Tarantino's High-Octane 'Basterds' a Trip
Kathleen Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
Reportedly, Quentin Tarantino's long-gestating script for "Inglourious Basterds" originally reimagined all of World War II. Then reality (or Harvey "Scissorhands" Weinstein) reared its head, and the epic narrative got narrowed down to a single mad-hatter mission. That pared the running time of "Basterds" to a mere 153 minutes. Too bad. Tripping on Tarantino's "once upon a time" fantasy is like getting swept up in a fairy-dust storm of super-heated visuals, action on the grand scale and ultra-savory dialogue that's simultaneously sword- and foreplay. And who wants to come down from that kind of pure-grade high? Brutal, vulgar, sublime, hilarious, tragic, full of the heady stuff a movie-made director channels from the wide world of cinema -- "Inglourious Basterds" is all that, and more.
With a fondly misspelled nod to Enzo Castellari's 1978 Italian programmer "The Inglorious Bastards," Tarantino dreams up, through five chapters, a fabulous WWII fiction in which Hitler and his minions are destroyed by vengeful Jews and the power of the movies. This reversal of historical reality delivers visceral satisfaction, but that gift's almost secondary to the sheer mind-body pleasure of sinking into such a thoroughly and richly imagined world. Directors like Eastwood ("Letters From Iwo Jima") and Spielberg ("Saving Private Ryan") might not cotton to Tarantino's lushly melodramatic "theater of war," but like him they own every inch of their movies. And mavericks Sam Peckinpah ("Cross of Iron") and Sam Fuller ("Steel Helmet," "The Big Red One") were always honorary inglorious bastards.
Superlatively cut and paced, Chapter I of "Basterds" pits SS Col. Hans "Jew Hunter" Landa (Christoph Waltz), chewing scenery for his own pleasure, against a hapless French farmer hiding a family of Jews under his floorboards. (German TV veteran Waltz devours this juicy role with such gusto that he far outweighs Brad Pitt.) During this bravura Sergio Leone face-off, Landa weaves a slowly tightening trap of maddening courtesies and geniality, edging his stolid victim (and us) inexorably toward shattering explosion.
Landa's performance isn't, strictly speaking, necessary. The SS man knows his prey is underfoot; he could easily have had them all shot the moment he arrived. But for this narcissist, like every Tarantino character worth his salt, the play's the thing: the sheer pleasure of savoring a killer soliloquy, mesmerizing a terrified audience, timing the scene's climax. Would life be worth living in QT's cinematic universe if one weren't the lead, tricked out in over-the-top style and armed with a high-caliber script?
On another stage in Tarantino's WWII playhouse, erstwhile Tennessee moonshiner and snuff-sniffin' Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt, hugely enjoying the undershot jaw and stuffed cheeks of his Brando homage) looms large. In stark contrast to Landa's surgical panache, Aldo spews bombast at his cadre of "Dirty Dozen" Jews (short four) -- "We will be cruel to the German!" -- playing, wonderfully, to bloodthirsty groundlings. No subtlety or nuance here: Raine's style is as heavy-handed as his lust for Nazi scalps and his main man's method of dispatching Nazis: "Bear Jew" Donny Donowitz (appropriately, Eli "Torture Porn" Roth) beats their heads in with a baseball bat. Nothing if not eclectic, Tarantino happily hooks up cartoon killers and operatic sturm und drang.
In a long pressure-cooker scene rivaling Chapter I, Tarantino strings high-tension lines of shifting allegiances and conversational gambits all over a claustrophobic cellar-bar crowded with partying Nazis, a Marlene Dietrich-like German movie star (Diane Kruger), an undercover Brit (Michael Fassbender) and a couple of disguised Basterds. Trying to keep up with this glamorous gang's verbal / visual thrust and parry leaves one's head spinning. The scarlet wound of a femme fatale's lips, the hot, smoke-heavy air, disorienting leaps from one language to another -- everything ups the metabolism of the scene's choreographed edginess, as sharp and sadistic as bloodshed.
How long will knee-jerk reviewers whine that Tarantino's dialogue slows narrative momentum? Get this, fellas: All that potent, stylized talk, pulsing with the rhythms of life and death, constitutes pure action. Too bad that action-movie hacks like Michael Bay have conditioned audiences into believing humans are incapable of uttering more than one or two sentences between CGI'd assaults. In Tarantino environs, talk is as deadly as literal crossfire. When arch-villain Landa wages war by bouncing handily about in four languages, speaking German with the wrong accent or butchering Italian can loose a bloodbath.
The only survivor of Landa's cat-and-mouse game at that French farmhouse is a Jewish beauty who escapes to Paris, where she operates an elegant movie palace. Ironically, Shosanna (a lovely, bruised Melanie Laurent) becomes a movie-loving Nazi's object of desire. To curry favor, this "German Sgt. York," a hero for shooting down several hundred Americans from a sniper's nest, arranges for "Nation's Pride," the propaganda film (shot by Roth) in which he stars, to premiere at Shosanna's cinema. Informed that Dr. Goebbels' "masterpiece" will draw all of the Third Reich's heavy-hitters, including Hitler, the Jewish Jeanne d'Arc hatches an ornate scheme to avenge her family. Meanwhile, Raine & Co. make plans to dynamite the theater. Operation Kino is on, though, mostly due to Landa's Mabusian smarts, all the plots go gloriously awry.
Boasting an outstanding international cast, "Basterds" was shot almost entirely in the Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin, home of legendary Ufa, where German Expressionist classics like "The Blue Angel" and "Metropolis" were filmed, as well as "Nation's Pride," Goebbels' tiresome turkey-shoot. What better dream factory than Ufa to spawn a WWII movie that culminates in gorgeous götterdämmerung, with Tarantino's silver screen mirroring the Third Reich's moral and aesthetic bankruptcy, and projecting the terrible beauty of an avenging angel, kin to righteous Maria in "Metropolis"?
It's axiomatic that in Tarantino's films, every shot, scene, line is resonant with previous cinema. Why should that be a sin? It's called virtue when James Joyce packs every word, sentence, scene in "Ulysses" with history, myth, art, everything in Western civilization's cultural grab-bag that might enrich and empower his novel. So when David Bowie growls "putting out the fire with gasoline" as, pre-conflagration, scarlet-gowned Shosanna applies her makeup Mata Hari-style (conjuring Dietrich's doomed German spy in Josef von Sternberg's 1931 "Dishonored"), Tarantino's allusions complete an aesthetic circuit that enlarges the screen's sphere of illumination.
Ever irreverent, QT brings us back to earth with a low-comedy coda at film's end, crudely carving a signature in blood and opining tongue-in-cheek that "Inglourious Basterds" might just be "my masterpiece." Not quite. But worlds away from almost everything else pretending to be a movie this year.
Kathleen Murphy currently reviews films for Seattle's Queen Anne News and writes essays on film for Steadycam magazine. A frequent speaker on film, Murphy has contributed numerous essays to magazines (Film Comment, the Village Voice, Film West, Newsweek-Japan), books ("Best American Movie Writing of 1998," "Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West") and Web sites (Amazon.com, Cinemania.com, Reel.com). Once upon a time, in another life, she wrote speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, Joe Pesci, Robert De Niro, Art Garfunkel and Diana Ross.