Black Death

Eddie Redmayne and Sean Bean in Black Death

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

27 May

 

Bubonic plague breaks out in California, 1907

On this day in 1907, bubonic plague broke out in California, USA. The disease had ravaged the known world twice before, first in the 6th century, the so-called Justinian plague. It then reoccurred most famously in the pandemic starting in Mongolia and spreading across Asia into Europe, killing a third of the population between 1340 and 1400, the Black Death. In the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries it had erupted frequently though less devastatingly, and even in the 20th century it was not unknown – Australia had 12 major outbreaks between 1900 and 1925. In 1907, San Francisco was just recovering from the 1900 to 1904 outbreak of plague – the third global plague pandemic had been raging since 1855 – which had been exacerbated by a mayor who wouldn’t admit there was a problem because he feared the impact on business, when a sailor crossing San Francisco Bay on a ferry was diagnosed with the disease. The plague took hold, with the New York Times reporting that “it looked for a time as if the city were to be decimated as was mediaeval Europe.” It was also around this time that the theory started to gain currency that bubonic plague was spread by rats. The city started a massive public health campaign, concentrating from 1908 on exterminating rats. By the following year the plague was gone.

 

 

 

Black Death (2010, dir: Christopher Smith)

Director Christopher Smith’s follow-up to the brain-befuddling Triangle – which ingeniously managed to mix time travel with child welfare – is another exercise in altered mindsets, this time locating us firmly in the Middle Ages, where plague is rampant and people will do the most irrational things to try and stop it. Sean Bean is the film’s star, a solid hunk of matter off which superstition is deflected, playing the leader of a band of trusties who are on a mission to find out why a certain small village has been immune to the depredations of the bubonic disease. Working to some extent in the tradition of Michael Reeves, of Witchfinder General fame, Smith locates us firmly within the ideology of the time and switches allegiances expertly between the Christians (led by the brutal Bean and his ideological warhorse, a monk played by Eddie Redmayne) and the no less brutal pagans (for that is what they are) led by the attractive Carice Van Houten, last seen in Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book. At almost every turn Black Death seems ready to plunge into the coconuts and excess of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, yet it never does. Some of that is down to Bean, playing it dourly straight as the utterly driven, entirely humourless leader of this weird gang of professional cutthroats. But most of it is down to Smith’s control of mood, the way he infuses everything with a feeling of portent and dread. So give the film a chance to get past its shaky start and its feverish rhythms. Once it slows down and stretches out it becomes a much more meditative, much more interesting analysis of life in a time so beset by an external threat – anyone could die, for no apparent reason, at any time – that it undermined all the certainties, gave birth to ugly extremisms. This also entails ignoring Bean’s oddly inappropriate mid-Atlantic accent. Surely his flinty native Sheffield voice would have been a better fit for a film dealing in merciless inevitability. Fans of Lord of the Rings will easily go for the beards on horseback ambience, but this film is really more in keeping with The Wicker Man‘s uneasy examination of the excesses of blind faith.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Another interesting genre movie by Christopher Smith
  • Because it’s more interested in ideology than buboes
  • Old school, and effective, effects
  • Sebastian Edschmid’s appropriately murky cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Death – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Book

Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

23 May

 

Netherlands declares independence from Spain, 1568

On this day in 1568, the battle of Heligerlee was fought and won by the rebel army of William I of Orange, against the Duke of Alba, representative of the Hapsburg ruling dynasty. It marked the beginning of the 80 Years’ War for the independence of the Protestant Netherlands from Catholic Spanish rule. Though the rebels won the battle, they lost the campaign, due to lack of funds, and the rebellion sputtered out, only to flame up again in 1572. By 1581 the Netherlands were independent, though it took until 1648 for this to be recognised by Spain, who were at various times in the interim fighting a war against France, Turkey and England, all of whom wanted to prevent the Hapsburgs from becoming the dominant family in Europe. At a time when dynasties appeared to be the natural order in Europe, the Netherlands’ fight for independence marked a shift towards a different organising principle: the nation state.

