Sunday, August 21, 2011
Inglourious Basterds (2009): Two Years Later
So here I am, returning to Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds exactly two years after its release. I have never written about the film before, but today I’m going to put my thoughts on Inglourious Basterds to rest with a definitive review, and then that will be that. To do this, I am going to have to be completely honest. And I will need to be clear on why I hated the film so much when it first opened on August 21, 2009.
Inglourious Basterds came out during a dark period in my life. My memories of the summer of 2009 are not fond. I had just graduated from high school, had found myself stuck in a demanding summer job and had watched all my friends venture off to faraway universities while I had to stay in town and attend the local community college. Our nation had elected a President I had faith in, but we were still facing the same political hardships every night: war in Iraq, torture at Guantanamo, a broken healthcare industry. I desperately wanted lasting peace—in my life and in my country—and it wasn’t happening. America was still wrapped in the blankets of political cynicism.
Now consider what happened when Inglourious Basterds came out. At the time, I was not yet sold on the concept of Quentin Tarantino being a great filmmaker, as I hadn’t yet responded strongly to any of his films. All I could see in his movies was the work of a filmmaker obsessed with violence, vengeance and buried right-wing fetishes. I was skeptical about the prospect of him directing a World War II epic. I had read an interview, conducted by Jeffrey Goldberg, in which Tarantino was asked his feelings about Holocaust films and had responded, “I hate that hand-wringing shit.” It sounded to me like he was quietly criticizing Schindler’s List (1993) with this comment. And I grew irritated after reading J. Hoberman’s early review of Inglourious Basterds in the Village Voice, in which he suggested that Tarantino was overturning the image of WWII as portrayed in Saving Private Ryan (1998). The more I read, the angrier I got.
So, you can imagine how angry I was when I finally saw Inglourious Basterds for myself on the night it opened. Oh, that was a bad night for me, indeed. I attended the film with a bloodthirsty audience that cheered at the onscreen images of Nazi soldiers being beaten to death with baseball bats and having swastikas carved into their foreheads. I could only interpret this as Tarantino’s apologia for torture and capital punishment; a crass attempt to appeal to the audience’s basest mob instincts. Was I supposed to feel guilty for not joining in the fun? I left the theater that night feeling miserable, furious and, above all, wounded. I saw Inglourious Basterds as a celebration of politics I despised and as an attack on movies I had loved. It was simply not a film I was ready for.
But then a funny thing happened. The movie wouldn't go away. People simply couldn't stop talking about it. How did I deal with this? Well, I began reading defenses of the film—one by Jim Emerson, another by Ryan Kelly—that helped me glance at Tarantino’s vision in a new light. I learned not only that Tarantino had, in fact, admired Schindler’s List, but that he had even cited Saving Private Ryan as an influence on his film. Fast-forward to Oscar season, and I was taking special notice of Tarantino’s unexpected appearance on The Rachel Maddow Show. He had suddenly acknowledged the credibility of the theory that his film was a partial response to Al-Quaeda terrorist attacks. And he reminded Maddow that his film was far from an infantile glorification of violence. “It would be easy,” he said, “to just set up a situation where we just go oh, kill the Nazis… rah, rah, rah in the audience. It would be like watching Rocky. But, you know, that‘s too easy for what I‘m trying to do.”
Now, it’s August 21, 2011. I’ve managed to see Inglourious Basterds two more times since then, and I like it much better now. It’s certainly a good film. But is it a great film? That, I don’t know. The movie is notorious for its violence; characters shoot each other, scalp each other and burn each other alive. How does Tarantino want us to respond to the material? One of the things I still find so maddening about Inglourious Basterds is how inconsistent the film’s tone is. In some scenes, Tarantino allows us to meditate thoroughly on the consequences of the violence depicted in the film. In other scenes, he seems to welcome our enjoyment of it—and our cheers. Is this simply because he felt like he had to adhere to the common rules of the WWII action movie genre? The film opens with a shot of a man burying an axe into a stump of dead wood, and ends with a shot of two men digging a knife into a living man’s forehead. It is, thus, a film in which matters of life and death are determined on the edge of a blade.
