Sunday, February 17, 2008

The most accurate depiction of Nazism isn't Schindler's List or The Pianist, but a 1942 comedy directed by a man renowned for sophisticated palaver. Trouble in Paradise shows how decidedly unheroic people adjust to terror, always conscious that a misplaced look or wrongly interpreted gesture will send them before a firing squad. It may be the cinematic equivalent to The Winter's Tale, whose tonal shifts from farce to tragedy -- sometimes in the same scene -- are a correlative to what life under Occupation must have been like.

Black Book isn't at To Be or Not To Be's level, but Paul Verhoeven is almost as adept a dazzler as Ernst Lubitsch. There's an abandon here -- a willingness to court ridicule -- that's refreshing, especially the way in which Verhoeven's manipulation of WWII movie conventions dovetails with a modern audience's response to the dogmatic sketches of school-age history. Almost half the electorate chose George W. Bush as our president in 2004 (and 2000), and an even bigger majority will countenance torture if it keeps us safer, but we seem able to accept the moral quandaries better than the pols who court Tim Russert -- at least we're able to admit them when pressed at dinner parties or calling talk-radio shows. These quandaries are etched in every curve of Carice van Houten's body -- she's a woman who can't repress an impish joy in the horrible things she has to do for vengeance and country's sake. I wish van Houten had gotten half the acclaim garnered by 2007's other big foreign film performance, but Marion Cotillard's Edith Piaf isn't covered in human shit, her distastefulness following a more conventional narrative arc. Verhoeven never lets the audience off the hook; he teases reactions out of us that dare us to feel superior to his helpless characters. This is what The Origins of Totalitarianism might have looked like had Hannah Arendt been a farceur. Hiring him to direct this material was its own kind of dare; Black Book requires his vulgarity, his exploitation of the audience's basest instincts. Hitchcock might have dared.

1 comment:

JoAnna said...

I have no doubt you mean To Be or Not to Be, Lubitsch's amazing Polish anti-Nazi comedy starring Carole Lombard and Jack Benny. Trouble in Paradise is the overrated 1932 romantic comedy by Lubitsch (The lead actors just leave me cold).

And my name is Richard, not JoAnna. That's my wife.