Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

This’ll be my second addition to ‘Talkie Miscellany’ (see right side of your screen).

G.W. Pabst was a German director of silent and sound films, including a classic featured on this blog: Pandora’s Box (1929). That film deals with the intoxication a beautiful woman can cause in men of great power but measly character. Its star, Louise Brooks, had a perfect face, but her character was deeply flawed beneath it. And the men she manipulated were more dangerous than they seemed, though not always on purpose. So, Pabst knew something about the deceptions of appearance. In this respect, his movie shares a lot with Inglourious Basterds.

Basterds director Quentin Tarantino encourages the comparison. He name-drops Pabst and his films several times over the course of two-and-a-half hours, and we can take what we wish from that. Like most of Tarantino’s films, Basterds relies in part on our knowledge of types and tropes, genres and fads to propel itself. If a familiarity with a dead German director is less likely than a familiarity with grindhouse cinema, so be it. Both can be a way in for Tarantino, and from there, he’ll use our own assumptions to challenge us.

Let’s start where the movie does: Chapter One. In a farmhouse, in ‘cow country,’ in occupied France, in 1941, notorious SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) interrogates a farmer he suspects of hiding Jews. These would be the farmer’s neighbours, and in fact, they are hiding there, beneath the floorboards. We immediately dread their fate.

There are many reasons why. On an aesthetic level, there’s the eerie music (and lack of music); the close-ups of Landa with his false charm; the close-ups of the quietly terrified farmer. On a tactical level, we assume Tarantino needs to establish his villain’s credentials early on, and he’ll use an atrocity to do it. All these factors are at work, but I think they’re just the fixings. Really, it comes down to the uniform.

Landa is dressed like a Nazi, so that’s what he is. And what is a Nazi for us, the movie-goers? It is a type, and rather a rigid one. By his garb alone, we recognize in Landa a bottomless capacity for cruelty. Depraved acts are imminent when he’s around; any kindness he or any other Nazi displays is suspect. A ‘kindly’ Nazi is conflicted at best, and duplicitous, at least.

Landa is an unknown quantity to us when he arrives at the Frenchman’s farm, yet we are certain things will end badly. If not right away, then eventually. This is a primal reaction we bring into the theatre with us, and it is given voice by Lt. Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine (Brad Pitt), who states simply that “Nazi ain’t got no humanity.”

Aldo the Apache heads the Basterds, a Jewish-American commando squad that dispatches Nazis by brutal and memorable means. Their purpose is to sow fear in the German ranks, and they do it so well that they grow into semi-legendary boogeymen, whispered of among their foes. Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) orders the stories of them to be suppressed.

The German High Command has its own myths to generate. By 1944, Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has dedicated the Nazi film industry toward the single goal of glorifying its Reich; his latest film, A Nation’s Pride, will star an actual Nazi war hero. A Nation’s Pride will debut at a small theatre in Paris. Every luminary in the High Command, including the Führer, will be there.

This is an opportunity for vengeance for ‘Emmanuelle Mimieux’ (Shoshanna Dreyfus [Mélanie Laurent]), the young theatre owner. ‘Mimieux’ was the surname she adopted after fleeing Landa’s farm visit in Chapter One. We assume she’s the only survivor.

Emmanuelle, like so many characters in Inglourious Basterds, is built of layered identities. She shares this quality with Aldo the Apache, who represents the Jew and the Native American directly, and the military, Western values and generic gusto indirectly. She also shares it with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Krueger), who’s both German film queen and Allied spy. Then there’s Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the young war hero who falls for Emmanuelle, but like any Nazi, seems too nice to be truly good.

Above all, there is Landa. Like Emmanuelle, whose life he destroyed, Landa seems entirely fixated on his goal, which in his case, is genocide. While Emmanuelle skilfully maintains her ruse as a means of trapping Nazis in her theatre and burning every last one of them to death, Landa uses non sequitur, intimidation, etiquette and fearful intelligence to hunt down his victims. Whatever role he may play as he traps them, he remains, at core, a dedicated monster. He is the embodiment of his uniform.

