Inglorious Basterds: Killer Cover-Up

Quentin Tarantino may have acquired the name, “master,” as many have. But at some point, someone should probably ask what he’s the master of, exactly. Inglorious Basterds explains it by being a reduced form of Tarantino’s techniques, his gleeful, violent certainty (certain enough to be mundane – his characters all talk in “shop-talk violence"), compressed into a series of tense vignettes that some will call an overlong wheeze and some an extravagant experiment. I believe it can be both and that neither is a mistake.

Yet, if every scene is its own little battle, how can it cohere into an entire war? I'm not so sure it can, though I'm sure it's a joy to watch either way. The main campaigns have to be broken down separately to find out.

The film opens with one of the best scenes in all of Tarantino’s work. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), christened “Jew Hunter” by the countryside, drives up with a Nazi death squad to the home of a dairy farmer and his daughters. The entire scene is a conversation at a wooden table, involving an aggressively calm drink of milk, one of Tarantino’s signature language shifts (Landa tells the audience he’s switching to English for convenience, as O-Ren Ishii did in Kill Bill), and a long windup to the bomb under the table: a family of Jews hiding under the floorboards. Tarantino selects the specific time to show us that they’re there at all; before this, we get only the vague sense of dread that comes from Waltz’s demeanor, as though he enjoys the bomb being there so much that he wishes he doesn't want to know for sure just yet. Tarantino doesn't tell us it's there right away for the same reason. We just know he's up to something.

From this moment, every conversation in Inglorious Basterds feels like it has a bomb that we can’t see. Tarantino uses Waltz in this movie like Spielberg used the yellow barrels in Jaws. We know that death is coming, simply because it hasn’t come yet.

It’s hard to imagine that the 52-year-old Austrian actor had almost no acting credits before this; Tarantino not only discovered a wry talent but he found his muse. In Waltz, he found the actor who portrays his style better than someone who more exemplifies it: they bring out the best in each other. What I mean is that if you put Samuel L. Jackson into a situation like this, as Tarantino often has, Jackson’s inability to contain himself (even sitting still, he’s bulging out of his eyes with righteous fury) reveals the whole problem with Tarantino’s style: it tries to be funny in such a serious way that it can accidentally become laughable. Those two build on each other in a way so appropriate that it's not always a compliment (Jackson was an ideal prophet for the style of Pulp Fiction; in The Hateful Eight, it felt more like someone covering a song they used to sing a lot better).

Waltz translates that tendency in Tarantino’s work to outdo itself into the intellect it’s always trying to be, into a taut windup of raw wit, passive aggression, and wry cruelty. He’s the great takeaway from Inglorious Basterds, as though he’s refined and revived old theatrics to turn Tarantino's love of mundane dialogue into beautiful fury. He’s John Malkovich after a few generations of eugenics breeding.

His scenes sparkle throughout Inglorious Basterds, from the minute he walks into this farmhouse and Tarantino reminds us of Wayne entering and exiting The Searchers. Landa knows that everyone in his presence will be nervous so he can’t suspect Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) right away as the Jewish girl who escaped him years ago and fled to Paris. But he proved early in the movie by letting her go that he doesn’t want to catch and kill Jews; that’s just a necessary part of the job. He wants to hunt them.

You get that same sense from Tarantino in this movie, not about Jewish people but about his audience. He wants to terrify you and prepare you for something violent much more than he wants to perform the deed. I’ve heard people call the scene in the underground bar “tedious,” but it’s a marvelous windup. Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, playing it like one of those balmy gents who helps Bond on a mission and eventually gets shot but is shown at the end with a full drink glass, an arm cast, and a beautiful girl) rendezvous with a lady actress spying for the Allies (Diane Krueger). She has the name of a German starlet (Bridget Von Hammersmark) and the square Dietrich shoulders to match. Hicox is a British film critic disguised as a German commander; his scene is an extended interrogation between a real German officer and the limits of the situation, doubly disguised as a critique of war movies by someone who should know them better than this. I wouldn’t mind seeing a micro-budget movie that takes place entirely in that scene.

And that’s what starts to become the problem with Inglorious Basterds. Every scene is its own buildup and release, saving almost nothing for the overarching film. Almost every one of these sequences by itself is better than the movie (it's impossible not to miss Fassbender in the rest of the film). Tarantino's love of title cards has become a weakness: they now feel like they divide completely separate films. Even though I like almost all of them in this case, the division itself becomes a problem.

The convergence of all its plots on Shosanna’s moviehouse where Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) prepares to premiere a Riefenstahl-Esque masterpiece starring a Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl), isn’t as intriguing as any given scene (Landa feeding Shoshanna strudels, for instance, where the only bomb is sitting at the table, hoping it doesn’t get lit). Tarantino acts like this movie is one long taut rubber band that snaps at the end, but that’s not what it feels like: it’s more like a bunch of little punches and then the weakest punch of all that tries to convince you that it’s the one that knocked you out. I was less interested in the final act than anything else because it’s where the movie’s ambition to be a madcap comedy becomes most obvious, at the exact point when it needed to be most tense.

To start at the beginning, there are threads of other movies throughout Inglorious Basterds. The opening scene may end by tributing the famous doorway shot from The Searchers, but the searching eyes and subtle cruelty also recall A Fistful of Dollars. Sitting at the table beneath the window, Tarantino evens out the focus to remind the audience of the serious adult conversation in Citizen Kane, held while Charles played in the snow in the background. Tarantino can rarely help himself from "reminding" the audience of other films. It has never been a greater advantage than in the winks of tension in Inglorious Basterds.

