After months of prodding, I finally convinced Ashley to present a film for us, and (in my opinion) she came up with a classic: Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds. I’ll admit that I skipped this one in the theaters (and deliberately went to see Prometheus) so that shows what I know.
Due to some technical issues (namely: bring your VGA adapter if you want to connect a Mac laptop) we didn’t have a short, but given the length of the movie – 2.5 hours, but a seemingly brief 2.5 hours – it’s probably just as well.
“Inglourious Basterds” is not a typo – at least not MY typo, though there are questions about Tarantino’s ability to spell in his screenplays; it is also not a remake of the the 1978 film of the same title, although there are some obvious stylistic similarities looking at the movie poster as well as the setting in WWII Europe. What it is, is a Tarantino film with what was to me a very surprising ending.
The film starts in a house in occupied rural France in 1941, where a farmer who is in fact hiding a family of Jews under his floorboards gets a visit from Colonel Hans Landa, the Nazis’ famed “Jew Hunter”. Landa sniffs out the hiding Dreyfus family and has his goons machine-gun them through the floor. Somehow, the eldest Dreyfus daughter Shosanna is spared from the machine gun fire and escapes through a basement window. Landa sees her running away and takes aim (with a pistol) but in the end declines to fire. Eh, it was a pistol and she was 100 yards off and running. He’d probably have missed anyway.
Jump to 1944. Hick Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) has put together a crack squad of Nazi hunters (the eponymous Basterds) who are causing chaos in Hitler’s regime. Their M.O. is to capture small troops of officers, kill them all save one (many bludgeoned to death by the feared “Bear Jew”) and allow one survivor to tell of their exploits. Raine, lest the survivor try to later disavow his Nazism, carves a swastika into his forehead.
At this point, two independent plots against the Nazis begin to unwittingly converge. In the first, the surviving Shosanna (now taking the name “Emmanuelle Mimieux”) has found herself in Paris and the owner of a movie theater, which it appears she has inherited from the former owners who took her in as their “daughter” after her escape. Because she’s a hottie she gets hit on by a young Nazi officer who frequents her theater, and who turns out to be A) a war hero with a remarkable story and B) the star of an upcoming propaganda movie about his very own remarkable war story. Not getting the hint that she doesn’t like him, he arranges to have the film’s premiere moved from another theater to hers.
She doesn’t really have any choice. And worse, while she is being “vetted” by Goebbels she has a harrowing run-in with Hans Landa, the vicious murderer of her family. Landa doesn’t recognize her, but knowing that he’ll be at the premiere (along with Goebbels and and Hitler himself), she hatches a plot to burn down the theater with hundreds of Nazis locked inside.
Meanwhile, the Basterds have been afforded the opportunity to hit the high profile Hitler/Goebbels target at the premiere through German superstar actress Bridget von Hammersmark, who is working for the allies. von Hammersmark arranges a meeting in a basement bar, which Aldo Raine is pretty upset about – it’s the last place you want to have to fight out of if it’s a trap. Well, it isn’t a trap, but naturally things go badly anyway.
Several of the Basterds are impersonating German officers for the meeting, but a real German officer becomes suspicious of one due to a sub-par accent. There’s quite a bit of passive-aggressive interrogation going on, but the Brit finally gives himself away by asking for three glasses with his index-middle-ring fingers instead of the German thumb-index-middle. This does in fact precipitate a firefight, where the only survivor is a leg-wounded von Hammersmark.
She is collected by the remaining members of the Basterds who were waiting outside (including Raine and the Bear Jew) and despite the setback (for instance, losing the German-impersonators in the group) Raine decides to try to go forward with the plan, absurdly having the remaining members of the Basterds pose as Italians despite the fact that…well, nobody really speaks Italian. Bad idea, but von Hammersmark gets them into the theater armed with guns and explosives.
Unfortunately, Hans Landa is completely onto them, due to finding von Hammersmark’s autograph and heels in the aftermath of the bar fight, and it’s not like he’s fooled by Raine when they are introduced in the theater lobby and Raine tries to speak in Eye-Tahl-Yun. Two armed Basterds make their way into the theater before Landa kills von Hammersmark and captures Raine and another Basterd.
Foiled, it would appear. And that is where appearances go wrong. Landa, of course, could have removed the other Basterds from the theater, but he has not. Apparently the wind is from the west, because Landa has divined that the Third Reich will certainly fall, and in an act of self-preservation, he is willing to “deliver” Hitler and Goebbels to their deaths in exchange for asylum in the U.S. This is not a joke, and with one phone call the Allies happily comply.
And so, two separate plots to destroy the Nazis unwittingly come together. Shosanna has the Nazis locked into the theater during a pivotal scene, which she has spliced out and replaced with film of herself, taunting them. Simultaneously, her lover sets the theater ablaze using a huge pile of nitrate film. Meanwhile, the remaining two Basterds have left the theater and made their way up to Hitler’s box, and in the chaos they burst in and machine gun him. Then they machine gun him again. And again. He’s actually dead.
Unfortunately, Shosanna isn’t going to be around to enjoy it – she and the cheeky actor have shot and killed each other (with a bit of an homage to Reservoir Dogs) after he left the movie to find her in the projection room, still thinking he was going to get some.
And Hans Landa? True to his word, he turns himself over to Aldo Raine and is looking forward to using his asylum to blend seamlessly into American culture. But Raine, while he still has to deliver Landa intact, knows exactly how to keep a Nazi from just taking off his uniform, and as he carves the swastika into Landa’s forehead Aldo utters a line which I’m convinced he is slyly putting into Tarantino’s mouth: “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
I would say that Tarantino is known for four things: His non-linear narratives, his bad-ass soundtracks, his snappy dialogue, and an inimitable sense of raucous style. And interestingly, this film has basically none of those excepting the style (which it has in spades). At the same time it’s a terrific narrative while simultaneously being simple enough that it doesn’t lend itself to plot holes. For instance, some directors would be tempted to have the simultaneous plots to kill Hitler dovetail in a way such that neither would have worked without accidentally being in concert with the other. Tarantino takes what I would consider the simple but bold route of making it pretty clear that each of the plots succeeds independently. The other remarkable thing about the film is that Hitler dies. I mean, seriously, how many WWII films have there been? Tons. And how many of them have decided to throw together an alternate reality where a plot to kill Hitler succeeds? None that I know of. So I’m sitting there watching the last half-hour or so of the film thinking how great it would have been (for the film, that is – reality goes without saying) if this plot could have succeeded. Too bad the rules of the game say it can’t…until Tarantino breaks the rules just to prove that it can be done. (Or to phrase it in my own thoughts at first hearing Anton Barbeau’s Magazine Street: “Hey! You can’t change key in the middle of the chorus! …Except you just did, so I guess you can.”) That’s ballsy. But Tarantino can get away with it. And while getting away with it, he manages to make a great film.