Inglorious Basterds

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Quentin Tarantino is trying his hardest to be Sergio Leone. However, he's not always succeeding.

Case in point: the scene where the beautiful heroine gets killed by a Nazi war hero/movie star/stud muffin. It has Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack, it has two senseless deaths and it’s exquisitely filmed. But it doesn't pull the heart strings - it doesn't have the power to illicit emotion like Leone's films did. Instead it reeks of someone trying hard to pay homage to a master and coming close to equalling them but just falling short.

The problem is that the relationship between the two characters isn't deserving of such an operatic sequence. Here we have a Nazi soldier who develops a fondness for a French Jew (he doesn't know that she's a Jew). What results are a few scenes of him pestering the poor girl. We never really get the impression that she has any fondness for the man. In fact, she seems to hate him. After all, her family was slaughtered by Nazis. So everything comes to a head during the final sequence at a Nazi film premiere. The war hero wants to see the girl and literally won’t take no for an answer - he breaks into the projection booth. The girl then makes out that she's interested in fucking him and shoots him in the back. Okay, one less Nazi in the world - excellent. But then the girl watches the film that is playing in the cinema - a film that both stars and is about the war hero's exploits in Italy (alone in a sniper's nest, he killed more than three hundred men). For some reason she seems moved by his ordeal and goes to comfort him. He then shoots her and kills her as Morricone blasts on the soundtrack. Had there been more complexity in relationship or had there been any chemistry between the two or even if the Nazi hadn't been a prick and tried to break into the projection booth so that he could fuck the girl, I would have enjoyed the scene more. But instead, emotionally, it falls completely flat. Yes it’s well filmed and choreographed, but that's not enough. Tarantino still doesn't quite have the skill to engage the emotions.

Tarantino is far better suited to suspense sequences and action scenes. The opening is an excellent example of what Tarantino does best. Yes it has its nods to Leone and spaghetti westerns with the slow arrival of the main villain and the Morricone that pounds on the soundtrack, but once the characters begin talking it’s distinctly QT. A Nazi Colonel called Hans Landa, a man nicknamed ‘The Jew Hunter’, talks with a French farmer. He very politely inquires after some local Jews – he’s been charged with hunting them down. The farmer says he doesn’t know where they are. What makes the scene so engrossing is how overly cordial it is. The Nazi Colonel doesn’t scream and shout. He doesn’t threaten the man. He’s actually charming. And using this charm he manages to get the farmer to confess that he’s hiding the Jews under the floorboards. We then have a brief burst of violence as some Stormtroopers enter the property so that they can shoot through the floorboards and kill the cowering Jews.

It’s this duality that makes Landa such an entertaining character – he’s charming but horrible; he’s funny but disgusting. Summing this up is a scene where he talks to Shosanna, the lone survivor of the massacre that opens the film. Landa isn’t aware of who she is, so he’s very friendly, very charming; his French is impeccable. But at the same time there’s something off about him. For one he’s very insistent that she must eat some strudel. Secondly, once he’s sated, he sticks his cigarette into his food. It’s the smallest hint of his true nature – that he isn’t the charming sophisticate he purports to be.

A favourite Landa moment of mine is when he confronts a German actress at a Nazi film premiere. He’s just discovered that she’s defected to the Allies and that she was involved in a gun battle – she got shot in her leg. Therefore he’s highly amused when she tries to convince him that she got her injury in a mountain climbing accident. His laughter is so over the top and hysterical that even she knows that he knows that she’s lying. It’s a very amusing moment but it’s promptly followed by his grisly murder of her. He takes her to his office and strangles her to death. Again humour and violence queasily co-exist with one another.

The end of the film sees the height of the film’s comedy. However, it also illustrates one of the film’s problems. You see, Landa decides to defect to the Allies. It’s never fully explained why he does this. Maybe he sees the writing on the wall for the Nazi party and decides to get out while he can. Who knows? But as he’s negotiating he suddenly exclaims, in a very camp, childlike way, ‘That’s a bingo!’ It’s a moment that had me howling with laughter but I’m not sure whether it really helps the movie. Yeah the film is amusing but sometimes the humour works against the film as a whole – it makes the characters more cartoonish and reduces the amount of tension.

Another example of this is when the ‘Basterds’ sneak into the Nazi premiere. Their German speaking members have been killed and so Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine says that he and another couple of soldiers will attend the premiere as Italian filmmakers, and seeing as Raine can speak the best Italian, he’ll do most of the talking. Cue Brad Pitt saying ‘grazie’ in a redneck accent. Yes it’s very, very funny, but it kind of makes Raine look buffoonish. Suddenly he doesn’t seem like a dangerous platoon leader – he’s a clown.

The same goes for the other Basterds who attend the premiere. One of them is a fearsome soldier who kills Nazis with a baseball bat. But at the end he also becomes a buffoonish figure speaking stereotypical ‘I-talian’.

That being said, he does redeem himself at the very end by pretending to be a waiter and glassing a Nazi soldier. He then breaks into an opera box and kills Hitler. The wish-fulfilment here is fantastic and he even shoots Hitler repeatedly in the face as his dead body lies on the floor – Tarantino is rewriting history for us and making it considerably more satisfying.

The final action scene, though, brought another film to mind. As the Basterds dispatched Nazis in a suicidal attack I couldn’t help but think of the machine gun scene in The Wild Bunch. The scene here isn’t anywhere close to that piece of genius but it does the job – you get to see the most important people in the Nazi party get shot, burnt and blown to bits. You’d have to be a fascist or the most insane bleeding heart liberal not to get a kick out of it.

The end of the film has Aldo Raine proclaiming that this might be his masterpiece. I wonder whether Tarantino thinks the same way. If he does, he’s mistaken. As hugely enjoyable as the film is, there are too many things working against it for it to be considered truly great. The buffoonish humour, the sometimes strange character motivations and the unsuccessful attempts to produce emotion all work against it. As does the incredibly strange casting of Mike Myers as a British officer. His scene is one of the worst in the film, as he’s basically playing a toffee-nosed Austin Powers. Thankfully though, he’s on and off the screen in no time.

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  1. Honestly, this movie far surpassed my expectations. I was pretty impressed with it. Overall, tho, I'd say Tarantino is strongest at the level of the scene, less so over an entire film. Many of the individual scenes were brilliantly constructed and very well played out, but the overall structure and story didn't cohere or flow all that well.

    If you're into Leone and Morricone, though, you should check out my Spaghetti Western Concept Rap album, called "Showdown at the BK Corral." It's basically a Spaghetti Western over 9 tracks - very influenced by the two great Italians. I'd love to hear what you think of it! You can download it for free at