Fassbender plays a parody of British movie officers (thirty years ago, the role would have gone to Christopher Plummer) and Brad Pitt, the leader of the Nazi-scalping guerrilla Jew warriors called the Basterds, plays a ghost of John Wayne, keyed up by awareness, called Aldo "The Apache" Raine. Laurent is a grave presence; her part would have gone to Bergman. They’re the pins that hold the story together, into which Waltz occasionally appears to make it all run smoothly. He keeps the comedy on its toes.

Around the edges, there’s a lot of well-meaning chaff: Mike Myers shows up as a British commander (we are now at a point in film history where his presence is soothing). The horror director Eli Roth plays Donny Donowitz, “The Bear Jew,” who beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat. Reportedly, Tarantino wrote that part for Adam Sandler, whose little boy fury is evident in it. Acquiring Roth does allow him to serve as 2nd unit director for the film in the film, however, which they play at the theater at the end and which would not be out of place in any theater decades ago. I regretted Sandler's absence at the time. Though I don't think he would have made the film better, he might have made the truth of Inglorious Basterds clearer: it devolves into a comedy, and that’s where it stops working.

Pitt is a parody of old Western characters (he says “Nazi” in a way that rhymes with “patsy”) but accidentally plays them more rigidly than they ever were in those old movies. The experience of watching his character has an equivalent enjoyment to watching Pitt in anything; he’s not likable so much as a play on being likable. For most of the movie, he’s fun but barely functional dramatically, which is actually fine until the movie comes up with drama for him to do. It’s in the showdown at the movie theater that things go wrong with this movie’s tone. It's not Pitt's fault but he's accidentally a good example of the problem. Tarantino loses his touch for details, underexplaining the logic of the situation to the point of absurdity – it’s the reverse reflection of the cantina scene, where everything is planned so meticulously that the soldiers fail as a result of cruel logic, not dumb mistakes. That scene makes the war seem futile, in stark contrast to the movie theater sequence, which makes it seem easy.

Somehow, the three bumbling Basterds characters (Pitt, Roth, and Omar Doom) can get into a theater with the Fuhrer himself in attendance with TNT strapped to their legs, without being able to speak a word of German; the movie acts like Landa knows and is just toying with them, but it’s hard to believe that there’s no one else in the entire German army who would care. Tarantino explains why Landa himself allows this to transpire, but it’s a little late for the viewer's sense of disbelief.

The obvious counterpoint would be that "realism" has no place in a scene like this. That's probably what Tarantino was thinking too. But the film does its job so well up to this point, crafting tension out of believable hide-and-seek sequences all built on character and hanging by the thread of a single mistake, that the whole final act feels like giving up early. Before this sequence, any comedy in the film adds something unexpected to the tension, a sense not so much of taking it easy but taking it well. Fassbender goes out with a cognac and a smile after making a simple error, in a funny scene that remains believable because all the pieces act rationally. The film overall is not as well-crafted as this scene.

The rigmarole in the movie house is a situation where we can plainly see how the characters would get caught; the fact that they don’t is a matter of convenience, just so the screenplay can draw it out for the proper runtime of a climax. Compare again to the scene in the bar, where we were judging accents, looking for clues, interpreting glances and offers and refusals. We were seeing the possibility of great violence in great normalcy, watching as attentively as an interrogator to catch someone in a lie, surprised and impressed when the result is revealed. There’s nothing quaint or believable about the scene in the movie theater in comparison.

Its improbability sucks the tension away because we know how they’ll get caught: it’s just a matter of when Tarantino chooses to alert the guards. The film becomes a madcap comedy, one in which bumbling people make mistakes that the movie just has to live with. The tone is so strange that you expect Michael Myers to show up in a double role. The whole thing becomes too loosey-goosey, which is the kind of word a Tarantino character would love to use to describe it (with a serious face – Waltz could pull it off with delicious clarity). But the conclusion to Inglorious Basterds doesn't just act loosey, which is fine – it actually is that loose.

The result is that the movie’s big moment – where the Basterds gun down someone really important – feels weightless because of how we got there. There’s no real surprise to the act and no satisfaction in it because the ultimate strategy to pull it off (they pose as waiters and bring the target champagne before blasting him) is simple enough to be in a bad movie. When something similar happens in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, it served almost as the catharsis for both films because of how well Tarantino finally pulled it off, his final beautiful argument for how violence in movies can make us forget the violence in life. It’s so brilliant in that film that it feels like a catharsis for the real event. It's so unfounded in Inglorious Basterds that it feels less satisfying than the truth.

The film feels like a feint in the end, like its scenes of tension-building and release are all separate experiments worthy of film schools but not feature-length. It’s immensely enjoyable for about two hours because of that faint promise that it’s leading up to something even more exciting than all its little situations. But Tarantino takes it lightly; he stops constructing his house and lets it fall into a slump, like if The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly ended with a scene written for National Lampoon's Vacation. The secret to why that’s a problem is that Leone films, like Tarantino films, already have comedy in them, comedy of situations and tragic human nature. It doesn't need a comedy of errors as well when a comedy of competence is so much more thrilling. It’s just one more bit of evidence that no matter which masters Tarantino emulates, he never makes movies quite as good as theirs.

Yet this never stops me from having fun during his films, and Basterds is one of the most fun of all, a sample platter of stories from some of the best in Tarantino's mental library of homages, recreated for our enjoyment before all else. Catharsis is his secret talent – that’s what all his style and homage and passion amount to, even if the method is a little mad. He’s a master of the cover-up.

This article is a re-upload from Film Objective, August 9, 2020

Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Universal Pictures/The Weinstein Company

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