Take the film’s brilliant opening sequence, set in Nazi-occupied France, in which the dairy farm of LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is invaded by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) and his stormtroopers. Landa, nicknamed “the Jew Hunter,” has reason to believe LaPadite is sheltering a Jewish family under his kitchen floorboards. Watch how Tarantino builds suspense when LaPadite invites Landa into his home. They sit down. They smoke pipes. They switch off from French to English—an “acknowledgment of the blockbuster audience's limited patience for subtitles,” writes critic Ed Howard, “and, it turns out, also a component of Landa's forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can't understand English.” A glass of milk gleams in the sunlight, illuminated by Robert Richardson’s eerie cinematography. Juxtaposed close-ups of Landa and LaPadite’s faces, edited by the late Sally Menke, indicate that the game is up. And Christoph Waltz, a Lambert Wilson lookalike, single-handedly steals the show from this point onwards; not since Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of Amon Goeth had we ever seen such a memorably deranged portrait of a Nazi in an American film. “I’m aware of the tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon human dignity,” Landa warns LaPadite. We know he is not kidding.
Another of the film’s stronger story threads involves the doomed relationship between Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Shosanna owns a French movie theater; her family was massacred by Landa’s troops, and she was the only one who escaped. Zoller is a war hero—the “German Sergeant York”—now starring in a movie, entitled Nation’s Pride, based on his own exploits. He is bored with his newfound fame. His true passion lies in film appreciation, and he delightedly makes conversation with Shoshanna outside her theater one night: “It’s been a pleasure chatting with a fellow cinema lover.” Shoshanna despises Germans and wants nothing to do with him: “If you are so desperate for a French girlfriend, I suggest you try Vichy.” Although Zoller tries to impress her by arranging to have Nation’s Pride screened at her theater, he mistakenly believes he will win her love in the process. Shosanna sees it, instead, as an opportunity for sweet revenge, and hatches a plan to burn the theater down on the night of the screening—and trap all of the attending Nazis inside. The subplot involving Shosanna and Zoller provides us with a most thought-provoking contrast: a woman, consumed with hatred, killing in the name of liberty; and a man, seeking love, who inadvertently serves evil.
The film’s third most successful story thread is unique in that it transforms a film critic, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), as well as an actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), into action heroes. As Hicox, Fassbender sports a memorable Errol Flynn accent and generally serves as a mouthpiece for Tarantino’s infatuation with G.W. Pabst; at one point, Hicox’ impressive knowledge of German cinema even saves him, when his familiarity with the work of Leni Riefenstahl allows him to pass himself off as a native of the Piz-Palu. Kruger, far more convincing here than she was in Troy (2004), portrays Hammersmark as skilled in the art of handling people but inexperienced in the craft of setting up a rendezvous. The scene that follows, in which Hicox and Hammersmark find themselves pinned down in a basement bar by the leering Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), has been criticized by some as being overly-talky. Actually, it mirrors the film’s opening sequence quite well, especially if returned to on repeated viewings. Of particular interest is how both Hicox and Hammersmark accidentally give themselves away. Hammersmark leaves some important evidence behind. And when Hicox holds up his fingers to order three glasses of whiskey, watch how Tarantino is quick to catch Hellstrom’s reaction. Only an English man would up his fingers that way.
Now we come to the most problematic story thread of the film: the Inglourious Basterds themselves. They are a Jewish-American commando ordered by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) to launch a campaign of terror against the Nazis—a campaign founded on scare tactics and threats of capital punishment. I have always held the opinion that the scenes with the Basterds are the most uninteresting and gratuitous scenes in the film. It’s a nice touch for Tarantino to name one of them, Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), after a B-movie actor, but did we really need that repugnant insert of Stiglitz shoving his fist down a Nazi’s throat? And why did Aldo Raine have to be reduced to such a ruthless, mean-spirited archetype? Pitt doesn’t have very many opportunities with the role, and the character is not likable.
Despite the Basterds’ similarities to Al-Quaeda, Tarantino doesn’t appear to show much disdain for anything they do in the film—in fact, he practically exonerates them. And he never establishes them as anything less than heroes we’re meant to root for. Take what I consider to be the weakest sequence in the film, in which Raine and the other Basterds play mind games with a German sergeant named Werner (Richard Sammel), threatening to have him executed if he doesn’t cooperate with them. “You can’t expect me to divulge information that would put German lives in danger?” Werner muses, respectfully declining to cooperate. This allows the Basterds the satisfaction of summoning the Bear Jew (Eli Roth) to beat Werner to death with a baseball bat, in what is perhaps the film’s most controversial moment of violence.
