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It will be interesting, a decade or so hence, to look back at Inglourious Basterds and see how much, if anything, it has in common with other movies made in the latter half of the Aughts. Right now, it reminds me not so much of any other movies as of the spectacle of a man who can't dance without staring at his feet — but, oh, what his feet are wearing! At every turn, Quentin Tarantino seems to be answering the question, "Is this how it's done?" As a straight movie, telling the very fictional story of a successful attempt on the lives of the Nazi leadership — Hitler included! — at a Paris movie theatre in 1944, Inglourious Basterds is cartoonishly abstracted: the characters have no inner life or distinctive reality whatsoever. The villain is balletically nasty we can't help admiring his self-possession. The hero is all manly carapace. The women are tragic and untrustworthy. As a commentary upon the movies, however, Inglourious Basterds pulses with references, not to actual old movies but to a once-vibrant idea of what a movie might be. Like Hollywoodland, it embraces the fears and values of the time in which it is set, and it illustrates them with an inconceivable vividness. If it lacks the nuance of a 1940s war movie, that's because it is free to do so; it does not have to encode the unutterable.
In the standard war-movie narrative, the good guys do good things and the bad guys do bad things. In reality, however, the bad guys do things differently. Thus it has always been, and thus it was even in the post-melting-pot America of the Forties. (It was during the earlier war that Americans of German extraction stopped speaking German.) Although he is unquestionably a sadist — or at least a cat who likes to play his mice to death — the villain of the piece, a Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz), is presented, for the most part, as an unusual man. He may speak English, but never in a million years would he be mistaken for an American, and this is where the tension in Inglourious Basterds springs from. When the backwoods hero, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), is obliged by circumstances to step in for an urbane English film critic who speaks fluent German (Michael Fassbender), he's bold and courageous, but he's hopeless. As he grins desperately in the lobby of the movie theatre, wearing a stand-out white dinner jacket with a wing collar and a white tie, we happen to know that his cover has been blown, but what really imperils him dramatically is his inability to simulate the ways of a cultivated European. Who would ever mistake him for an Italian movie star? We wouldn't, and we don't expect the wily Nazi to do so, either.
When Mr Tarantino presses the tension between the like and the unlike to the limit, however, neither the hero nor the villain is present. The scene is vintage Tarantino: after what feel like quarter-hours of banter, the action explodes in gunfire, and the ensuing bloodbath claims almost every life. A group of German soldiers, celebrating the new fatherhood of one of their number, are disturbed when another group of German soldiers not only sit at their own table but steal the glamorous movie actress (Diane Kruger) who has been drinking with them. The men in first group soon suspect, quite correctly, that the men in the second group are not Germans. Because they're drunk, their querulousness is long-winded and dense. No sooner have the imposters, led by the steely but not altogether persuasive Brit, quieted them down than a genuine German officer appears out of nowhere and starts up the fuss all over again, this time with a gun. The standoff goes on for a length of time that would have been unimaginable in Hollywood of the studio era, but that's part of the point. The old movies didn't dally over the proposition that things are not always what they appear to be; they were afraid to call attention to the artifice of filmmaking. Mr Tarantino knows that audiences are wholly complicit in this artifice, and that the only thing more frightening than trying to get away with being something you're not is the correlative fear of the unknown killer around the corner. In a suspenseful motion picture, the audience thrills to both dreads at once. Because the scene is really about authenticity, Mr Tarantino makes sure that it is a lot of fun: the camera surveys all the angles with great verve.
Other sinkholes of identity failure open up in the quasi-romantic subplot that cultimates in Hitler's watching the latest of Goebbels's propaganda films in a theatre operated by a Jewish girl (Mélanie Laurent) who escaped the massacre of her family. The girl is anything but pleased when a passing German private (Daniel Brühl) takes a shine to her, but he turns out to be anything but just another Bosch. Not only is he the "German Sergeant York," but he plays himself in the film story of his exploits. Perhaps because of his filmmaking activities, he has not been promoted, but he shows up in some very strange, almost Ruritanian uniforms. Mr Brühl knows how to give his boyish charm a very creepy edge, as if he were a well-intentioned sociopath; as for Ms Laurent, she is not as plainly beautiful as Catherine Deneuve, but she makes it clear in scene after scene that she is more than conversant with her august colleague's work. Both actors hover at the edge of their impersonations, as though about to encroach upon them.
The climax of the film — a movie theatre in flames, barred exits, rattling machine guns, and a laughing banshee where the movie ought to be — sets a new, higher bar for disaster-film endings. The innocent but clueless victims of, say the Poseidon inversion are replaced by men and women who, by their very presence in the theatre, are marked as deeply guilty Nazis, and what happens to them does not trigger any sympathetic reflexes. Perhaps because there is relatively little close-up violence, the scene is indecently satisfying. If it is also very sad, that's because we know that it didn't really happen. Of all the counterfactuals that a filmmaker might be advised to avoid, this one would be at the top of the list, but Mr Tarantino serves up like a dream come true.
After the final blow-up, however, the film ends with a little joke in the pale morning light, as our hero does what he always does to the Nazis in his catch-and-release program. (September 2009)
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