' Cinema Romantico: Black Book

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Black Book

Paul Verhoeven - the man behind "Starship Troopers" and "Basic Instinct", amongst others - has never been known for shying away from excess and pulse-pounding pace. It's his vocation. The man isn't going to sit and ruminate, okay? He's gonna' come at you, guns blazing, bells ringing, wind blowing, thunder clapping, lightning striking, every man, woman, and child for themselves. And "Black Book", his first feature in his native language in some time and currently out on DVD, set during and then immediately after the German surrender of WWII, doesn't just follow the Verhoeven blueprint but decides to kick it up a few notches.

Rachel Stein (Carice Van Houten) is a Jewish woman hiding from the vile Nazis in a Dutch farmhouse. One day she's out on a dock, listening to some music, when a friendly young man sails up to her and asks her onto his boat. She accepts but before she can leave the dock behind a German plane roars in overhead, dropping its bombs, one of which lands several feet away in the lake, and another which lands directly on top of the farmhouse where Rachel was hiding. So now Rachel stows herself with the friendly young man when a local police officer shows up in the shadows to advise the Nazis know where she is and are coming for her. The police officer sets her up with some people who can smuggle her to safety in Belgium. Prior to this perilous voyage Rachel is re-united with her father, mother, and brother. All is well! Or is it? On the voyage a Nazi patrol boat shows up and guns down everyone - including Rachel's father, mother, and brother. Only Rachel, of course, escapes.

And that's just the first 15 minutes!!!

I mean, this movie moves. It's like a freight train. An out-of-control freight train! An out-of control freight train engulfed in flames! Are you one of those people who constantly has to ask questions while watching a movie? You know, "Who is that?" "Why are they doing this?" "Where did they get that?" If you are, zip your lip and prepare to digest because you won't have time to get out even half of your question before Verhoeven's made it so you've got another three queries to pose.

Once Rachel has escaped the clutches of the Nazis, well, she ends up falling in with the Nazis. Yes, Verhoeven turns Rachel into Ingrid Bergman of "Notorious" for she winds up garnering the trust of a Nazi officer by, ahem, sleeping with him to elicit secret info for the resistance. But if you think Verhoeven is content to simply polish and spruce up Hitchcock's 1940's masterpiece, think again. That whole plot angle keeps his attention for about another 20, 25 minutes and then he revs up the engine and takes a different fork in the road, and then another, and another, and....dear God! This is the type of movie where once the war has ended a character says, "The war's just beginning."

The movie runs about two-and-a-quarter hours and you may want to consider pausing it every now and then to catch your breath. Walk the dog. Fix a cocktail. Splash some cold water in your face. But don't think for a second that I'm trying to discourage you from seeing this movie. "Black Book" is a movie I would term entirely watchable. It's pure, rousing, kinetic entertainment. It moves at breakneck speed but nothing feels tacked-on, fluffed up, or bloated. Plot twists are plentiful but never confusing. And take immense note of the way Verhoeven almost entirely avoids using montages. Do you know how rare that is for a modern-day action picture?

The story goes that when George Lucas finished writing the first "Star Wars" that the script, in fact, was all three movies (meaning "Star Wars", "The Empire Strikes Back", "Return of the Jedi") together. But realizing the colossal task of filming a movie so big he merely took the first act and filmed that. He then, of course, filmed the second act, and the third act later. I get the feeling "Black Book" was the same situation. The script was really three movies in one. But rather than deeming it too colossal, Verhoeven merely bellowed, "The hell with it. We're making the whole damn thing."

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