I realised as I read the coverage of Quentin Tarantino’s latest debut at Cannes that I actually have a couple of blind spots in his filmography. One of them is his previous picture, The Hateful Eight, and the other is 2009’s Inglorious Basterds. Usually I wouldn’t consider any film from 2009 old enough to be enough of a “classic” for me to consider for my Classically Lacking series but some very basic maths revealed to me that actually 2009 was 10 years ago and soon I will be a shrivelled corpse to be immolated or flushed or fired into space or however we decide is the most efficient, environmentally sound method of disposing of human remains in (hopefully) five or more decades time.
Basterds is one of those films that I have seen in fits and starts, mostly on late night television, but I have never actually sat down and watched the bloody thing. I’ve owned the Blu-ray for a while, The Hateful Eight too, but any movie which clocks in over 2 hours puts a strange fear in me and I tend to shy away. No longer! The reaction to Once Upon A Time in Hollywood has convinced me to end my madness and fill in the blanks.
And here we are.
Inglorious Basterds is a far-fetched re-imagining of the final days of WW2. We begin in the French countryside, with the horrifying Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) paying a visit to a farmer and his family. We aren’t immediately allowed to know exactly what Landa is doing, but there are subtle hints in his gradually diminishing charming demeanour which tells us that he is here for Jews. He is known as The Jew Hunter, and for all his awfulness he is a great detective and he knows the farmer is harbouring enemies of the state, breaking him down and convincing him to confess. His soldiers enter and fire through the floorboards of the house, killing all but one of the refugees. Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to flee, but Landa seems confident she won’t get far, cockily calling to her ‘au revoir!’
It is an electrifying, terrifying opener. Tarantino is known for being wordy, dialogue heavy, but here all that talking serves a distinct purpose. Tension. The scene stretches with this tension, like a balloon being filled with water until it must burst.
It is also a scene which allows Waltz to exercise his considerable acting chops, he is well worth the Academy Award that he took home for this performance. Tarantino himself admitted he was struggling to find an actor who could keep up with Landa’s poetic leanings in phrase across four different languages throughout the film, but Waltz does more than keep up. He is charismatic and terrible, and it is impossible to imagine another filling his shoes.
Since this is a Tarantino film, despite the grim backdrop and depressed opener we all know that along the way there will be levity, and there will be a payoff. And by god is there a payoff. The film jumps forwards in time by three years and takes up with Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who is assembling a motley gang of American Jews to fight behind enemy lines amongst German ranks, sewing havoc and creating fear in a campaign modelled after Apache resistance tactics. This means brutal killings, taking few prisoners, and scalping. This gang becomes known as the Basterds.
Pitt is hilarious, leading with his jaw and chewing his way through a meaty Tennessee accent. Although Waltz certainly steals the headlines, Pitt’s performance is the perfect tonal balancer, offering up that much needed levity that Tarantino is so good at delivering despite the brutal nature of his stories.
Meanwhile, Shosanna has a new life running a cinema in Paris, unfortunately for her she becomes the muse to one Frederick Zolla. She has little interest in the young Nazi, but again, unfortunately, Zolla is a war hero, and subject and star of Joseph Goebbels new propaganda film: Nations Pride. And when Zolla manages to convince Goebbels to host the premiere of the movie at Shosanna’s cinema she is drawn in dangerously close to the German high command, including Landa, who is running security for the premiere of the movie.
Rather than cringe in fear Shosanna conjures up a plan to burn down her cinema during the premiere, trapping and killing a large number of those commanding figures within the flames. This runs alongside another assassination plan, Operation Kino, a joint operation between American and British forces involving German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). She intends to smuggle British officer Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and two German born Basterds into the premiere. Hicox links up with the Basterds and attends a meet with Hammersmark at a tavern, dressed as German officers, but they find it full of celebrating Nazi soldiers. All goes well enough, until a Gestapo officer questions Hicox’s accent. Hicox deflects the officer, until he asks for three glasses from the barkeep using his fingers, whereas a German would use his thumb and two fingers. A shootout ensues, beginning mostly in the testicular regions, and ultimately ending with all the occupants, other than Hammersmark, dead.
Upon being retrieved and attended in a local veterinarian clinic, Hammersmark informs Raine that the Führer himself, g’damn A-Dolf Hitler, will attend the premiere. Despite Hammersmark being injured, and no one else in the Bastards having a convincing hold on the German language, Raine knows that such an opportunity cannot be thrown away. He and two of his Basterds decide to go as Italian-speaking filmmakers attending alongside Hammersmark as her guests.
No worries, they think. Germans don’t have an ear for Italian accents.
