When I heard Quentin Tarantino was making a Dirty Dozen-like action film set in WWII, I groaned in spirit. With all the amazing eras and dazzling historical figures and slaughterhouse horrors not yet represented in cinema, we’re going to visit the Third Reich again? Really? Tarantino-ized Nazis? As they used to say in the old WWII gas-rationing ads, Is This Trip Necessary?
But it turns out to be a pretty interesting film.
That is, if you’re already genuinely interested in film, your interest will sustain you during the long, slow, boring, unmoving-camera parts in the middle. If you’re not really interested in film, i.e., its history and formal aspects and so on, I’m not sure what you’ll think about when the tough-slogging sequences get underway. Seriously, there’s a tavern scene that runs so long you begin to feel a slight edge of panic, as if you’re in a Twilight Zone episode and are condemned to die in the theater watching uniformed Nazis eternally bantering over drinks at small tables.
There’s a relentlessly repeated scenario in the film: an urbane Nazi observes all the social niceties while interrogating an anxious potential victim/enemy of the Reich. You wait for the revelation of the iron fist beneath the velvet glove. If you don’t think that’s a promising scenario, this ain’t the movie for you, because you’re going to see it enacted, with innumerable variations, about ten times.
I don’t mean to sound dismissive, because for people who really like film, there’s no easy way to dismiss Tarantino. He’s too good. I say that with some uneasiness, but it’s true; technically, stylistically, Tarantino and the creative teams he assembles, they can kick almost anybody’s ass. Beautiful, beautiful work. The shot compositions in the first sequence are so lovely, so effective, I felt the tears come to my eyes.
And I know, smart boy, Sergio Leone gets a lot of credit for those compositions. But really, that Tarantino’s-just-a-thief charge has always been silly. The question—in most arts and above all in filmmaking—isn’t whether or not you’re stealing, because of course you are. The question is, what can you do with what you’ve stolen, and as erratic as Tarantino is, by now he’s proven he can make excellent, highly inventive use of stolen goods.
Supposedly the project started as a neo-spaghetti Western, and there’s plenty of trace evidence left. The most publicized aspect of the film involves Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leading his band of “Apaches,” vengeful Jewish soldiers ordered to collect literal Nazi scalps, through occupied France.
(Why didn’t he go with the real Apaches? Incredible fighters, Geronimo, Cochise, and what a story, whether to cut a deal with the whites or go down to inevitable defeat knifing whites all the way! Now that’s a film, and nobody’s tried it since that pacifist Jimmy Stewart thing in the ‘50s! Argh, anyway…)
The Nazi-scalping storyline intertwines with other “chapters” involving Jewish girl Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who’s the lone survivor of the opening-sequence massacre, and German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Unger) secretly working for the Allies. Bedeviling them all is SS officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka “The Jew Hunter,” whose humorous, mincing precision and blank-eyed cruelty has every critic in the world hunting for new superlatives to throw at Waltz, an obscure actor who’ll now have a big international career.
Tarantino—he can cast, man.
While we’re on the topic of actors and performances, for some reason Denis Menochet, who plays Perrier LaPedite, the French farmer who stoically “hosts” Col. Landa in the tense opening sequence, isn’t getting his share of the accolades, but he’s every bit as great as Waltz. Brad Pitt’s also good, though he’s getting slagged badly for his performance as the unflappable kill-happy Tennessean. I think the general complaint might be that, as Raine, Pitt doesn’t move his face much, having gone with a Bell’s-palsy paralysis of the jaw in his interpretation of the character.
But it’s a good choice, I think. Always difficult to evoke old-time male toughness, and Pitt’s just drawing on the bygone acting style of the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. Awful lot of rock-faced actors in those days who in typical roles seemed to have two expressions at most, yet conveyed whole complex worlds—I’m thinking Robert Mitchum and Lee Marvin and other god-like figures.
Pitt lets his expansive backwoods Southern drawl provide a counterpoint to his fixed face, and gets off some wonderful lines. “Ah want mah scalps” is the one they’re selling in previews, but my favorite is his exasperated complaint, from a military point of view, about the basement site of a possible skirmish. “Lotta difficulties involved in fightin’ in a basement, the main one bein’, yer fightin’ in a basement.”
Give Brad Pitt a dark comedy with a high body count and an extreme character to play, preferably one with a funny accent, and he comes alive. Thelma and Louise, Snatch, Burn After Reading, and now Inglourious Basterds.
