Saw Inglourious Basterds the other night with Firecracker. We both enjoyed it. There, done.
Actually it is quite entertaining for a 2 1/2 hour movie filled with long stretches of dialogue, and that in itself is an accomplishment these days. It’s not an action movie; it’s a Quentin Tarantino movie. Like his idols Akira Kurosawa, Alfred Hitchcock and Sergio Leone, he’s learned that we glean more suspense from the measured anticipation of violence than from the explosive act itself. The movie opens on the French countryside, as SS Colonel Hans Landa speaks with a farmer he suspects of hiding Jews. For fifteen minutes, we are rapt listening to the two men quietly converse over smoked pipes, and a glass of milk. No music. Much like the beginning to Once Upon a Time in the West, he forgoes the assistance of the soundtrack. You can hear the creaking of the floorboards, the soft wind outside. It’s a brilliant introduction and showcase for actor Christoph Waltz’s portrayal of the film’s psychopathic villain, the cold-eyed, relentless Jew Hunter, drained of all colorful excess. The final solution, was after all, enacted by bean counters. Landa is more of an Inspector Javert, all the more terrifying because he lacks the insane zeal of the Nazis, but has all the compassion of a laser-guided missile.
One girl does escape his clutches in this scene, Shoshanna. As she flees, he calls to her, “au revoir.” See you again. From this scene onward, I felt that the characters knew they were in a movie; it’s a Tarantino trait, and it isn’t meant as a slight or dismissal. One of my favorite films, Casablanca, has its characters practically winking at the camera in every scene. In the next chapter, we meet the Bastards, the infamous Nazi hunting squad of Jews recruited by Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine, a Tennessee moonshiner’s son with a hanging scar, that the Germans have nicknamed The Apache. In a shot recalling George C. Scott’s opening speech in Patton, he tells his men they owe him a debt of 100 Nazi scalps. Sure, it’s fantastical, and recalls classics as The Dirty Dozen. But there were real groups like The Filthy Thirteen, and psy-ops meant to break enemy resolve. The story has only the flimsiest grip on reality, and lives in the mythology built upon the foundation of hundreds of movies and television shows about the Second World War. And it rewrites history, like many of those films do- but in the biggest way imaginable.
Much has been said about whether Eli Roth’s cameo role as Donny Donnowitz, “the Bear Jew,” who likes to club Nazis to death with a Louisville Slugger, and how horrible his acting was. Personally, I thought he was fine as the ubiquitous “Brooklyn” character every WW2 movie has. And for a director, he acted quite well. No, he’s no Cronenberg or even Scorsese directing himself in Taxi Driver, but I’ll take him over another Tarantino cameo (though admittedly, his line ‘because he’s a stuntman’ was one of the funnier bits of Death Proof). The other standout Bastard is Hugo Stiglitz, a German deserter who killed a bunch of Nazi officers. Named after a Mexican grindhouse star and played by Til Schweiger- who was hilarious in SLC Punk!– he gets a lot of mileage out of playing the strong, silent type and gets as nearly as many laughs as Pitt’s ridiculous hillbilly accent. “I want mah Gnatzi scalps!”
And so does Shoshanna. Now running a cinema in occupied Paris, she’s met by Franz Zoller, a war hero starring in a propaganda film that Goebbels wants to premiere at the Ritz. She doesn’t know this when she meets him, just as he has no idea she’s anything but an alluring, smart cinephile. Played by Mélanie Laurent and Daniel Brühl (Goodbye Lenin!) this odd romance is captivating, as Tarantino gives us the romance of Paris with the backdrop of the terror of occupation. Shoshanna just wants to survive, but through Zoller’s romantic inclinations, she has her revenge plunked into her lap- the film will premiere at her theater, with the Nazi high command attending. She intends to burn down the house, not knowing that Allied saboteurs have the same idea. The saboteurs are led by a British infiltrator named Hickox played perfectly by Michael Fassbender of “Band of Brothers.” He’s stepped right out of a Pressburger & Powell picture, with the energy of a young Kevin Kline and the wit of a young David Niven. He and a few Bastards are meeting with the German actress Bridget von Hammersmark in a rathskeller to synchronize plans, when they unexpectedly find themselves in a Quentin Tarantino film.
