Thursday, 17 December 2009
The 'heroes' of Inglourious Basterds are heroic because of the cause they fight for rather than how they fight. These are bastards who are incontrovertibly inglorious.
The film shows the corrupting nature of hatred in war and how it effects both sides. The Basterds are unnecessarily violent - the marking of prisoners, the taking of scalps - and demonstrate a psychopathic glee at the brutal beating of a Nazi soldier. In short, they are Lieutenant Aldo Raine's disciples of death:
"We will be cruel to the German and through our cruelty they will know who we are"
This echoes the teachings of Jesus, telling his disciples that people would know them, and hence God, through their actions.
Just as Colonel Landa equates the Jews with rats so too do the Basterds perceive the Nazis as defined by their ideology...
"Did you get that for killing Jews?"
...stripped of all common humanity and transformed physically by a pervasive otherness:
"Say goodbye to your Nazi balls!"
At the same time the ideology of the Nazis is given a blithely clear-headed and dispassionate voice in the shape of Hans Landa. He presents their ideas as instinctual, thoughts and feelings that the Nazis can negotiate with no more than the general populace can negotiate with the strictures of the fascist regime. It's just the way things are:
"You don't really know why you don't like them, all you know is you find them repulsive"
"Talented as your negro may be, you will operate the projector"
The killing of the Nazi high command by the Basterds, locking them in as if locking the gas chamber doors and shooting down on the screaming and faceless antlike masses from above, is final evidence that there is nothing edifying in this war and all are tainted by it. Heroism is scarred, permanently disfigured.
Tarantino, therefore, adds welcome nuance to traditional hero-villain cartoon dichotomies while managing to skilfully sidestep the trap of moral relativism.
However, paradoxically, the film's greatest strength may well be its defining and fatal weakness: we are left with nobody to care for. The comic capers, the close shaves and the copious blood-letting succeed or fail on the basis of an audience association with these people. From the moment the Basterds murder, intimidate, mock and scalp, the overwhelming sensation can only be that of repugnance.
By the end this becomes numbness as Shoshanna's cackling visage robs herself of the humanity the Nazis seek to rob her of. She is not a new Joan of Arc for France to worship. She is not a martyr forged in the flames but an exterminating angel.
One moment of elusive tenderness and warmth sticks in my mind, though. It is a close up of one of the farmer's daughters Charlotte (Lea Seydoux, below). It is a study worthy of the Dutch masters upon whose luminous colour palette the opening farm scene draws. Her eyes are alive with fear, concern and love. It is a face of real emotion that comes to be obliterated by the 'Giant Face' of revisionist vengeance (more on that anon).
'Giant Face', the chapter title that refers to Shoshanna's unexpected appearance on screen, could be rewritten as 'Giant Identity'. It is a powerful assertion of who Shoshanna is and of her right to be.
For the characters in Inglourious Basterds the essence of their identity is paramount. Landa loves his "unofficial nickname" precisely because he has "earned it". The way he is seen chimes with his own view of himself. This pleases him. Archie Hicox, too, when his British identity is uncovered, embraces it fully:
"If this is it old boy, I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's".
Zoller can't bear to watch himself on the cinema screen, perhaps because it is a misrepresentation of who he is or more likely because of its painful accuracy. These characters want to be known for who they are (Lt. Raine also goes out of his way to mention the little 'Injun' in him) and when they try to escape who they are (by vowing to burn their Nazi uniforms) they are branded.
With the theme of identity so strong in this film, it is a shame that Tarantino, a man who made his name off the back of the supposedly singularly vibrant energy of his films and their larger-than-life characterisations, creates a film that is so formal and contrived that it lacks a compulsive identity.
The dialogue is repetitious and wants for spontaneity. The characters are involved in a tightly choreographed ballet with clogs on. The language is clumsily poetic ("facts can be so misleading where rumours, true or false, are often revealing") and self-conscious, as if filtered through two foreign languages. Scenes have little spark because everything is so controlled. Tension creates a vacuum but cannot live in one.
