Sep 8, 2009
This is the first entry in a four-part series covering Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. The last three parts will appear daily through the rest of this week.
1. The Myth, The Legend, The Man
It’s hard to know how seriously one should take Quentin Tarantino’s work. In interviews, he comes across as an obnoxious tool, a filmmaker more concerned with seeming cool than making meaningful art. To be fair, his movies provide ample evidence for this case; they luxuriate in genre excesses and often don’t seem to be about anything other than their own production. Sometimes it seems like he just wants to impress us with how many movies he’s watched, and bonus points if he can somehow find a way to fit Samuel L. Jackson in there.
At the same time, no one denies that Tarantino is a supremely talented writer and director with a distinct voice, and no other popular director in America can compare. Tarantino may be more interested in pure entertainment than other auteurs, but he does have his themes and concerns: conceptions of honor, the interplay between what an audience expects and what it receives, and the role of violence in cinema. These ideas aren’t necessarily foregrounded, but they’re present.
Still, Tarantino the public figure is really annoying, and in many interviews he seems to disavow any intention to make the audience think beyond visceral thrills. Maybe this doesn’t matter much — it’s possible to get something out of a piece of art without having the creator’s expressed written consent — but whatever Tarantino says about his films is bound to affect what we read into them. Watching a Tarantino movie involves a constant push-pull between moment-to-moment enjoyment and more substantive consideration.
2. Changing Languages
There’s a moment in the first scene of Inglourious Basterds that exemplifies why I like this movie so much, and Tarantino’s work in general. Colonel Landa visits the French farmer LaPadite to inquire about two Jewish children he knows to be hiding under the farmer’s floorboards. The two men begin their conversation in French, but after a few minutes Landa asks if they may switch to English, since the farmer apparently speaks it quite well. At first, this moment seems to be an in-joke on the part of Tarantino, non-English-speaking characters in American movies usually just speak English with foreign accents. Isn’t this silly, Tarantino seems to be saying, so I’ll just make them switch to English and save you the trouble of having to read these pesky subtitles.
Except it turns out there was a very good reason for Landa to switch to English — the hidden Jews only speak French, and they must not know that Landa knows they’re in the house for his plan to work. But here’s the really important thing: even though the switch to English plays a narrative role, it remains an effective bit of commentary on cinematic tropes. Meta-commentary isn’t separate from what makes for an engaging story.
3. Even More Praise for Christoph Waltz
When Inglourious Basterds premiered at Cannes, the big story was the performance of Christoph Waltz, a heretofore unknown Austrian-born actor who’s mostly worked in German TV, as Col. Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter.” Landa is in many ways an impossible character to play, to the point Tarantino thought he might have to scrap the project entirely: he seems to speak every language on Earth, is equal parts terrifying and goofy, is excessively polite as an interrogator to the point of comedy, and seems more interested in his ability than in the Nazi cause even though he carries out their plan with frightening efficiency. But Waltz nails every bit of this character from the minute he steps on screen. His line readings here surprise to a degree usually only achieved by Nicolas Cage, except this is actually a good movie and not The Wicker Man or Know1ng. One can only hope Hollywood doesn’t make Waltz a stock European bad guy from now on.
4. The Basterds As Jews
Plasma Pool’s own Kevin Hilke watched Inglourious Basterds and remarked that the Basterds don’t really seem to be Jews outside of the fact that everyone says they’re Jewish. As a mostly secular Jew, this comment confused me a bit, both because it’s not something I’d thought of before and because I have no idea what would constitute Jewish behavior for the Basterds (or myself, for that matter).
There’s a long history of films depicting Jews during World War II as vessels of suffering, which makes some amount of sense since the Holocaust is the most Jew-centric event of the war. (The one exception I can think of is Adam Goldberg’s character in Saving Private Ryan.) Movies like Schindler’s List and The Pianist are very well-made, but no one really feels compelled to watch them more than once because they’re so solemn, and Tarantino has said that he made Basterds in many ways as a response to these kinds of films. However, the Suffering Jew is such an established character in WW2 cinema that Kevin’s right: it’s a little odd to see a Jewish character not engaging in any Jewish activities such as lighting Shabbat candles, reading from the Torah, or even just saying he hates the Nazis because they killed his people. It’s not necessary for the Basterds to act like Zohanian super-yids, but they’re essentially Jewish only because the movie says they are.