This is the longest dialogue-driven scene in the story and the only one that feels a bit overlong, and too familiar. Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger of National Treasure) isn’t a caricature of Marlene Dietrich, who recorded propaganda records for the OSS and entertained troops in France, Algeria and marched with Patton into Germany. The Germans hated Marlene for it, but as she said, it was “aus Anstand”- the decent thing to do. Bridget is one better, by contriving to have the Nazi high command blown to bits in a daring suicide mission. She and the Bastards decide to keep their rendezvous in the basement pub even though a soldier is celebrating fatherhood there, and it ends up in one of Quentin’s Mexican standoffs. Instead of feeling like a trademark, it felt overused; much like the standoff over the pregnancy tests in Kill Bill Vol.2.
However, this leads to its one reference to the movie it gets its title from, The Inglorious Bastards (full review) where a group of bad boys have to take over a suicide mission, and that’s what happens here. The Bear Jew will get to massacre Nazis and their wives with burp guns while Shoshanna’s face is projected on the firestorm of the burning theater like the visage of a vengeful Old Testament God, as we’re delivered a brutal, fiery finale unlike any ending Tarantino’s written before. Their uppance has cometh, and it’s wonderful to watch, as gruesome as it may be.
Most of the criticisms seem unfair. Sure, it knows it’s a movie. So did Casablanca. Like most of QT’s films it is a palimpsest of his influences that came before it, and the characters are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern discussing philosophy behind the curtains. That’s my description of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and those seem to be the kind of characters Tarantino is most interested in. Like T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and James Joyce’s Ulysses, it certainly references and pastiches the works that he considers influences; he may not have the sense of humor with it that Joyce does, nor is it meant as an encapsulation of all that came before, as Eliot, but being a construct of references doesn’t dilute its artistry. He does play with the very concept of cinema changing history, as the accelerant that ignites Shoshanna’s vengeance is the nitrate film stock collected in the theater. The very films Hitler would burn as affronts to Aryan supremacy are the instrument of the Reich’s undoing. Now that’s all very clever, but coupled with his talent, it makes for quite an enjoyable film for cinephiles and moviegoers alike.
Armond White, that gadfly of film criticism, made the valid point that the Nazis are dehumanized de facto in this story, and Tarantino isn’t interested in telling us of the horrors of war. But I’ll take a wild fantasy like this one, which wears its heart on its sleeve, than one that buys into the mythology that America strutted in, made the biggest sacrifices, and blew Hitler away once our Allies failed. That’s essentially what happens here, a parody of so many American WW2 stories that ignore or belittle the great sacrifices of the British (namby pamby as in Patton) , the French (cheese-eating surrender monkeys, in practically everything) and Russians, who we were ordered to forget as allies, because they were dirty commie pinkos. I love that this movie pokes fun at that without moralizing to us about it. Because really, what war film truly shows us the horrors of war? Even Saving Private Ryan, after its bloody opening, falls into the same cliches. Night and Fog, and perhaps Army of Shadows show the pure dread of actually living through such a nightmare. Grave of the Fireflies, Gallipoli, Paths of Glory, A Midnight Clear. Does that mean every film has to deconstruct the war film, like Les Carabiniers? I should hope not.
I’ve enjoyed Tarantino’s films since I first saw Reservoir Dogs at the Angelika Film Center with my friend Jack Chan. I didn’t know what the hell we saw, but I loved it. The ironic soundtrack recalling my beloved Harold and Maude; how it was set in the present, but felt distilled from the ’70s crime films I loved. The long stretches of dialogue out of a Pinter play or the French new wave. But most of all, the bloody sense of humor that pervaded throughout. Then Pulp Fiction came and changed everything. Sure, we had to tolerate a lot of copycats, but it was like À bout de souffle (Breathless) all over again. Nothing was the same. I don’t think Tarantino can ever top that, and I’m not sure he should try too hard. To go back to Leone, if Dogs is Fistful of Dollars and Fiction is The Good, the Bad & the Ugly– has he made Once Upon a Time in the West yet? I’m not sure, but I’ll be eager to watch his movies until he does.