It was already late in the war when a German pilot bombed the hiding place of Rachel Stein, a dark-haired refugee soon to see her parents and brother shot dead in a Nazi ambush. With nowhere to go, Stein joined the Dutch Resistance, accepting a life-endangering task made all the more harrowing by her Jewish identity. Reborn as a flirtatious Christian woman named Ellis de Vries, she infiltrated the local SS headquarters as a singer and dancer, charming members of the Nazi organization secure, she hoped, under the cover of a head of carefully dyed blond hair.
Stein's story, as fans of Dutch cinema already know, is a fiction - the invention of director Paul Verhoeven, the successful Hollywood transplant behind such thrillers as Total Recall and Basic Instinct. Stein never lived - the character is a composite of three real women, with additional plot twists added in, Verhoeven says - but her transformation nevertheless makes the film, last year's Black Book, a viscerally effective look at the stereotypes that dominated the Third Reich.
More than six decades after Hitler's defeat, the movie - the Netherlands' failed submission earlier this year for a foreign film Oscar nomination - effectively tapped into one of the longest-standing images of Ashkenazi Jews, dark-haired outsiders easily identifiable in a region of blonds.
That, writes Joanna Pitman, the author of On Blondes, was always an oversimplification, with an 1871 German Anthropological Society study showing 11 percent of the country's Jewish schoolchildren to be "pure blond." (Some 42% had black hair, researchers found, while the remaining 47% fell somewhere in the middle.) The study, Pitman goes on, was not "well received." But when serving political ideologies, stereotypes have historically required only a loose connection with reality, perhaps nowhere more so than in the Europe of the Nazis.
Led by a man Pitman describes as "manifestly not blond," German artists did what they could to emphasize Hitler's "Aryan" features, with a 1937 portrait displayed in the Imperial War Museum giving the dictator "nice golden highlights," she writes. A political pamphlet quoted later in the chapter claims, ludicrously, that "Hitler is blond," writing off "rumors" to the contrary as a sinister conspiracy by the "black or red press."
The hysteria for blond hair led, of course, to more than just lies about the important people alleged to have had it. In Nazi art and film, blond hair became a code for all that was good, while Jews found themselves unceasingly portrayed as contaminants darkening a world of light. The genre hit its apex with the 1940 release of Jud Suss, a classic of Nazi cinema in which the Jews' corruption of a small town reaches literal and metaphorical climax during a coercive sexual encounter between a dark, physically repulsive Jew and the film's noble blond heroine. (Though the female character, in Pitman's analysis, is clearly not at fault for the Jew's crime, she must nevertheless "commit screen suicide to atone for her own defilement" - the tragic price of interacting with the Jews.)
The stereotypes would have particularly meaningful consequences for Jews blond enough to "pass," like the fictional Stein, as Aryans during the Holocaust. The phenomenon has been recounted in a variety of memoirs, while the Germans' preference for blond hair would continue to affect some Jews even after the genocide was over. One figure, the journalist and author Arthur Koestler, "later felt that his badge of acceptance was to be seen with blonde women," Pitman writes.
This painful history doubtless played a role in making comments about "non-Jewish" looks a high form of flattery for some Israelis in the early years of the state.
Verhoeven opens his film in 1956, locating his heroine on a kibbutz. Safe in her surroundings, Stein has returned to her dark natural color - a statement of identity in the film, one might infer, but perhaps a source of anxiety had the character been a real person.