Rescue me from the cruel sword,
and deliver me from the hand of aliens,
whose mouths speak lies,
and whose right hands are false.
May our sons in their youth
be like plants full grown,
our daughters like corner pillars,
cut for the building of a palace.
May our barns be filled
with produce of every kind;
may our sheep increase by thousands,
by tens of thousands in our fields,
and may our cattle be heavy with young.
When Paul Verhoeven’s film opens at an Israeli kibbutz in 1956, the psalmist’s prayer has bee partially fulfilled. Rachel Stein (Carice van Houten), a mother and school teacher, reflects back upon the events in her Nazi occupied homeland of Holland, standing in such contrast to the seemingly peaceful surroundings of the present. Those looking for an excellent film with a heroine as strong as Alien’s Ripley and a thrilling plot full of surprises need look no further.
The safe-house in the Dutch countryside where Rachel had been hidden is blown up when a low-flying Allied bomber, trying to escape the Nazi fighter planes attacking it, lightens its load by dropping its bombs. A young man rescues her in his sail boat and offers her sanctuary, but the Nazis discover her presence, so she is again on the run. She is reunited briefly with her family as their family lawyer Notary Smaal (Dolf de Vries) works with the Dutch Resistance group to arrange for them to join a group of Jews being transported by boat to Belgium. However, a Nazi patrol boat intercepts them, the soldiers firing their guns into the refugees huddled on the deck. Only Rachel escapes by diving into the water. From her hiding place in the rushes she watches in horror as the Nazis, led by the brutish-looking Gunther Franken (Waldemar Kobus) loot the bodies of jewelry and money. Later on she realizes that the patrol boat had not been there by accident, but was waiting for them. They had been betrayed.
Back in the city she reconnects with the underground, accepting a menial job. Soon she is promoted to take part in more dangerous, and meaningful, missions. Encountering a German officer in a train compartment, she feigns interest in his stamp collection to avoid detection by Nazi agents searching the train for underground agents. The officer is Hauptsturmfuhrer Ludwig Muntze (played by Sebastian Koch, the “good man” in The Lives of Others). They part, but are soon together again when the Resistance leaders seek to plant her in the midst of the Nazis to gain information. Once a singer, Ellis, the new name assumed by Rachel, becomes a popular fixture at Nazi parties. The first time she entertains she almost freezes up when her accompanist turns out to be the man who murdered and looted her family and the group of Jews, Gunther Franken. For such a thuggish-looking man he is a good pianist, and singer as well.
There are too many twists and turns to describe here. Expect surprises, as the plot often deviates wildly from the old traditional films about the underground versus the Nazis. I suspect you too will have a bittersweet feeling of relief by the end of the film. Even though we know that Rachel/Ellis will survive because she is at the beginning and end of the film, there is suspense aplenty for the most avid fans of the WW 2 film genre. We cannot help but wonder while watching the terrible moral choices the characters must make what we would do in order to survive in such circumstances. I suspect that as Christians, we would be turning to the Psalms for comfort and hope. Although fit for some young adults, the film is not for most church groups because of full nudity in a couple of love scenes.
1) How is this film different from other WW 2 films set in Nazi occupied lands? At what points were you surprised?
2) What did you think of the characterization of such characters as Rachel and Ludwig Muntze? More than one-dimensional characters?
3) Do you think Rachel has found peace by the end of the film? Remember, this was in 1956—what took place in the Middle East then? Do you think a person that did what she did and saw what she saw could find personal peace?
4) At her first safe house Rachel is made to memorize a new Bible verse before she is allowed to eat: what do you think of this practice? See any relevance of the passage she recites, John 8:12? What light do you see in this dark tale?