I’m not sure this really matters — after all, Nazis didn’t distinguish between Jews who practiced and those who just had Jewish blood, and maybe getting violently pissed about Nazis killing Jews is enough of a signifier of Jewishness. But it’s worth noting that Tarantino strips the Basterds of the Suffering Jew label by stripping them of most broadly identifiable Jewish signifiers.
5. A Few Words on Diane Kruger
Christoph Waltz gives the best performance in Inglourious Basterds, but he got so much advance praise that his excellence wasn’t that surprising. The biggest revelation of this movie is Diane Kruger as the German actress/spy Bridget von Hammersmarck.
Prior to this film, Kruger’s Hollywood career consisted mostly of looking pretty in studio tentpoles like Troy (in which she played Helen of Troy, thus proving my point entirely) and the incredibly underrated National Treasure movies. She never showed depth in these roles, and I’m not sure I can even describe anything about her performance in any of these movies. Outside of her looks, she was unmemorable.
So I was somewhat surprised that I bought her character here within literally three seconds of her coming on screen. This is a tough role to play – we learn basically nothing about her beyond her two occupations, and it requires a ‘40s style of acting for the von Hammersmarck celebrity personality and an additional layer between her public face as an actress and her role as a spy. To put it another way, Kruger needs to employ the ‘40s style and a more contemporary technique simultaneously. She doesn’t have a false moment in the entire performance.
The only shame is that parts like this one usually don’t exist and she’ll be forced to return to the dull roles that had marked her career up until this point. I almost wish she’d just quit Hollywood and work only in Europe. (Also, did you know that French actor/director Guillaume Canet used to be married to Kruger and now lives with Marion Cotillard? What an asshole.)
6. An Interstitial Music Video
Tarantino has always been fantastic at using music, and the most arresting use of it here is the music video-ish montage of Shoshanna Dreyfus getting ready for her moment of revenge set to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire).” This song is relentlessly ‘80s, but it works in this setting because it QT matches it to some absolutely tremendous shots of Shoshanna putting on her makeup as war paint and preparing her projector as if it were a weapon.
I’m sorry if this analysis basically consists of my saying how awesome this scene is, but I’m doing it because the scene is really awesome, a perfect example of how music can produce excitement even when it shouldn’t logically arise. Detractors often deride Tarantino for eliciting cheap thrills, but watch the “Cat People” montage and then try to argue that the excitement it produces is somehow less true than something that feel more “earned.” Up until this point, Shoshanna’s plan has been given a little over a minute of screen time. Once this montage is over, everyone in the theater wants to see how it goes down.
7. This Movie Is Really Weird
A few weeks ago, Glenn Kenny analyzed the very peculiar structure of Basterds and figured out there are only sixteen scenes, which is pretty odd considering most two-hour movies have forty to sixty.
But there’s so much more weirdness. The longest scene consists of an exchange with little narrative function. Major characters disappear for more than an hour at a time. The movie is almost entirely dialogue, plus it’s in four languages and subtitled. The advertising campaign made it seem like the Basterds would be the centerpiece of the movie, but they’re pretty clearly minor characters and many of them don’t even have any lines, yet they are still the title characters. Samuel L. Jackson serves as a narrator, but you only hear his voice two are three times for a total of a few minutes. There are Tarantino’s usual references to the history of film, but this time he namechecks German cinema of the ‘30s and ‘40s instead of kung fu and car chases.
Even so, this movie is a huge hit and audiences love it. To be sure, Tarantino serves up a lot of things that you don’t get in your usual arthouse fare, but it’s still somewhat shocking that audiences have responded so positively to this movie. Every so often, popular reception of a work of art reaffirms your faith in the taste of the general public, and this one has to be considered a success even if it just exposes more people to foreign films.