But Landa does. Especially since he has already paid a visit to the shot-up tavern and found a single, very fashionable, expensive shoe and a note signed by one very famous German actress…
He clocks the gaudy American and his clueless friends and makes Hammersmark in a moment. Yet, he allows two of the Americans to get to their seats, before handling Hammersmark (and her feet because of course, OF COURSE) very personally, and kidnapping Raine alongside their driver, Smithson Utivich.
Why doesn’t he just kill them? Why doesn’t he stop the other two?
He wants to cut a deal, that’s why. The war is going poorly, and he sees a way out: facilitate the assassination of the Führer, and of Goebbels, Göring, and other high-ranking officials, and for his efforts be offered the freedom of the United States, a pension, a medal, and a property in Nantucket. Raine hails the OSS. The man in charge (sounds like Harvey Keitel) agrees to the deal.
Meanwhile the cinema plan kind of goes wrong and right at the same time. Shosanna dons her make-up like war paint to the sounds of David Bowie’s Cat People (Putting Out Fire), dressed in all red, blue eyed and blonde, a Nazi dreamboat femme fatale preparing to become the face of Jewish vengeance.
God it’s bloody brilliant.
Once the film starts and gets into the meat of it’s subject: a single Nazi sniper gunning down hundreds of Americans, Zolla leaves the screening to see Shosanna in the projectionist room, barging in and declaring she has no right to turn a man like him down. Alright, she says, close the door. It’s rather out of character but Zolla is smitten. He turns around and gets to locking, his mind probably racing with the possibilities. Then she shoots him in the back. Not what he was expecting I’d wager.
Clearly, she holds some sympathy for the little devil because she kneels down to see him through his final moments with some company, then he swivels and shoots her to death before passing himself.
But the plan is in motion, the wheels cannot be stopped from turning. The reel switches to the pre-prepared footage Shosanna made with her partner in work and love, Marcel. The footage mocks the Nazi’s and calls to them to look upon her face of Jewish vengeance. Behind the screen Marcel flicks a cigarette onto a mound of nitrate film, which ignites the screen and sets the room ablaze. The crowd attempts to flee, but Marcel has already barred the doors.
The remaining two Basterds had already slipped away to target their primary subject directly (despite the timed explosives strapped to their ankles anyway), so when Goebbels and Hitler flee through their private opera box door, the Basterds fill them with a whole lot of bullets. Like a lot. Too many, really, but it’s Hitler! Who can blame them? They fire on the crowd until their explosives go off, their job well and truly done, the war won.
Landa and his guard drive Raine and Utivich to the American lines, where they swap roles, the Germans becoming the prisoners, the Americans the capturers. Raine immediately shoots the guard and Utivich scalps him. Landa is infuriated, he made a deal! Raine is plenty calm, chin jutting out just as usual. He’s not worried, he’ll get a chewing out, but he’ll get over that. He carves a swastika into Landa’s head, so for ever and always he’ll be known as a Nazi.
Then he looks down into the camera and says:
‘I think this just might be my masterpiece.’
Well Quentin, is it?
It would take a good long argument to weasel out which one of Tarantino’s pictures is his true masterpiece, but there is no denying this film has got to be in the running. I don’t think his dialogue has ever been as good as it is here. There is a lot,as one might expect, but the length of the scenes only serves to better extenuate the tension within them, and he doesn’t do it with filler either. In the opening scene Landa isn’t rambling on about anything, he is examining the man before him, and when he is confident that he is hiding something, he begins to break him down. What appears to be a rather racist tangent about how Germans are like falcons and Jews are like rats becomes the beginning of the end of the farmers conceit, before that moment he believed he was in control of the situation but Landa takes it from him with the comparison, although upon re-watching that scene after the fact it is clear Landa is fully in command from the moment he greets the farmer. In the end Landa asks the question directly, but he already knows the answer. He was willing to take the time to make sure he was absolutely right, and Tarantino was more than willing to put his viewers through a scene of appropriate length to fully realise what was happening and witness the horror, feel the bubbling tension, and really live the scene in its fullest.
And the success of that scene pretty much sums it all up.
This is supremely confident filmmaking. Tarantino had long since proven himself by the time Basterds was released, and he knew that everyone would give him a chance no matter what he did. So he took that chance. He developed a script he initially wrote in 1998, an alternative-history, completely whacked Jewish vengeance story, with tortuously long scenes of dialogue. And he nailed it. He absolutely nailed it. I don’t know why I waited so long to sit through this from tip to tail, but I think it has possibly started up a resurgence in my Tarantino fandom. I’m already thinking about a glorious re-watch of a Kill Bill double header, or the criminally under viewed (by me) Jackie Brown, and my first screening of The Hateful Eight (still, surely that one is too long).
And then, this summer, this sweet sweet summer, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will hit cinemas.
I can’t wait.