Cagematch: Black Book v House of Sand of Fog

I will begin by disagreeing with David Edelstein that House of Sand and Fog (directed by Vadim Perelman, directorial debut) is not a silly movie worthy of being abandoned.  Edelstein finds it silly that the government makes a brief appearance to make the eviction that drives the movie but yet does not appear again to correct the error of the conviction.  To this reviewer that seems to be par for the course for how the legal system often works.  Edelstein loses his critical eye by believing Kathy (Jennifer Connelly, Requiem for a Dream, A Beautiful Mind) when she says it is an error.  This interpretation of the eviction is never challenged nor corroborated by the movie, yet Edelstein bases his review of the movie upon it.

I enjoyed the movie. Is it correct to ‘enjoy’ since Edelstein is correct that “it is the feel-bad movie of the year”?  It is a sad movie, marked by people doing exceptionally stupid things for which they ought to know better.  The son (Jonathan Ahdout, “24”) should have listened to his father and the sheriff (Ron Eldard, Mystery, Alaska, Black Hawk Down) should have just known better.  Other than the gaff of the sheriff though the movie seems entirely consistent with my worldview and I had this movie been poised with almost any other opponent in this cagematch it would have won.

The acting was superb, which was to be expected from this cast.  There were not many names I recognized before watching the movie (just Connelly and Kingsley, Gandhi, Sexy Beast) but as the movie rolled on I recognized more and more people.  Perelman should be proud of this effort.

Black Book (directed by Paul Verhoeven, Robocop, Showgirls) is a much better film.  I am a fan of espionage fiction and they may have been enough to tilt the scales for Black Book but I do suspect most people would agree with this evaluation.  The movie feels like a David Lean film, but without quite so many long shots.  It is the largest production in Dutch film history and at times the movie feels like an epic with no end.

Like House of Sand and Fog the moral seems to be about people being forced into situations and predicaments that they can only go along with.  Michael Wilmington says the movie demonstrates a moral relativism, but I find this reading too shallow.  It is less about moral relativism and more about the lack of a side having either a morality or amorality.  For Verhoeven people are monsters or angels, but neither the Nazis nor the Resistance can claim to be exclusively composed of either.  The monsters always act monstrously, even though some are not discovered until later as the movie is winding down, and the angels are always acting angelically, even though appearances may be deceiving.

A Jewish spy (Carice van Hauten, A Thousand Kisses) falling in love with a SS officer (Sebastian Koch, Gloomy Sunday, The Lives of Others) is not an example of moral relativism but rather of a truly kind and caring person being able to see beyond the exigencies pushing upon the person.  I am sadden at Wilmington’s error because Verhoeven goes to extreme lengths to dispel the moral relativism interpretation: the scene where the monstrous SS officer (Waldemar Kobus, “Death Train”, Lissi and the Wild Emperor) captures her and sentences her to die, but first frames her to be a relativist/opportunist is without purpose except to counter Willmington’s interpretation.

Both movies teach us the same lesson, but Black Book does a better job of it.  Black Book is also more entertaining, with more love, more explosions, more intrigue and with less waiting.  See them both, but in the binary world of the Cagematch only Black Book remains standing

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