I was offended by this scene when I first saw it, and I still feel the same way today. On one hand, Tarantino instills some audience identification into Werner by having him stare up at the Bear Jew without blinking an eye, proudly insisting that he won his iron cross for bravery—not for murdering Jews. On the other hand, when the Basterds continue to harass Werner, he launches into a pathetic, anti-Semitic tirade, which exists for no other purpose except to relieve any lingering guilt the audience may have over their enjoyment of his death. The logic presented here is that he is an anti-Semite and, therefore, deserves to die. It’s like Tarantino is trying to have it both ways: to satisfy liberals who believe he is satirizing gung-ho American “justice” in war, and to satisfy conservatives who would cheer at the scene, happy to see a Nazi getting his brains bashed in.
The Basterds’ storyline doesn’t fit in very comfortably with the other three narratives, which begs the question: what kind of WWII action movie was Tarantino trying to make, exactly? Further research shows that Tarantino is particularly enamored with two films: The Guns of Navarone (1961) and The Dirty Dozen (1967). Certainly the Basterds have a lot in common with the superficial American criminals Robert Aldrich gave us in the latter. Like the Basterds, the Dozen enjoyed killing, had no regrets about their actions and appealed to the basest mob instincts of audiences. But in The Guns of Navarone, J. Lee Thompson and Carl Foreman gave us a band of heroes who were sick of the war and tired of fighting; at one point, they even despaired when faced with the task of having to kill a prisoner of war. Characters like Shosanna, Zoller, Hicox and Hammersmark certainly fit that description in Tarantino’s film. But this, then, is perhaps the biggest problem with Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino has tried to merge a pro-war perspective with a more complex, apolitical perspective, and the result is a film that doesn’t know what kind of WWII action movie it wants to be. It’s because of this defect that I’m still not sure if Inglourious Basterds is a great film.
And yet, the movie has so many pleasures to offer—for cinephiles and for common moviegoers alike—that one need not ponder for an eternity over such a question. Tarantino has always had a knack for wacky humor, and Inglourious Basterds offers plenty of laugh-out-loud moments: Colonel Landa’s insistence that Shosanna “wait for the cream!” before digging into her breakfast strudel; the outrage of Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) at the mention of “Lillian HARVEY!”; the Bear Jew’s endless pronunciation of “Margheriti!” at Landa’s request; or Landa’s boyish squeal of “Ooooh, that’s a bingo!” when he makes an offer Aldo Raine could never refuse. An appearance by Mike Meyers, as General Fenech, is more impressive than I had initially feared; and Rod Taylor, fondly remembered from Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), has a wonderful cameo as Churchill. As expected, Tarantino packs the film with references to films engineered for the Third Reich, but he doesn’t stop there: his range extends from Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong (1933) to Paul Schrader’s Cat People (1982), the latter allowing for an amusing (if arbitrary) excuse to smuggle David Bowie onto the soundtrack.
I should mention, too, that despite the cruel images layered throughout the film here and there, Tarantino does not allow Inglourious Basterds to revert into a one-dimensional, anti-German horrorshow. “Tarantino's Nazis,” writes critic Jason Bellamy, “are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent.” And true to his word on Maddow’s show, Tarantino tries not to go for easy Nazi villain cliches. He goes to great pains to point out that Wilhelm (Gedeon Burkhard), a drunken corporal unfortunate enough to get stuck in the middle of the confrontation between Hicox and Hellstrom in the basement bar, is just a man providing for his wife and his newborn son. When he holds Hammersmark hostage and Raine comes down to negotiate, we hope that—as Raine claims—“you’ll go your way, we’ll go ours, and little Max gets to grow up playing catch with his daddy,” but it is no use. We know he is going to get shot. But Tarantino also finds other, subtler ways to humanize the film’s Nazis. Watch how moved Goebbels is, for example, when Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke) tells him that Nation’s Pride is his best work yet. We know that they’re both going to get sprayed with bullets in the film’s finale. But when that moment comes, we’re fully aware that we’re seeing humans, not cartoons, being slaughtered.
