunited on a river boat with her family, who have been hiding elsewhere and have also been offered the chance to flee (and also advised to bring along many valuables). When a Nazi patrol boat appears out of the darkness that night and opens fire, Rachel escapes into the water and watches in horror from a hiding place in the reeds as her fellow passengers, including her family, are gunned down and their corpses are robbed.
Rachel assumes a non-Jewish identity and begins to help the Dutch Resistance.
Following her narrow escape from the river boat, Rachel is smuggled into the Hague, where she dyes her hair, is given a new, non-Jewish identity (as "Ellis de Vries"), and is put to work in a factory run by Gerben Kuipers, a high-level figure in the Dutch Resistance movement. A few months later, she finds herself fully integrated into the movement and helping out in its operations—first by helping out with an Allied supply drop, then by masquerading as the fiancée of one of its most important members (Dr. Hans Akkermans), and finally by infiltrating the headquarters of the local Gestapo command by becoming the mistress of its commander, Hauptsturmführer Müntze—who foresees the defeat of the German army and seems interested in avoiding bloodshed where possible.
While eavesdropping on a private conversation in one of the headquarters offices, Rachel and the other Resistance fighters overhear a discussion between the Gestapo Obergruppenführer (Günther Franken) and Van Gein—the man who offered her and the other Jews safe passage through the Biesbosch. The conversation reveals to her that the river boat operation was a setup designed to kill and loot money and valuables from wealthy Jews who were anxious to flee the occupation—and that another 20–30 Jews are to be targeted in an upcoming operation.
A series of revelations results in the earmarking for execution of Resistance fighters.
The revelation prompts an effort by the Resistance fighters to capture Van Gein, but when the operation goes sour and results in his death, the Gestapo responds by earmarking 40 of its prisoners for execution—including Kuipers' son, Tim. And this response, in turn, prompts a daring attempt on the part of the Resistance fighters to infiltrate the Gestapo headquarters and free the prisoners.
Owing to subterfuge within the ranks of both the Gestapo and the Resistance movement itself, the operation fails. And although Rachel (Ellis) is freed from a temporary capture—together with Müntze, who himself is betrayed by Franken—her fellow Resistance fighters are tricked into believing that she is a Nazi collaborator, thereby guaranteeing that she will be targeted for retribution (and likely execution) after the war.
After the war, Rachel is unfairly tagged as a Nazi collaborator.
When the war ends, soon thereafter, the liberation of the Netherlands brings mixed feelings for Rachel, because she knows that has been falsely tagged as a Nazi collaborator and must find a way to clear her name if she is to live at peace in the post-war world. But she also seeks to find and punish those she considers responsible for the sinister operations that cost her family members their wealth and lives—starting with Mr. Smaal, whom she suspects of being involved in the operation.
Behind the Scenery
Although Rachel does not possess a single mission that drives her actions in the film, her individual efforts may be said to lie generally in the category of keeping. At the start of her wartime journey, for example, she is engaged in hiding from the Nazi occupation—a keep action the purpose of which is to keep secret her location from those who would imprison or kill her. When she joins the river boat crossing of the Biesbosch with her family, it is an attempt to find a place a refuge from the threat to her life and well-being, which is also a keep action. And other actions that fall into that category include: dying her hair and assuming a new name to keep her identity and heritage secret, pretending to be a corpse to be smuggled into the Hague by Resistance fighters, and demanding that Van Gein be captured or eliminated, in order to save (keep from destruction) the 20–30 Jews who are to be targeted in his next operation.
Although Rachel does not possess a single mission that drives her actions in the film, her individual efforts may be said to lie generally in the category of keeping.
And although the Resistance fighters are referred to once or twice as having launched attacks on the Nazis, we-the-audience do not witness the attacks or even their planning; therefore, none of Rachel's visible efforts are directly related to trying to regain her homeland from control of its occupiers. Only after the war has ended, late in the film, does her type of intent shift into other realms—first that of gaining, when she attempts to discover who was responsible for the operation that took the lives of her family members and the others on the river boat, and regaining, when she attempts, with the help of Müntze, to bring Mr. Smaal to justice.
In general, then, the tale revolves around the lengths to which Rachel goes to keep alive and help other Jews to do the same in the face of the Nazi occupation. And her method of doing so may be represented aptly as "doing whatever it takes in the face of an evil threat." Consequently, the proposition for the film can be stated as:
- One should attempt to do whatever it takes to survive (keep alive) in the face of an evil threat, and help others who are similarly threatened, because success in the attempt will preserve innocent lives, as well as her own ability to achieve a just and happy future.
In the end, Rachel's post-war efforts pay off and justice wins the day (for the most part). Smaal is killed, and Franken's effort to flee with the loot that he helped rob from the murdered Jews is thwarted—as is Hans Akkermans' attempt to hide his own role in the plot and to represent himself as a hero of the Resistance instead of the sinister double-crosser that we discover him to be. And Kuipers learns of Rachel's innocence and loyalty to the Resistance, so that her social standing is restored—allowing her to move on peacefully to the life she chooses to live on the kibbutz, where we find her at the start of the film.
Rachel's post-war efforts pay off and justice wins the day, but the ending cannot be classified as happy.
Rachel's overall tale, therefore, falls squarely into the succeed/pleased category. But due to the loss of many of her allies, including Müntze, the ending cannot be classified as truly happy.