Gloury Days

I saw Inglourious Basterds last night. SPOILER ALERT: I wouldn’t say the following comments are spoiler-heavy, but they certainly do contain spoilers. Read on at your own peril.

So, I liked it a lot. There weren’t too many surprises, since I’d read the script that was leaked a while back (a script that was, incidentally, so filled with spelling errors that I can see why some early readers assumed that the spelling “Inglourious Basterds” was simply one more typo rather than a deliberate choice), and apart from some alterations to the climax, there were very few changes that weren’t simply cuts (mainly excising what little backstory the script gave some of the characters, particularly Dreyfus and Donowitz). One bit I was sorry to see cut was an exchange between Dreyfus and Hirschberg where each of them is supposed to be thinking sadly that they’re about to cause the death of the other; but it’s hard to know whether the intended subtext would have come across. (Tarantino also abandoned his plans to have the third chapter in New Wave black and white, which seems a pity; I’m glad, though, that he didn’t decide to do the fifth chapter in black and white, which would have interfered with the presentation of the Reddest Dress That Ever Existed – which for some reason looks maroon in most of the stills I’ve seen, but not in the movie.)

Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus

Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna Dreyfus

There are the usual Tarantinoesque cultural references; many of them are to early German cinema this time around, but there are more familiar ones too – such as the film’s opening scene, which is a direct tribute to the farmhouse scene in Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (The original Leone scene starts at 4:30 in this video and – skipping just a bit – continues through 2:25 in this one. I suspect that the later scene in Inglourious Basterds where the American soldiers are pretending, extremely incompetently, to be Italian was a self-mocking reference to Tarantino’s attempt to emulate Leone.) Landa the “Jew Hunter” smokes a calabash pipe – a reference, appropriately enough, to the cinematic version of Sherlock Holmes, not the literary one. And of course there’s the closest thing the film has to a main character, Shoshanna Dreyfus (whose last name makes her an iconic representation of French victims of anti-Semitism), assuming the identity of “Emmanuelle Mimieux” (a name that combines two cinematic sex symbols).

I’ve heard some Tarantino fans worrying that audiences who come expecting a Brad-Pitt-centric, warfare-centric movie might be disappointed upon encountering a movie that devotes most of its time to unknown (to Americans) actors having tense conversations in subtitled French or German; but judging from the enthusiastic reaction of last night’s audience, I suspect this movie is going to do very well – and the excellent Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, in particular, aren’t going to remain unknowns for long.

The movie has been accused of trivialising both World War II and the Holocaust; the New Yorker, for example, laments that Tarantino, in “mucking about with a tragic moment of history” and treating the Nazis as “merely available movie tropes,” is “appallingly insensitive – a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously.” Given that we’re talking about a medium that has given us The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be, Dr. Strangelove, Hogan’s Heroes, The Producers, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (to say nothing of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS) – all of which treat the Nazis somewhat less seriously than Tarantino does – I find it odd that Tarantino is singled out specifically here; Nazis have been “merely available movie tropes” for the past seventy years. And if recent years have seen some especially serious and somber takes on the period (Schindler’s List and The Reader, for example), they’ve also seen Hellboy (fantasy action-adventure) and Mein Führer (comedy).

Nazis can be friendly!

Nazis can be friendly!

In any case, the New Yorker review seems to have a bit of a tin ear; it describes the movie as “disconnected from feeling” (says who?), and claims that Waltz’s character, Hans Landa, “exudes the kind of insinuating menace characteristic of Nazis in old Warner Bros. movies” – a description that might apply to Hellstrom (the SS officer who invites himself to the Basterds’ table in the basement tavern) but is rather off the mark for Landa, whose goofy, giddy style, while certainly menacing, is strikingly different from that of the stereotypical movie Nazi.