Let me explain what I mean by that. I must admit that despite my ugly experience with Inglourious Basterds the first time I saw it, I vividly remember how greedily I anticipated the film’s infamous final sequence, which attempts to revise history as we know it. I don’t know what it was, but I remember wanting to see what would result from barbecuing the Nazi high command in one giant auditorium. If I respond differently to this sequence than I do to Werner’s execution earlier in the film, it’s because I think the two scenes are dealing with two different issues. Werner’s execution is the result of pointless, vitriolic capital punishment—it’s unnecessary, it accomplishes nothing, and it saves no lives. On the contrary, the burning of the theater in the film’s finale arguably does save lives. No doubt humanity is capable of better, and wars are certainly never, ever won in such a crude fashion. But what if they were? Some of the most memorable movies show us things we may only get to witness once every millennium—or things we may never expect to see at all. “But,” as Colonel Landa explains, convincingly, “in the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand.”
Of course, there’s a catch. In Tarantino’s alternate universe, villains usually don’t get off scot-free, and sometimes the heroes don’t, either. Hicox and Hammersmark both die because of their own carelessness. Both the Bear Jew and Ulmer (Omar Doom) die willingly, with dynamite attached to their legs. Marcel (Jacky Ido), Shosanna’s black projectionist, presumably dies in the explosion right along with them, but dies knowing that Shosanna has a place in her heart for him. Shosanna herself dies because she overreaches herself in her obsessive attempts to secure vengeance. Zoller dies because he cannot decide if he wants to embrace his own celebrity or disown it. “My exploits consisted of killing many men,” he confesses to Shosanna at the screening. “Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing right now… I don’t like watching this part.” In one of the purest moments in the film, Shoshanna and Zoller wind up shooting each other dead—but their faces are still up there on the screen, in Nation’s Pride. They will no longer be able to deliver “a message for Germany” in real life. But in cinema, they still can.
I have one more detail to gripe about. It concerns the film’s final scene, in which Colonel Landa strikes a deal with Aldo Raine to help accomplish “Operation Kino” and end the war. Landa is recognized by the U.S. government as a double agent and is rewarded with a Congressional Medal of Honor, American citizenship and a lush property on Nantucket Island. Then, Raine and the “Little Man” (B.J. Novak) have Landa’s driver, Hermann (Michael Kranz), shot and scalped—deliberately going against the terms in the deal Landa and the U.S. government made with them. One wonders: why does Raine have to murder Hermann at the end of the movie? What point is he trying to prove? Is it to show off to Landa? Is it so that he can get one last scalp to add to his collection? Or is it for a reason I suspect: that Tarantino is offering Hermann’s death as collateral for sparing Landa, so that the audience can have the pleasure of seeing just one more Nazi getting shot and scalped, for one last bit of catharsis to top off a film that already has more violence than it needs?
I could go on and on complaining, but it wouldn’t do any good. To be fair, it is undeniably brave of Tarantino not to kill off Landa, of all people, at the end of the film, despite all the atrocities we’ve seem him commit and condone. Part of the reason why I intensely disliked Tarantino’s previous feature, Death Proof (2007), was because he intended for the film’s highpoint to be a scene in which a suffering, screaming villain was kicked to death. Surprisingly—and thankfully—he doesn’t do that again in this film. While we do get a rather disturbing shot of Raine and the Little Man carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead while he screams in pain, we understand why they’re doing it; it is not, as I once believed, an apologia for torture. “He’s a Nazi,” Tarantino explained, in the interview with Jeffrey Goldberg. “They’re giving him a scar. I don’t know if I would even go so far as to call that torture. He’s scarring him. He’s not torturing him.” Interestingly—with the exception of the Little Man, of course—Landa and Raine are the only two major players to emerge all in one piece at the end. And they’re the two most ruthless people in the movie.
The night I left that initial screening of Inglourious Basterds, I wondered how the movie would age. And I wondered if I would ever start liking the film a little better than I did. Two years later, to my relief, I have. I still hesitate to proclaim the film a masterpiece—as several of my colleagues have already done—but that’s not what’s important. This is a good movie. It has ambitions—some of them dubious—but most of them exercised in an attempt to encompass all that has been said about World War II in cinema’s history. And all that has been said about the Allied efforts. And, yes, the Nazis, too. "I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamned Smokey Mountains, across 5,000-mile water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fucking aeroplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity," barks Aldo Raine, in an early scene. "Nazi ain’t got no humanity." But Quentin Tarantino has made a film that believes otherwise, and Aldo Raine is wrong.