not in our stars, but in ourselves
Oh! Hey! Remember this? Yeah, yeah, yeah. As I explained a few weeks ago, life has gotten too chaotic for me to be able to watch and review movies with any regularity – but I should be back on track by next month. Here’s hoping. Anyway, I did manage to find myself time to watch one of the very best revenge-fantasy/spaghetti Western hybrids, as far as I know: Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). It has probably the most satisfying final 20 minutes in all of cinema – and that’s after more than two hours of thoroughly satisfying fun.
In case you haven’t seen it: our tale begins “once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France.” It is 1941, and SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is doing what he does best: hunting for hidden Jews. He massacres the family of teenage Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), and she escapes. En même temps, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is assembling a small squadron of Jewish-American soldiers: the Inglourious Basterds. As he explains:
Now, I don’t know about y’all, but I sure as hell didn’t come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fuckin’ aeroplane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That’s why any and every every sumbitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die. Now, I’m the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger. That means I got a little Injun in me. And our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance. We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won’t not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they’re tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?
By 1944, both the Basterds and the now Paris-based Shoshanna are scheming to wipe out top Nazi brass. It just so happens that Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) has both inspired and starred in a big movie intended to rally the (by now losing) Nazi troops. It just so happens that Zoller is utterly smitten with Shoshanna, who is now calling herself Emmanuelle Mimieux. It just so happens that she owns a lovely movie theatre. And it just so happens that Zoller uses his influence to hold the premiere of his film at her tiny theatre, where the Basterds intend to ambush all attending – and Shoshanna intends simply to burn down the theatre with everyone in it.
And my god, it is FUN. You have never had such fun in a war movie, I promise. For one thing, Tarantino has such fun himself playing with genres and history and what-if scenarios. For another thing, Waltz’s portrayal of Landa is one of the very best things ever captured on celluloid.
I mentioned the last 20 minutes being extraordinarily satisfying, and that’s true. But the first 20 minutes are simply incredible – thanks to Tarantino’s adeptness in handling suspense, and Waltz’s skill in balancing the most debonair manner with the most base and horrible instincts. For nearly twenty minutes, Landa interrogates a poor French dairy farmer about the Dreyfus family. There is no music. There is just the cool and charming Landa, and the sweaty and nervous farmer – the one growing more focused and predatory as his questions lead him unfailingly to discover exactly who is hiding under the floorboards, and the other growing even less composed as he considers what is about to happen either to his daughters or to his neighbors depending on whether he lies or tells the truth.
There is lots more fun to be had in Pitt’s performance as Raine – probably the best thing he’s done since Tyler Durden. Maybe even better. It is wonderful to see him relax and have fun, acting like some sort of character out of a Faulkner novel (if Faulkner had known how to write comedy). He always looks so tired and tightly controlled in public since he hooked up with Angelina Jolie; it’s very kind of Tarantino to give him an excuse to go unleashed.
And then there’s that ending. Just as you’ve never had such fun watching a war movie, you’ve never cheered so much at watching a theatre full of people burn to their deaths while being riddled with machine gun bullets. I mean, they’re Nazis. Nazi ain’t got no humanity. He may have fabulous manners and endless charm – but he doesn’t have any humanity.