Monday 24 August 2009

Inglorious Tarantino

OK, I begin with a confession: I don’t like Quentin Tarantino as a director; I don’t like his movies. Sorry, that’s not quite true: Pulp Fiction was mildly entertaining, though a little incoherent for my taste. It’s not that I don’t appreciate his talent, his love of film-making, his sense of humour and the clever way he intercuts, the visual references he makes. Yes, he’s clever, he has a real fluency with the medium-but, so far as I am concerned, he’s is also shallow, obvious, insincere and far too glib. I simply don’t take him seriously as a film-maker. Most of his stuff bores me. I would have given Inglorious Basterds a miss but my boyfriend was keen; so, off we went.

A word, to begin with, about the title, specifically the spelling of Basterds (I make no mention of Inglourious!) I wasn’t sure quite was going on here, why the words was misspelt. Perhaps it was something to do with residual censorship, with hoardings and advertising on buses? Perhaps it was akin to the swearing in Father Ted, the Irish sitcom, where it was possible to say feck but not f*ck.? Oh, what a difference a vowel makes! The title actually comes from an Italian B-movie made in the early 1970s, though the Italians managed to get the spelling right. It seems the explanation is only to be found in the mind of the director!

Yes, Inglourious Basterds is wonderfully acted and well-scripted. No matter; I hated it, really hated it. It’s a pastiche of the Second World War, of dimensions of that war, perhaps not a thousand miles removed from the likes of Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp With Eva and Adolf at Berchtesgaden. Yes, this was a romp all right, just not that gay. Well…on second thoughts. :-) It was most certainly over the top in every conceivable sense, exuberant to the point where exuberance is close to parody and exhaustion. It could be read as a black comedy, if one was of a mind to, though the comedy for me was strained in the extreme. Operation Kino, the last scene, wasn’t exuberant or comic; it was utterly ridiculous. Oh, and that movie that Nazis were watching would, I suspect, have been too boring even for them!

I’ll be fair; I always try to be fair. The opening chapter was good, the one where the French farmer was interrogated by Christoph Waltz, playing one Hans Landa, an officer in the Sicherheitsdienst, a wonderful performance, sustained throughout, at once charming and persuasive, sinister and deadly. Still, leaping ahead to the final act, I’m completely mystified why he felt compelled to strangle the actress-spy when he himself was on the point of switching loyalties. Perhaps Tarantino just saw it as an opportunity to have a woman strangled for no apparent reason other than the strangulation itself. But that’s getting away from the point. Yes, Waltz kept up a high standard but the movie itself spiraled steadily downwards ever faster with every subsequent act.

Now we are introduced to the basterds, a group of American-Jewish commandos or Special Forces or whatever, headed by Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine. These men are sent to occupied France to kill Nazis or Germans, for there is really no difference between the two. The movie takes a turn towards the spaghetti western, and that’s not my criticism, that’s Tarantino’s intention, as we are presented with an ‘alternate’ history of the final stages of the Second World War. But the Jewish soldiers are sent not just to kill Nazis/Germans; they’re sent to commit atrocities, exactly the same kind of atrocities that the Nazi-Germans (better, I think) carried out extensively in Belorussia and the east, though I don’t believe they actually scalped the people they killed in the fashion of Raine’s ‘Apaches.’ Well, Apaches do brutal things, do they not, a bit like Nazi-Germans, a bit like, well, Jews? For the world has been turned upside down: the Jews have become Nazis. Can you see where this is going; can you see the implications of this? I hope so. Please don’t hate me for making this point. Others will with far less benign motives.

Was there comedy here? Was there some deeper message? If there was I missed it, my failure, no doubt. When I saw a German prisoner having his brains beaten out with a baseball bat by a character called ‘Bear Jew’ for rightly refusing to divulge the position of his comrades I could feel my sympathies switch to the Nazi-Germans, not a comfortable sensation, believe me, though others around me found the scene titillating funny. The soldier who did agree to tell was allowed to live but only after he had a swastika carved on to his forehead, a reference, perhaps, though I’m not sure that the director is aware of this, to the practice of some SS units carving the Star of David on the breasts of rabbis.

The mutilated soldier returns to Berlin. Now Hitler enters the scene, played by Martin Wuttke, the usual laughable manikin. It seems to me to be next to impossible for actors to recreate Hitler as a believable human being. The only one who came close, in my estimation, was Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang.

I can hear the objections, at least some of them: don’t take things so seriously; learn to suspend disbelief, appreciate art at the level of art, entertainment at the level of entertainment. But I can’t, I simply can’t, not with this movie anyway. We are dealing with real things, real people and real events, not a collection of fictitious gangsters in Tarantino’s usual style. This is history post-Schindler’s List, past all seriousness, past all subtlety, past all introspection: it’s fun, killing is fun; it’s history-and I can find no better way of putting this- at the level gamers will understand.

I’ve read a couple of reviews of this movie, not many, and none of them terribly favourable. The comment that resonated most with me comes from a piece by Kate Williams in this week’s Spectator (“We are fast forgetting how to be guilty about the past”), a clever critique of the process by which atrocity is being turned into entertainment. She concludes thus;

If no one is affected and worrying about guilt is passé, then everything is up for revision. What can be next-a film acclaiming Nazi doctors for their work on genetics? Or Brad Pitt as Speer, a sensitive family man battling a brutal system? Now that SS officers are highly profitable Hollywood ‘booty’-as Pitt’s character shouts in Inglourious Basterds-you can bet it’s only a matter of time.

Indeed. Inglourious Basterds is not pulp fiction; it’s just pulp.


  1. Most people use film to tell us something about the world around us. I think Tarantino uses world around us to tell us something about film. I doubt he knows (or cares) much about anything that he hasn't seen on a TV or movie screen.

    Thus we have a WWII movie populated with characters that are actors and critics (named after real 40s era actors). We have dialog about the relative merits of German directors, untold references to propaganda films (my favorite was the British officer's birthplace, "a village near Pitz Palu") and we have a film, showing in a small art-house cinema, changing the course of history.

    Surely film itself is the hero here?

  2. An excellent point, Rockpocket; thanks. There is, for me anyway, a 'message' in the medium I'd rather do without.