One objection you’d expect to see raised against this film, particularly in light of recent political circumstances, is that it condones the torturing and killing of POWs. I’m actually somewhat depressed that I haven’t seen that criticism; nevertheless, I’m not convinced that the charge sticks. I can’t see that the film condones the Basterds’ actions; admittedly it doesn’t condemn them either, and certainly the audience I saw it with last night were cheering their heads off in those scenes – but I think one would have to have a tin ear to think Tarantino wants us to find the Basterds unproblematically heroic. (For one thing, he provides a useful foil for them in the much more civilised Hicox, the British lieutenant; though they are also foils for him, of course.) In any case, in all his films Tarantino tends to take a rather Shakespearean attitude toward most of his characters – presenting them with all their virtues and vices, without telling us exactly how we’re supposed to weigh them up.

A lot of people have been saying that this is a movie about cinema, which is true; but more specifically it’s about acting. Nearly all the major characters in the film are putting on a false front, pretending (with degrees of success varying from impressive to abysmal) to be something they’re not – with the most extreme case being the SS officer Landa (a phenomenal performance from Waltz), who oozes from one persona to another so effortlessly as to make us wonder whether there even is any real identity underlying all the masks. Landa’s early speech about why he likes being called the “Jew Hunter,” and his later speech about why he doesn’t like it, both serve his interests in the relevant contexts, but leave us unsure what his sincere reaction, should he be capable of such a thing, might be. Disturbingly, the closest thing we get to a moment of sincerity from Landa just might be the scene where he flies into a rage and strangles … someone. (Still trying not to be too spoilerrific.)

identity games in a Nazi tavern

identity games in a Nazi tavern

Tarantino symbolically highlights this emphasis on role-playing and disguise through the game the characters play in the basement tavern, where people who are hiding their true identities from others also wear cards on their foreheads representing further identities (most of them, appropriately enough, cinema-related – including Pola Negri, incidentally the subject of Ayn Rand’s first publication) that are known to others but not to themselves. In addition, the Nazi war hero Zoller plays himself in the movie-within-a-movie about his military exploits, prompting the question of how far he is also “playing himself” in real life; when, near the end, he morphs from his usual modest, unassuming demeanour to something nastier and more arrogant, are we suddenly seeing the “real” Zoller? Or are they both the real Zoller?

More generally, there are aspects of most of the characters that are hidden not just from one another but from us; we learn surprisingly little about the motivations of many of them. Why is Hammersmark working for the British? (Landa implies she’s doing it for money, but he is not exactly a reliable source.) Why did Stiglitz start killing his officers? What drives Raine’s and Donowitz’s sadistic rage? Why does Landa strangle the person he strangles? And why does Landa let Dreyfus escape from the farmhouse? (In the script he gives a little speech, cut from the movie version, that’s supposed to explain the latter decision, but it doesn’t, really.) I don’t find the movie’s failure to provide a definitive answer to these questions a flaw, necessarily; it’s just one more instance of the masks-within-masks theme.

Another unanswered question is whether Landa knows, or suspects, that Mimieux the theatre owner is the same person as Dreyfus the escaped Jew. His offering her milk (her parents were milk farmers), and his telling her that he had something else to ask her that he’s forgotten, suggest he does know and is playing cat-and-mouse with her. And it certainly makes for a more dramatic story if he does recognise her. But given that he could barely have glimpsed her blood-and-mud-soaked face for more than a second or two when he first met her three years earlier, it’s unclear what his basis could be for identifying her. I don’t mean this as a criticism; our anxiety and uncertainty about how much Landa knows mirrors Dreyfus’s.

This does bring me to a criticism, however: given how skilled a detective Landa is supposed to be, it would have been nice to see him do a bit more difficult detecting. You don’t have to be Sherlock Holmes to see through Raine’s Italian accent or to recognise Hammersmark’s signature on the napkin. (It would be better if he’d found only her shoe and not her napkin as well, and then put two and two together later when he saw her leg in a cast. Still, the movie version is better than the script version, where Landa just learns everything from an eyewitness and does no detecting at all.)

Worse and better scars

Worse and better scars

Another criticism: Raine doesn’t seem to know (I wonder whether Tarantino knows?) the difference between a Nazi uniform and a mere German uniform. He also doesn’t seem to realise that there’s an easy way to disguise a swastika-shaped scar: just extend it into a box. “Why do you have a grid carved into your forehead?” is a less awkward question than “Why do you have a swastika carved into your forehead?”


