2006 TIFF Update #8: "War Zones"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Thursday, September 14, 2006

As horrible as war is in reality, it often leads to the best films. That's the case with two productions I saw this week in Toronto. Neither is officially listed as having a U.S. distributor yet, but I'm confident both will show up on North American screens before long. They have "name" directors and are strong features, so it's unlikely that either will languish long unpurchased. In fact, by the time you are reading this, a deal may have been announced for one or both.

In recent years, Paul Verhoeven has made a name for himself in Hollywood, directing such high-profile films as Robocop, Basic Instinct, and Starship Troopers. Before arriving in America, however, Verhoeven had a flourishing career in the Netherlands, where he cut his filmmaking teeth. For Black Book, a film he has been writing (on and off) for 20 years, he has returned to his roots. The result is a powerful and compelling World War II thriller that features note-perfect performances and an almost flawless screenplay. Verhoeven's sure hand, honed as a result of 15 years of big-budget features, gives Black Book a polished look that few American war movies can exceed.

Many male directors have difficulty handling strong female protagonists, but that has never been the case with Verhoeven. In fact, in the director's most infamous work, Basic Instinct, Sharon Stone outclasses Michael Douglas at every turn. Douglas may be the hero, but Stone is the one everyone remembers. So it is fitting that the central character in Black Book is a woman. And not just any woman - Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten) is a no-nonsense heroine. She doesn't stammer, falter, or fall prey to stupid plot cliches. She does what must be done to solve a problem, whether that's dying her pubic hair blond (that stings!), bearing her breasts to a boorish soldier, or sleeping with an SS officer. She suffers grief and falls in love, but never do her emotions betray her or slow her down. In today's world of dumbed down characters, most men aren't given the kind of respect accorded to Rachel, let alone women.

It's 1944 in Holland, and Jewish singer Rachel Stein is in hiding. A brief reunion with her family turns to tragedy when they are betrayed and gunned down by a group of Nazi soldiers. Rachel is the lone survivor. She hooks up with the Dutch resistence led by businessman Gerben Kuipers (Derek de Lint) and doctor Hans Akkermans (Thom Hoffman). At first, she does menial jobs but is eventually "promoted" to a position of importance. She is chosen to seduce an SS officer, Ludiwg Müntze (Sebastian Koch), who is attracted to her. The seduction is easy, but Rachel traps herself by falling for the dashing man, who risks his career and life to protect her when he learns her secret. When the Allied victory arrives, circumstances become grave for Rachel and Müntze as they discover that the end of the war doesn't mean the end of betrayals and killing.

Black Book possesses a taut, exciting script that throws surprises at the viewer on a regular basis. To say more would potentially spoil the fun, but there are two things to keep in mind. None of the twists are Hollywood contrivances and no life is sacrosanct. Having made that point, however, I must voice one objection about the manner in which Verhoeven elects to present the story. He does so by framing it as a flashback between two scenes that take place in 1956. Since Rachel is alive and well in 1956, we know she does not die in 1944. This recognition defuses some of the suspense that would have been present had the film not let us know at the outset that the heroine would survive. Black Book is gripping enough that there are times when the viewer may almost forget this.

I'm not familiar with Carice von Houten, although her filmography lists a substantial number of credits in Dutch productions. Having viewed her fiery performance in Black Book, I'm an instant fan. This is fearless, camera arresting work. Despite some fine acting by a variety of co-stars, there's no doubting that von Houten owns this movie. She's a great actress with a great body (which she and Verhoeven aren't afraid to show). Not since Ellen Ripley (of the Alien series) has there been a female protagonist so strong and heroic.

Verhoeven's last few years in Hollywood have not been happy ones; if this is the kind of work he can produce by returning to his native country, then I urge him to stay there. I am a fan of war movies, and this is one of the best to emerge about World War II in the last ten years. It has everything a good war thriller should have: impeccable period detail, wonderful performances, action, romance, tragedy, and heart-stopping suspense. If not for the unfortunate choice Verhoeven made in structuring the film, it would be a candidate for the best movie of the festival. Even as it is, Black Book is high on my list of 2006 Toronto triumphs.

The other war movie isn't as arresting as Black Book, but it's still a damn good motion picture. Rescue Dawn, which transpires in southeast Asia during 1965, makes three things perfectly clear. First, director Werner Herzog is obsessed with the story of Dieter Dengler. Second, Herzog loves making movies about men with a tenuous grasp on sanity who are trapped deep in the jungle. Third, lead actor Christian Bale no longer has a stable weight.

Rescue Dawn is based on the life story of Dieter Dengler (Bale), one of a very few survivors who escaped from POW camps during the Vietnam War. Herzog first told Dieter's story (or, more correctly, allowed him to tell it) in his 1997 documentary, Little Dieter Needs to Fly. Nearly ten years later, Herzog has returned to the material, this time making it into a feature film. When Rescue Dawn comes to DVD, I hope it will contain the earlier motion picture on a second disc as a special feature. (Little Dieter Needs to Fly is available on DVD, but not readily so.) To film Rescue Dawn, Herzog had to venture deep into the jungle - something he did more than once earlier in his career. This time, however, there was no Klaus Kinski to contend with. Instead, the lead actor is Christian Bale, who lost weight to play Dengler's part - this after losing weight to appear in The Machinist then gaining it all back (plus some) for Batman Begins. Considering the punishment his body is taking, no one can doubt Bale's devotion to his craft.

Dieter is a German-born American navy pilot who is shot down while participating in a top secret mission over Laos during 1965. He is captured by the enemy and sent to a prison camp, where he joins a motley assortment of fellow detainees. A man of action, Dieter immediately decides that he intends to escape, and begins formulating a plan. At the onset of the rainy season, he puts it into action. After he and several others make it out of the compound, they split up. The only one to accompany Dieter is Duane (Steve Zahn), whose grip on sanity is tenuous. For his part, Dieter is also having mental lapses - he hears voices and sees things. Staying alive becomes difficult. Not only do Dieter and Duane have to battle the elements, but they must avoid the Viet Cong and attempt to signal an American aircraft - not easy to do when they look like enemy soldiers from above.

Rescue Dawn pits Dieter against three daunting opponents: the North Vietnamese, nature, and (most signifcantly) himself. Survival in the jungle requires a strong mind and body, and Dieter must be on constant alert against giving up or losing focus. The journey is a harrowing one, and Herzog puts us right in the tangled mass of weeds and trees with Dieter. There have been a lot of movies about the Vietnam war, but none has provided exactly this perspective. There's not much fighting in Rescue Dawn. This is about all the other challenges to survival. Herzog understood when he made Little Dieter Needs to Fly that the ex-pilot's story would make an excellent feature. It's surprising it has take him so long to make that movie.

Christian Bale continues to amaze with his ability and range. He may be the most versatile under-40 performer working today. No role seems to be beyond him, and he has worked with some of the best directors of his era (including, but not limited to, Steven Spielberg, Kenneth Branagh, Terrence Malik, and now Herzog). He becomes Dieter, with all of the man's odd personality quirks and boundless energy. It's a great performance and requires a lot of dedication. Bale is supported by Zahn, who plays his part mostly straight but does occasionally provide comic relief, and Jeremy Davies, who looks like a walking skeleton (think of Bale in The Machinist).

With its high level of verisimilitude, unhurried pace, and stretches of tension, Rescue Dawn represents a solid effort from Herzog (who seems to be dividing his time between documentaries and feature films) that fans of the genre should actively seek out once it gets a U.S. release. Along with Black Book, this movie has reminded me that good war films and film festivals are not mutually exclusive.

© 2006 James Berardinelli

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