Black Book – differences in film & academic account

Published: 2019/12/04 Number of words: 1929

In a world dominated by the visual media, films are a wide source of popular knowledge about historical events. The film Zwartboek (‘Black Book’) released in 2006 is set in 1940s occupied Holland, and provides a snapshot into the experience of a young Jewish woman who partakes in the Dutch Resistance against German occupation. It also enters the debate surrounding academia and cinematography on how the depiction of a historical event through film is inevitably different than a professional historical account of the same event. This is due to its difference in nature as a source of information, and that the ultimate purpose of a film is not aligned with that of an academic account. The claim that film and academic accounts tell a completely different story is, however, not wholly true as both serve the purpose of telling a moral lesson, albeit using different methods.

The rise of the cinema has had resounding effects throughout society as a whole, not least evident in its widespread impact since the last century. It is necessary to note at this point that the primary purpose of film is to entertain. It is the entertainment value of a film that enables its creation in the first place, as it is this that viewers pay for when watching a film. The cinema has its roots in popular culture, as it took nations by tide in the first half of the twentieth century. Hollywood set the standards that other nations found themselves competing with, enthralling its viewers with images of glamour and luxury through this developing visual medium. The cinema appealed to a working class audience, as it offered a form of escapism ‘denied (…) in everyday life’ and expounded images of luxury that gripped its audiences1. The rise of the Odeon cinemas in the 1930s reflected this luxury and wealth, as the cinemas were often warm, comfortable and had other features such as bars, restaurants and sometimes crèches within the complex2. Cinema thus presented an affordable and entertaining past-time. The world of academics would never have been accessible to the same degree to such a wide audience, as it limits itself to a more exclusive sphere dominated primarily by intellectuals. The core difference between academic accounts and a film narrative of the same event is thus quite obviously highlighted in their separate histories: films were invented with the intention of entertaining. Films offer a medium of communication that is more accessible to the wider public than academic publications, the latter of which is often limited to those who have been trained in a particular school of thought.

Historical accuracy is thus not necessarily the priority of film-makers, as they can choose to alter the circumstances to better suit their plot. In this way, the past is used simply as a ‘setting for tales of adventure and love’ in which events can be invented or existing events are dramatised3. Rosenstone describes how a film often takes the vantage point of an individual or a group of individuals, as this allows for a more personalised approach to viewing the unfolding events4. Film as a medium is not only visual but can also use audio as a means of influencing its viewers: one can see a film but also experience its narrative through music, sound effects, the tone of the actors’ voices and so on. In this way, the story told is much different from a written account, as emotion pervades the telling of the event. Black Book is thus experienced through the eyes of Ellis de Vries, the Jewish heroine of the film. It is through her eyes that the viewer sees the slaughter of her family at the hands of the Germans, and the path she subsequently takes to exact her revenge. It is a spy-thriller that plays on emotions that are evoked by the injustice of the occupation, as well as the crimes against Jews and prisoners of the Nazis who are explicitly tortured on screen. It is the screams that reverberate through the prison that jar the viewer in a way that accounts of similar occurrences, written on paper, cannot. The past is thus used to portray themes such as love, loss, betrayal, patriotism and injustice. For this reason, the film tells a different tale in the sense that it brings events to life.

Black Book demonstrates how a portrayal of such central themes appeals to a wider audience than those who are knowledgeable in Dutch history. It also portrays how films have a tendency to develop individual characters to the point where the viewer feels attached to them and is concerned about their fate. This is also where films differ from academic accounts as the reader is not familiarised with any one individual sufficiently to experience this. This focus on the individual also stems from the American cinema industry, which even in its early stages featured competitive, daring characters in its films. This can be contrasted with British films of the early 1930s where the actors and actresses were expected to play more conventional roles. American films of the time espoused individualism, perhaps more representative of the American ethos which encourages self-advancement and, naturally, focuses on the individual as opposed to the communal. Ellis de Vries represents the powerful character of this film, and moreover she is a powerful female character, which seemingly highlights her strength even more. This follows the trend set by American films who would demonstrate ‘aggression and independence’ in their female characters5. It is an aspect of films, pioneered by Hollywood, that has been proven to be a successful formula. De Vries is also depicted in a sensual manner, resulting in some graphic nudity scenes that serve to sexualise her as a character. This is used as an advantage as she gleans information by using her femininity to gain access to German officer Müntze, with whom she begins a relationship. The language used throughout the film is often vulgar, and this aspect, in combination with the sexualisation of the protagonist De Vries, demonstrates how films emphasise the ‘common’ in order to render the account perhaps more realistic, but also to render it more interesting to viewers in its controversy.