23 Responses to Gloury Days

  1. Anon73 August 23, 2009 at 8:23 pm #

    “Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS”? Please to not be mentioning that horrible travesty in polite company! ;_;

  2. Brandon August 23, 2009 at 10:22 pm #

    Jewish critics are being very tough on the flick, and they are the ones criticizing its hideous violence.

    • Roderick August 24, 2009 at 12:04 am #

      Well, they’re divided. And I think some (on both sides) are confusing liking the film with approving of the Basterds.

      • Anon73 August 24, 2009 at 2:47 am #

        To be fair it’s hard not to see a film as approving of one group of its characters (usually the protagonist). Like in “Pulp Fiction” I believe we are supposed to sympathize with Jules and Vincent despite the fact they are hitmen. Similarly in “Kill Bill” we are supposed to take the Bride’s side even though she is basically being driven by revenge and bloodlust. This is why stories told from the point of view of a psychotic or evil mass murderer are usually criticized a lot.

        • Roderick August 24, 2009 at 11:17 am #

          I agree that we’re supposed to sympathise with Jules and Vincent, but that’s different from approving of them. After all, we also sympathise with Butch (who kills Vincent), and we sympathise with Jules when he decides to give up his life of crime.

          In Reservoir Dogs we sympathise both with the two cops and with at least some of the criminals (especially Mr. White). In Kill Bill we sympathise not only with the Bride but with some of her enemies (most notably Vernita Green, the assassin-turned-housewife, but also with some of the others). In Inglourious Basterds, the Nazi that Donowitz beats to death with his baseball bat is presented as meeting his death with courage and dignity. Moral judgment isn’t simple in Tarantino movies. (Well, except Death Proof.)

  3. Victor Milán August 24, 2009 at 2:40 pm #

    While I was put off by the apparent “glourification” of the torture and murder of POWs on display in the TV trailers and some promotional materials, I suspect your point that Tarantino himself doesn’t necessarily approve or condone those acts strikes close to the mark.

    Something that particularly strikes me in your review: the film begins with an homage to THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY; it’s also widely talked about as intentionally having “Spaghetti Western” sensibilities. One thing about the original: the “Good” was so largely by comparison to the “Bad” and the “Ugly” – and the “Bad” wasn’t really all that bad. What’s more characteristic of the Spaghetti Western, especially the classic Leone/Eastwood trio, than an amoral protagonist whose main claim to virtue is destroying men who are palpably worse?

    So might it be fair to assume that perfectionist and Ultimate Film Geek Tarantino was sending us a message with his choice of opening scenes?

    • Roderick August 24, 2009 at 3:20 pm #

      I agree, except for this:

      and the “Bad” wasn’t really all that bad

      I think (going by the movie’s rather than the — famously wrong — trailer’s description of who is who) that it’s the Ugly (Tuco), not the Bad (Angel-eyes), who’s not so bad. After all, in the farmhouse scene Angel-eyes is pretty Bad.

      • Victor Milán August 27, 2009 at 2:00 am #

        Ah, yeah. You’re right; I was confused. For some reason it was set in my mind that Tuco was “the Bad,” notwithstanding he’s pretty ugly. I certainly had in mind Angel Eyes as the truly evil one, whom I thought to be “the Ugly” in a moral sense.

        Clearly I need to see the movie again. Which is never a bad thing.

  4. Roderick August 25, 2009 at 12:39 pm #

    Here’s what strikes me as another confused review. He describes Landa as a “perfectly stereotypical Nazi”.” Sorry, that’s not a bingo: the movies have given us menacing Nazis and goofy Nazis, but very few that were both at the same time. He also asserts that it “goes without saying” — always a popular way of introducing a tendentious claim without having to argue for it — “that Tarantino’s treatment of Nazis is not motivated by any sense of horror and outrage … but solely by the need of a universally acceptable villain.” Since Tarantino has never worried about universally acceptable villains before, Shepherd really ought to feel the burden of offering some amidgen of evidence for this claim.

