I feel, in the words of Malcolm X as though I have been bamboozled, led astray and run amok. I refer, of course, to the trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009). When it first filtered out at the beginning of the summer, the Guardian devoted a blog post to it referring to it as one of the worst trailers ever made and it was difficult to disagree with that assessment at the time. Having just got rid of a government who resorted to arguing semantics when addressing allegations of torture, it seemed tasteless in the extreme to produce a film that seemed to be all about torture. Torture not as a necessity to save lives but torture as an expression of basic natural justice. Torture as funny and entertaining. The trailer even included Eli Roth, one of the founding fathers of the so-called ‘torture porn’ sub-genre. However, the film I saw is not about torture and it certainly isn’t about cartoonish violence and stylised action. It is a film about talking. Just talking. And therein lies its greatest successes as well as its greatest shortcomings.
The film’s character is established in its opening scene. Somewhere in Nazi-occupied France there is a farm house in which there lives a man and three beautiful daughters. One day, there comes to this house a man in a uniform and a long leather coat. He needs to make certain enquiries in order for his office to be able close the file on the family. The man in uniform is Hans Landa (Christoph Walz), a man whose campness, charm and apparent multi-lingual sophistication poorly disguise a mind like a wolf trap. A trap that will slam shut should whomever he is talking to say the wrong thing. Landa and the farmer then engage in a lengthy bout of verbal cat-and-mouse. Landa will ask an awkward question and then distract his prey by asking for a glass of milk or whether he can smoke his Holmesian pipe. All the while, the tension is starting to tell on the farmer, trapped as he is in the prisoner’s dilemma between protestations of innocence and admissions of guilt in the matter of hiding Jews from the Nazis. Landa shifts emphasis and language, changes tack and tone, always pleasant and always terrifying as he slowly breaks the farmer down, reducing a tough and intelligent man to tears as he systematically closes off all avenues of escape and forces him to put his own life ahead of those of the friends he is hiding.
The scene displays not only Tarantino’s complete trust in his actors and in his own capacity to coax a performance out of them, but also a real capacity to keep his directorial style under control. This opening scene, as well as the film’s other verbal confrontations, are shot in a very naturalistic fashion that focuses the attention upon what is said. Meanwhile, the dialogue, stripped of the postmodernism and pop-culture references that made Tarantino’s name, has the same sense of theatricality and artifice that characterised the central verbal confrontation of Steve McQueen’s Hunger (2008). It is a tactical engagement. A battle of attrition. A fencing match. An interrogation scene reminiscent of other great examples of the genre such as the Poughkeepsie scene from French Connection (1971) and the inspired use of speakers in L.A. Confidential (1997).
However, more than anything else, this sequence is obviously inspired by the ending of The Great Escape (1963) and the famous moment in which the British soldier gives himself away by answering a question in English when pretending to be a foreign national. It is these types of moments that Tarantino has tried to recapture and expand into the basis for an entire film.
Indeed, despite their prominence in the trailer, the Basterds themselves are mostly peripheral figures played for laughs. Brad Pitt wanders through the film with a thick Tennessee accent and a protruding jaw similar to that of Popeye after eating a bucket-full of bees. In one of the film’s many ‘will the Nazis rumble them’ scenes, Pitt is posing as an Italian stuntman. “Bu-on-jor-noh” he gurns in what is possibly the worst Italian accent of all time. Landa responds in fluent Italian. In another sequence, Eli Roth is presented as the most brutal of the Basterds, stomping along a corridor with baseball bat while Pitt refers to him as “The Beeeeeeeeear Jeeeeew”. These are not action heroes, they’re grotesques! Roth’s performance in particular is so bizarre that surely even Tarantino could not have meant him to be a sympathetic character to be taken seriously.
The film’s actual protagonist is Shosanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish girl who escapes the massacre of her family in the opening scene before fleeing to Paris and taking over a cinema with her Black lover. The cinema itself is a wonderful building showing films such as Clouzot’s 1943 Le Corbeau, a film whose ambiguity perfectly encapsulates much of the French wartime experience. Due to her blonde hair and blue eyes, Shosanna is able to hide from the Germans in plain sight until she attracts the interest of a German soldier who reveals himself in Goebbel’s political film machine. This forces Shosanna into a number of tense scenes where she has to walk a fine line between the demands of self-respect and the demands of survival; She must present herself as hostile enough to the German occupation to be a regular Frenchwoman but accepting enough of a gift to avoid people looking too closely at her past. The balancing act is spectacular and it demonstrates what is ultimately the film’s central dramatic feature : A confrontation between two people both pretending to be something they are not. In the case of Shosanna, the farmer and the soldiers, that hidden nature is that of being an enemy to the Nazis. In the case of the Nazis, their true character is that of a brutal murderer lurking beneath the surface of a military officer who likes to think of himself as polite, courtly and sophisticated.
While the film’s series of verbal confrontations are fascinating, well directed and very well directed, they do struggle to fit into a wider narrative. These kinds of duels generally work well as climactic set-pieces or intense vignettes but when forming the backbone to an entire film they do struggle to maintain narrative. Tarantino attempts to get around this by using the Basterds and a few origin stories as framing devices; They impart what the film is about, what the world is like and what the stakes are but their the capacity to involve emotionally is extremely limited as they deal mostly with stuff taking place off-screen (the Basterds’ campaign of Terror) or at points temporally adrift from the main narrative (the introduction of Michael Fassbinder’s film critic commando). Also problematic is that fact that while these sequences clearly speak to secondary plot-lines, they do so in so detailed a fashion that the implication is that we are missing most of the action, which is a distinct possibility as I imagine that Inglorious Basterds’ running time has been vigorously curtailed in the editing suite.
On a scene-by-scene basis, Inglorious Basterds works very well. It is funny, tense, interesting and engaging. However, as a piece of cinematic story-telling it is easily as problematic as your average summer blockbuster (all you need do is replace verbal confrontations with robots hitting each other and the similarities are uncanny). Indeed, this is where the accusations of self-indulgence on Tarantino’s part hit home. He is not self-indulgent because he fills his films with film geek references, nor is he self-indulgent in terms of visual style. However, he is ferociously self-indulgent when it comes to allowing individual trees to completely obscure the view of the wood. Inglorious Basterds would have been a better film had all the stuff mentioned in the trailer simply been cut out.