Monday, August 24, 2009
Glib yet deeply felt, absurd yet surprisingly reasoned, Inglourious Basterds might be the most confounding movie Quentin Tarantino has made yet. Through the sheer power of cinema, Tarantino attempts to overthrow the Third Reich. And regardless of whether or not he succeeds in this mad endeavor, we can be certain of one thing: insanity on that level can’t help but be entertaining to watch.
Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a jocose Tennessee soldier who leads the titular Basterds, a Jewish squad engaging in guerrilla warfare against the Germans, their sole purpose being to instill terror in Nazi hearts. Raine is nicknamed Aldo the Apache due to his demand that each of his soldiers bring him one hundred Nazi scalps—and if you think that line merely a joke brace yourself for a bit of gruesome corpse mutilation. But lest you cringe at the thought of two and a half hours of gore porn, note that the action in this film is actually scarcer than you would think. Tarantino builds the story around a series of tense life-or-death conversations as characters attempt to call the bluffs of their opponents, but when the violence comes it is in sudden bursts of lavish grisliness.
Even though he gets top billing—and the movie trailers get a lot of mileage out of his Nazi killing speeches—Pitt is really more comic relief than lead player in this tale (a typical highlight of this role comes when he pretends to be an Italian stuntman in order to sneak into a Nazi film premiere, wearing a look of dyspeptic agony while speaking bad Italian with an undisguised Appalachian accent). More central to Tarantino’s intentions is Shoshanna Dreyfus (played by French actress Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who narrowly escapes when the Nazis gun down her family in a farmhouse. Four years after her escape, she hides in plain sight in Vichy France as the proprietress of a Parisian film theatre passed on to her by her deceased aunt and uncle.
A German war hero becomes infatuated with Shoshanna and convinces Joseph Goebbels to premiere an important propaganda film at her theatre, unwittingly offering Shoshanna an opportunity for revenge on the Nazis. She schemes to lock all the officials in the Third Reich in her theatre—even Hitler will be in attendance—and set fire to the highly flammable nitrate film stock, using the power of film quite literally to end Nazi tyranny. At the same time, the Basterds are involved in something called “Operation Kino”—led by a handsome, swashbuckling film critic, which is how you know this is fiction, ha-ha—where they intend to sneak explosives into the movie premiere and assassinate the attendant Nazi officials.
But stealing the show from Laurent and Pitt is Christoph Waltz’s performance as Colonel Landa, or “the Jew Hunter,” as he is otherwise known. For a film riddled with farcically over-the-top Nazis—Hitler is a red-faced, ranting loon, more clownish than fearsome—Landa is a surprisingly chilling character, performed with grace and intelligent by Waltz. Eerily calm even in the middle of murder, he is more frightening than all the other Nazis combined because he is actually portrayed as a sensible man aware of his actions, as opposed to a delirious, hate-filled lunatic. As he observes at one point, he is simply a detective, and given the nature of his society, this means he looks for Jews. He is not only devoid of morality, but conscious of this lack and unapologetic for his self-serving cruelty.
Despite the occasional Landa-induced shudder of dread, Inglourious Basterds is quite obviously a comical, often absurd film, engaged in an act of creative hubris that begs for scolding. What are you thinking, Tarantino, by trying to rewrite history using nothing more than your own all-consuming love of cinema? But I can’t really deny this film. It sticks in the gut. It refuses to go away. Tarantino’s films tend to offer ephemeral pleasures at best, his plot digressions and convolutions easily reduced to a series of slick, ain’t-it-cool moments that rarely linger in the mind after the film is finished. Everything dissipates under the harsh light of the theatre lobby, and Tarantino’s precariously constructed movie-mad fantasies are blasted apart once the real world begins to barge its way back in to our lives.
By contrast, this knowingly ridiculous and cartoonish assault on the very idea of the Second World War is too outrageous to ignore or dismiss. Hitler doesn’t die in the bunker here, you see—he is gunned down by two Jewish soldiers while the leaders of the Third Reich burn to death in a movie theatre. Understandably, the film’s replacement of historical fact with revenge fantasies can provoke some agonized audience responses, particularly among some Jewish critics who are rightly queasy about the risks inherent in Tarantino’s approach. Do we really need images of Jews carving swastikas into Nazi foreheads, just as Nazis would have carved the Star of David onto their Jewish victims? By pursuing this revenge fantasy to such extreme limits, doesn’t Tarantino risk turning the victim into another victimizer?
Valid concerns, I believe, and ones that should not be taken lightly, even though some people will simply sigh wearily at the prospect of such moralizing ruining our good and bloody fun. It’s just a movie, they cry out, pouting at the prospect of someone questioning their right to enjoy watching a person having his face smashed in with a baseball bat. And yet, in this case, I think the “it’s just a movie” defense might actually be correctly applied.
Tarantino really doesn’t care about World War Two as historical fact. Let’s be clear on that. But note that many of the more genteel, respectable war films—just roll that combination of terms on your tongue and see how you like the taste—are equally capable of pulling their own dodgy alterations to history, all of which can be forgiven as long as the film maintains an aura of self-serious piety. In other words, both Saving Private Ryan and Inglourious Basterds are bullshit, but at least Tarantino’s film is funny.
This may well prove to be the future of World War Two movies. As that era recedes further into history, the war becomes less a lived memory and more a cultural commodity. It’s a genre, complete with its own tropes and themes (and as Tarantino proves with his various allusions, it can be easily conflated with other genres like the western, which also referred to real history before becoming fodder for modern mythology). Tarantino’s primary experience with Nazis probably lies in the video store, not the library, and so it isn’t surprising that he does not treat them as a complex convergence of various social, political, and economic factors in German society. No, Nazis are just what you shoot when playing Call of Duty. Inglourious Basterds is really a World War Two movie for this generation.
Knowing the Second World War primarily through the cinema, Tarantino has quite naturally made a film that is more about war movies than the actual war itself. Inglourious Basterds is about the image of the Second World War in our imaginations, and images are something Tarantino sees no reason to tremble before. In his world, cinema is everything and vice versa, which allows him to pose this guileless, naïve, yet difficult question: if we are truly free in our imaginations, why persist in envisioning persecution?