The irony of the academia and film debate is that an academic account of a historical event can claim to be more accurate, but that a film creates a seemingly more realistic depiction. Barthes attributes his concern over the future death of historical narration through academic accounts to the fact that the ‘sign of History from now on is no longer the real, but the intelligible’6. It is the life-like, all-engulfing nature of this visual medium that convinces the viewer that the action taking place on screen is seemingly closer to real life than what is transcribed in a book. However, this can create a false-tinted illusion. Black Book starts off stating it was ‘inspired by’ real events but this clearly leaves plenty of room for distortion, as the word ‘inspired’ does not provide a clear delineation of what is truth and what is fiction, and hence makes no claim to be identical to historical reality. Nevertheless, the film does draw the viewer into questioning established stereotypes. It does not follow a black and white portrayal of the Germans as ‘evil’ and the oppressed Dutch as ‘good’, as controversially Müntze is condemned to death by the Nazis for his efforts to reduce prisoner executions carried out by the German secret service as retaliation against the Dutch Resistance. Dr. Akkermans is a prominent member of the Resistance cell De Vries is involved with, but as it ultimately turns out his role was discovered by the Germans and he thereafter works undercover undermining the Resistance in order to spare his own life, causing the death of many of his colleagues. The film also reminds the viewer that the Dutch (and not just the Germans) are also guilty of anti-Semitism as the Resistance is quick to debase De Vries on the grounds of her Jewish roots. The shaving of women’s heads that takes place at the end of the film is also an event that genuinely occurred as women who had held relationships with Germans were forced to undergo this humiliation. Members of the Dutch Resistance against German occupation were predominantly Catholics, Socialists, and Communists, which is also highlighted in the film. De Vries’ family are described to have been harbouring with a Socialist family, and De Vries herself is an onderduiker (‘person in hiding’) sheltering in a Catholic home at the start of the film. The Resistance cell she later joins also has a devout Catholic as one of its members. This shows how certain aspects of the film hold true to reality, despite having no vital connection to the film’s plot.

Films and academic accounts do, however, share a similar message. Both tend to have a ‘strong moral flavour’ in order to infuse the narrative with some form of meaning7. This is visible in the structure as both will have a beginning, middle, and end; it is notably in the ending that this moral message is most evident. In the same vein, they are both likely to have a progressive view of the past: this is especially portrayed in Black Book as the film takes place in the last months of the Second World War, where the expectation of the Allied liberation of Holland is rife, and there is hope for a brighter future. The line uttered towards the end of Black Book by De Vries (“‘Will it never stop!’”) is furthermore indicative of the moral message put out by the film, at the point where she is informed of the execution of German officer Müntze. This emotionally-laden articulation of the horrors of warfare is thus directly expressed in a form that no professional academic account would adopt. Both academic and film accounts can pose unanswerable questions, and whereas historical accounts may attempt to teach this moral lesson, Black Book shows how visual renderings will attempt to make the viewer discover it for themselves. It can also be debated to what degree historical accounts are inherently opinionated themselves, and to what extent historians can claim to have a monopoly on the truth: academic accounts are the products of individual historians, who may themselves be influenced to select and omit information according to their own tastes or beliefs, whether this is subconscious or conscious.

Overall, it is clear that there are many differences between films and academic accounts and therefore it is correct to say that they will inevitably tell a different story. Film sets itself apart as a visual medium, and as an industry film-making will be marked by the need to produce material that will entertain before it will inform. It is in the final historical message, which seeks to emphasise morals, that similarities between films and academic accounts can be identified.

1.S. Street, British Cinema in Documents (London, 2000), p.121.
2.R. McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951 (Oxford, 1998), p.423.
3R.A. Rosenstone, ‘To see the Past’, History on Film/Film on History (Harlow, 2006), p.12.
5McKibbin, Classes and Culture, p.432.
6R. Barth’s, ‘Le discours de l’histoire’, Social Science Information (1967), p.128.
7Rosenstone, ‘To see the Past’, p.16

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