  5. Jesse Walker August 26, 2009 at 8:55 am #

    the New Yorker review seems to have a bit of a tin ear

    Welcome to the world of David Denby, film critic.

    He also doesn’t seem to realise that there’s an easy way to disguise a swastika-shaped scar: just extend it into a box.

    Better yet: Put a circle around it and a slash through it, and tell the world you’re a passionate antifascist.

    • Roderick August 26, 2009 at 11:18 am #

      Good idea, though I don’t think they yet had the circle-slash symbol in the 1940s.

      • Roderick August 26, 2009 at 12:22 pm #

        The wiki page for the circle-slash symbol doesn’t tell its origin, but does reveal that most of the symbols you see aren’t REAL, GENUINE versions because they don’t follow every bureaucratic jot and tittle.

        • Anon73 August 26, 2009 at 1:06 pm #

          I laughed my ass off reading that wiki article – “the slash must be 80% the width of the circle”? Give me a break. I hope this pedantry is not the norm for wiki editors.

        • Roderick August 26, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

          I guess they need a circle-slash with the right percentage crossing out a circle-slash with the wrong percentage.

          But now what we really need is some international bureaucratic authority to determine the correct dimensions of the circle-A anarchy symbol.

  6. Jesse Walker August 26, 2009 at 11:51 am #

    I don’t think WW2-era German soldiers were familiar with the phrase “Mexican standoff” either.

    • Roderick August 26, 2009 at 12:24 pm #

      The wiki page for “Mexican standoff” says that the term was in use in the 19th century — but apparently with a different meaning. No account of when it got its current meaning.

      • Jesse Walker August 27, 2009 at 12:00 am #

        It’s the idea that a German soldier in the ’40s would be familiar with an obscure American slang term that seems unlikely to me. I assume Tarantino is engaged in a self-referential joke in that scene, since he was infamous early on for including Mexican standoffs in his films.

  7. Ndugu August 27, 2009 at 12:46 pm #

    I would agree that the film does not necessarily glorify the actions of the Basterds. In fact, a collective mentality is probably present in the minds of those who think that the film glorifies them. Since the film does not overtly glorify them, any claim that it glorifies them is based off of the assumption that actions carried out by Americans against Nazis are inherently good. Those who realize that such is not the case can see that the film merely shows them as they are, a la Shakespeare as Roderick pointed out.

    As a side note, I think Colonel Landa was a fantastic character, and incredibly well performed by Christoph Waltz.

  8. Roderick August 27, 2009 at 4:26 pm #

    Here’s an interesting and thoughtful review.

    • Jesse Walker August 27, 2009 at 10:18 pm #

      Glad to see I’m not the only critic who brought up the lyrics to the Bowie song.

  9. Ray Mangum August 30, 2009 at 2:00 pm #

    I actually think that Inglourious Basterds is a pretty libertarian film. One of the most common things said against people with non-aggression libertarian and anarchist views, and anti-interventionist foreign policy views generally, is “Oh yeah? What would you do about the Nazis?”

    Well, we’d deal with Nazis in a way quite similar to the way Lysander Spooner proposed dealing with slaveowners. That is, we’d arm pissed-off Jews and attack Nazis directly, up to and including Hitler. What wouldn’t be done is to conscript the unwilling into shooting other unwilling conscripts and bombing entire cities full of innocent civilians.

    Most of the “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind” type of criticisms assume that the Allied approach to ending the war was more just than that of the bloodthirsty Basterds. I disagree.

    Also note Raine’s libertarian views when it comes to moonshine, and how he won’t let Landa be considered a “good guy” just because the State will give him a medal.

    • Ray Mangum August 30, 2009 at 2:08 pm #

      If there was one scene that disturbed me, it was the Basterds indiscriminately gunning down everybody in the theater as it burned down.

      I don’t know why they couldn’t have just capped Hitler and crew in their seats, John Wilkes Booth-style.


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