Still it must be noted that, having praised Tarantino’s casting abilities, we must also lament how uneven they are. He makes some terrible choices in this film that rub up distractingly against the excellent ones. Letting his friend, Eli Roth, director of Hostel, play the supposedly formidable “Bear Jew” who terrorizes Nazis with his baseball-bat—that was just stupid. Roth has a voice like Howdy Doody and no formidable qualities onscreen whatsoever. Mike Myers turns up pointlessly playing a British general. Rod Taylor—remember him from The Birds?—plays Winston Churchill, and while he’s not bad, there’s nothing to it other than a chance to say, “Really, that was Rod Taylor?”
The main female actors are a more serious problem, because they’re supposed to hold up big chunks of the film. Diane Kruger, no matter how much she gets promoted as a great Euro talent, is nothing to write home about, and that’s deadly for someone playing a revered German film star betraying her own country. She should be nothing less than fascinating every second. Instead, she’s just a blonde who can say lines.
Melanie Laurent is better as Shosanna, mainly because she’s so seriously pretty you want to study her face from various angles. Not a great actress, but it might not matter overall with a face like that. Still, in this film, she’s got a lot of emotional heavy-lifting to do and her frail little chops are sorely tested.
Eventually the storylines converge at the movie theater owned by Shosanna, the site of two rival plans to assassinate the entire film-loving German high command at one red-carpet Nazi propaganda film premiere. Inglourious Basterds gets slower and slower as we approach this cinematic D-Day, and it’s here that your genuine interest in film, if you’ve got it, will have to see you through.
Because here Tarantino is getting as reflexive as his most savage critics ever accused him of being. It’s a film about film, you lucky viewer! All the film-fanatic citations and quotes and homages that have gone before, and they’re everywhere, coalesce into a kind of self-referential Big Bang. The power of film to rewrite and reframe history, to propagate myth, to ignite emotions and shape fantasies, to warp and persuade, is all celebrated here.
The metaphor Tarantino’s pushing is film as fire-starter, film as explosive. The old silver nitrate stock (as Samuel L. Jackson’s voice-over cuts in to tell us) ignites easily and burns much faster than paper, and it was once considered so dangerously flammable you couldn’t bring cans of film on public transportation. Tarantino stole that metaphor—of course—from Alfred Hitchcock. He acknowledges the theft by showing us, in a quick split-screen shot, a clip from Hitchcock’s superb 1936 thriller Sabotage, the scene in which the nice young boy is told he can’t board a trolley car while carrying potentially deadly cans of film.
Tarantino doesn’t go on to show us what else he stole from Sabotage, so I’ll tell you. The boy is unwittingly toting film cans containing a literal bomb, planted on him by his step-father, a member of a sinister band of saboteurs who were clearly intended to be read, in 1936 England, as undercover Nazis. The saboteur is operating out of a London cinema, which ultimately goes up in flames. As for the boy carrying the film-bomb, he walks through the city getting distracted by every passing what-have-you and all the time the audience is meant to be freaking out because the bomb’s set on a timer….
Does Hitchcock blow up the nice young boy? Of course he does. Plus a puppy the boy’s playing with.
One of Hitchcock’s obsessions, worked out in various ways through his movies, was that the thing he loved most (film) was a fearful, dangerous, eerily powerful thing, wonderful to wield as the ultimate modern psychological weapon, but always potentially annihilating.
Tarantino clearly likes the idea of paying tribute to cinematic power, based on his borderline-supernatural imagery as the theater burns in Inglorious Basterds. He has the Nazi propaganda film interrupted by a film of Jewish defiance right before all the celluloid in the theater, and the theater itself, goes up in a transformative counter-holocaust.
To say the least, Tarantino doesn’t seem to share Hitchcock’s complicating fear of film. Tarantino doesn’t really seem to have any fears, none that get expressed cinematically, anyway. That’s what’s good about his directing, his all-out film-elation, and it’s also what can get tiresome about him, after a while. He’s the biggest film enthusiast in the world, forever shouting and pointing, “And look at this, isn’t this great?! And how about THIS?! And THIS and THIS and THIS!!”
It’s all eye-poppingly impressive, and the relentlessness of it will still make you want it to stop as you head deep into hour three. Then after you leave, you might find you think about it a lot, how interesting it was, even the boring parts.
So it’s been a good month for films: In the Loop, District 9, and now Inglourious Basterds. Things are looking up.
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