But that uniform, in a way, makes Landa less dangerous. It warns everyone what kind of man he is, long before he says or does a horrible thing. Uniforms can be removed, of course, and then, if the wearer is smart enough, he can weave a new story around himself. Inside he’s the same, but no one suspects the truth.

By the way, one of the many dignitaries Emmanuelle hopes to torch on opening night is Emil Jannings, German star of Faust (1926), The Blue Angel (1930) and many other films. Jannings adapted to Nazi rule better than a lot of his contemporaries, who were ostracized or murdered. Goebbels named him ‘Artist of the State’ in 1941. One of Jannings’ greatest roles was that of an aging hotel doorman in F.W. Murnau’s 1924 German silent, The Last Laugh. In this film, the old fellow is forced into retirement and loses his mighty doorman’s coat. With the coat goes his entire identity, and he is destroyed. What this pitiful soul tried to avoid is exactly what Landa hopes to achieve in life after the war.

Emmanuelle dreams not of quiet retirement, but an operatic end to Nazism—a theatrical conflagration over which her pre-taped cries of vengeance will ring. She and Landa both seem to be dogmatic characters. The first is relentlessly righteous, the second, relentlessly evil, right down to his nickname, the ‘Jew Hunter.’ However, no one is truly one-dimensional—that’s a kind of myth, too. And it’s one we might have believed about these two if either had entirely succeeded in their goal. However, neither quite does. And that’s interesting, particularly in Emmanuelle’s case, because it’s due to a sudden faltering of will. One would have thought her incapable of that.
It falls to Aldo and his Basterds to be the advocates of truth. That is, truth in its most literal, least subtle, inarguable form. When the Basterds decide to let a Nazi live, they make sure he can never take his uniform off and hide. They do this by carving a swastika into his forehead. Tarantino milks this technique for gory effect, and we love it. But none of the scenes are simple, throw-away violence—I’d argue they’re the real point of the movie. The scars act like an arrow piercing the clouds of myth-making, romanticizing and outright lying that most of the movie’s characters live in. It is flesh and blood and bone and it says, ‘I am what I’ve been, and what I’ve been is what I’ve done.’ Note that during the game of Hedbanz played by the characters in the film’s long bar scene, some of them place a card (bearing a fake name) over that same spot on their foreheads.

What of the ending? I won’t reveal it here, but it’s fair to say that events don’t unfold exactly as we learned them in school. It could be argued that Tarantino takes the most extreme liberties with history for the sake of an unpredictable twist, and that would be true, really, but it’s not the whole message.

Relatively few of us alive today have been scarred directly by the events of the Second World War. We know it as a collection of tragic stories. Foremost is the Holocaust, but we’ve also been told of Normandy, the Blitz, the bombing of Dresden, and the obliteration of two Japanese cities by only two bombs. The harsh reality is that these things happened, and any story, even fictional, that attempts to place itself in their midst must eventually own up to them. It’s depressing, really. The ending of Inglourious Basterds, though, is a war ended sooner. That means fewer dead in the death camps or on the battlefield. Less suffering, less destruction. If the world was better, or at least run by better people, it might have turned out that way. And to believe it did, even for a moment, would be enjoying the best myth of all.


  1. despite the blood and misliding historical facts, i truly belive that Inglourious Basterds is a great movie! in fact, the first QT movie i really enjoyed from start to finsh! hope to see it again.

  2. So Tarantino would be pointing out the layers of fakeness of the people playing the card game? I never noticed that. Pretty cool. At first I thought some of the violence was pointless, like "the bear" bashing the guys head in. But maybe he's pointing out the fact that this is war, this is what happens. Hope thats the way he meant it anyway, not just throwing it in there because it looks cool or something.

  3. Your insights into this movie will enhance my subsequent viewings of it!