 

 

 

Black Book (2006, dir: Paul Verhoeven)

Paul Verhoeven, born in the Netherlands in 1938, decamped to Hollywood in the 1980s, where he made a run of hugely successful hit movies. Some were powerfully imagined sci-fi numbers (Total Recall, RoboCop), others trashy teases (Showgirls, Basic Instinct), some a bit of both (Starship Troopers, Hollow Man). For his return to his native country he’s gone back to the territory explored in Soldier of Orange – the Second World War – and is using all the tricks he learnt marshalling some of Hollywood’s moodiest actors and biggest budgets to tell a widescreen story of a singer called Rachel who, after seeing her entire family killed and then, in death, turned over for their valuables, infiltrates the Gestapo to pass information back to the Netherlands Resistance. Rachel is a Jew, and the name is a giveaway, so along with dying her hair blonde, she takes a gentile name, Ellis, and dives in. This is a story of clear goodies and baddies. Well it would be if Verhoeven hadn’t made it. Rachel/Ellis is obviously on the side of the angels, but otherwise there are more shades of grey in Black Book (choice of title obviously ironic) than you get in the average war film made by someone who actually remembers the Nazis inhabiting his home country, as Verhoeven does. Disconcertingly, the baddies turn out to have redeeming features. In the case of one appallingly bestial Nazi, he has the most gorgeous singing voice. In the case of local Nazi boss Ludwig Müntze (Sebastian Koch), he’s a cultured man, a stamp collector, obeying orders with a great deal of reluctance. The goodies, too, aren’t that great, there being something very dubious going on in the higher echelons of the Dutch Resistance. At one point, in fact, Rachel/Ellis is caught between both parties, accused by each of being a spy. What is a girl to do? Verhoeven also addresses that old saw, of the Jews being in some sense responsible for their fate, in the figure of this brave woman putting her life on the line every day to try and defeat Hitler and his henchmen.
As well as being a cracking wartime thriller, Black Book is a Verhoeven film, so there’s got to be nudity, though watch how it is used. Rachel/Ellis dyes her pubic hair – careful girl – so collar and cuffs will pass even intimate tests. There are a number of scenes in which naked Gestapo men make sexual sport with local Dutch girls. The girls are naked because they are chattels; the men are naked as a sign of their power. Yet in the scenes where Rachel goes to bed with Müntze, intending to do him injury but in fact falling for him, nudity turns into something more familiar – a marker of genuine intimacy. This lack of fear in the face of the naked body has always marked Verhoeven out, and may explain why some of the reviews for this film were a bit lukewarm; payback from the puritans. Though the critical herd mentality could be at play too – Verhoeven just isn’t hot any more. And nor are war films. Black Book is not perfect, there is a terrible squeezing of too much material into too small a space once the war ends and Rachel heads off fairly unnecessarily to a kibbutz, but Carice Van Houten’s performance is nuanced and magnetic and star-making, and Koch is as great as he ever is (you might have seen him as the lead in The Lives of Others). This is a film that deserves to be seen.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A great Verhoeven film
  • Carice Van Houten’s performance
  • Sebastian Koch’s performance
  • The Netherlands’ most expensive movie to date

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Black Book

Sebastian Koch and Carice Van Houten in Black Book

 

 

In some quarters the director Paul Verhoeven is now eternally infamous for Sharon Stone’s is she/isn’t she leg-crossing moment in Basic Instinct. But he came to prominence with a Second World War movie, Soldier Of Orange, in 1977. Black Book sees Verhoeven return to his native land, his native Dutch tongue and the 1939-45 war in an engrossing drama focusing on one young Jewish woman (played by the remarkable Carice van Houten), a member of the Dutch resistance who finds herself right at the heart of the Nazi war machine. It is a familiar genre but Verhoeven injects fresh elements into it – notably dark humour, lashings of nudity and a fuzzy delineation between goodies and baddies. So he’s not that far off the territory he explored in Basic Instinct. Where Verhoeven does strike out is in his examination of a claim that occasionally rears its head – that the Jews made mass extermination easy by being too passive. Verhoeven gives the lie to that suggestion simply and emphatically – in the shape of Van Houten’s redoubtable Jewish heroine. Black Book is a bold idiosyncratic film and a big return to form by the director. If there’s a quibble, it’s that towards the end the hitherto beautiful pacing is dropped in favour of a gabbled dash for the finish line. For a Dutch film the budget was huge (€16 million) but it looks to me like the money ran out, making this that rarity among films – a long film that really should be even longer.

© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

 

 

Black Book – at Amazon.com