The film advances as a succession of set-pieces rather than as a coherent flow. Only Christoph Waltz, as Hans Landa, brings life to this aridity, loosening the tight leash that constrains the film and creating a personality that is ruthless, childlike, a Prince Charming (who knows whom the shoe fits) with an intellectual acumen to be reckoned with.
He is, in many ways, playing Tarantino, teasing and probing, always one step ahead, always relishing the foreplay as much as the climax:
"Wait for the cream"
Wait for the cream is an apt description of the tactics employed by the film in its set pieces - ten minutes of build until the inevitable release. Characters play games of identity with each other both for real or in make-believe (with historical figures stuck to their foreheads). The film entire could be seen as one long anticipation of a final cathartic immolation.
I believe, though, that Tarantino's style, in no small way, discredits his subject. Take for instance the revelation of the Jews hiding under the farmer's floorboards. In the midst of an anxious exchange the camera swirls around Landa and the farmer and then pans down beneath the floorboards to show the Jewish Dreyfuses paralysed with fear. This turns horror into a flourish. Instead of just showing them, or pointing us directly to them, Tarantino takes us on a mini fairground ride.
It is in the tone of the piece too that Inglourious Basterds is weakened. Seriousness and tomfoolery are unhappily married throughout. In the first interview / interrogation scene Landa brandishes a comically large pipe, prompting the farmer to look at it bemusedly as if forgetting the terrible situation he finds himself in.
Furthermore, there is a friction of two conflicting moralities in the audience: Real-life morality and 'Movie morality'. When watching Kill Bill, one can accept and revel in the slaughter 'The Bride' visits on those she has wronged; but if we were to hear of such actions in real life, we would find them abhorrent.
We accept that there are differences between these two mindsets. Where a moral conundrum arises is in the no-man's land created by a filmic representation and reimagination of well-known and well-understood real-life events. It doesn't start with a blank slate. What it omits to mention we are impelled to fill in from History.
The redemption and the triumph are hollow. Zoller is redeemed in Shoshanna's eyes by his image on the screen but it is a lie. Inglourious Basterds may not be propaganda but, by sweeping so much under the carpet, it is just as misleading and just as dispiriting to watch.
The farmer's daughter in that first scene pulls back a white sheet to reveal the Nazis and at the end of the film a different white sheet will be used to erase again from view the evil of the Nazis : the Cinema Screen. We see reality lead fiction by the hand and then fiction lead reality.
When it obscures months and years of suffering Inglourious Basterds gives us an empty false feeling of triumph. We burn our imaginations in the cinema (in this case 350 nitrate films) to warm the cold of reality but the smoke has a putrid stench to it.
Would we welcome Superman preventing the terrorist attacks of September the 11th on the Silver Screen? Would we celebrate with him?
What is it, then, that allows Tarantino to change REAL history and REAL tragedy so readily? Is it because many have trodden on this ground before? Is it because of the time that has passed? Or is it that World War II has been so adapted and so reimagined as to pass into the very stuff of fiction itself, there to become another trope, another template, a genre like any other?
Inglourious Basterds begged the question as to whether Tarantino was exploring World War II simply so that he could up-scale his revenge fetish.
* * *
The mythologising of historical cataclysms and the cataclysms themselves were born as twins - it has always happened and it always will. These myths can say important things but the message can be compromised and distorted. Basterds wants it both ways: to have us revel and reflect, to mourn and make merry, to relish the same things we deplore.
I could have gone with it if I were sitting in a cinema in the 1940s, desperate for inspiration and hope - but in 2009 I just couldn't. The reason it fails is that the film never veers from its collision course with high entertainment - with shocks and guffaws.
I wasn't turned off by the concept in the abstract (I had enjoyed the script beforehand) but by this execution of it. In summation, Inglourious Basterds is a largely unimpressive and uncomfortable work.
*Whose beginning is heralded by a beautifully unresolved phrase of Fur Elise and the farmer's symbolic cleansing of his hands and face, a la Pontius Pilate
Posted by Stephen Russell-Gebbett at 13:17