British tradition used to reserve Christmas TV for films like The Guns Of Navarone, so it felt somehow appropriate to settle in Christmas night with Nate's two uncles to watch Inglourious Basterds (hence, IB to avoid terminal irritation by spellcheck), which has just be released on DVD (Universal, Dec 2009). The film was hailed as a return to form for Quentin Tarantino (henceforth QT), but it seems to me more of a transitional work, as there are two separate movies pulling at each other here, and when QT finally brings them together, he needs a good twist to make it work. But the set-piece portion of the film works brilliantly, more than enough to carry you through to the end of Christmas evening.
The first and less interesting strand of the film is the story of the IBs themselves, and oddly it is the bit which received the most attention. This is partly because it features the star, Brad Pitt, and partly because of the politics of having Jews massacring Nazis. Those considerations aside, it is also the bit which is very much in the vein of QT's last few films, all of which have been big budget star vehicles which transmute the low-budget shlock he admired in his video-counter days. This one is a hommage to an Italian rip-off of The Dirty Dozen; the IBs are eight Jews and one German led by a red-neck officer from Tennessee played by Pitt as if trying to channel Clark Gable before George Clooney can claim him permanently. Like Clooney, Pitt's approach to comedy is mugging and over-egging, and in this context that almost works. But the whole conceit of this Jewish version of Sgt. Fury going round France scalping Nazis pales after a short while, though one can see why it might appeal to the Weinsteins, who produced it. In the end, the Basterds wind up being primarily a plot device, as their plot to assassinate Hitler is far less interesting than the other one, initiated by cinema-owner Shosanna Dreyfuss, who has escaped massacre herself, at the hands of SS office Hans Landa.
The more interesting story revolves around Landa, played with great relish (and really as a Gestapo officer) by Christophe Waltz. It is, as I said, a series of set-pieces, all of which involve interrogations by Landa in which he twists his interrogees in a kind of verbal torture. These are, at first, the highlights of the film, and by the time they have paled QT realises it and lets the last one dissolve to violence. Interestingly, there is one parallel interrogation by an 'actual' gestapo officer involving the IBs, which recalls the 1940s film OSS, where one character was exposed to the Gestapo when he switched his fork from left to right hand. This scene's shootout foreshadows the massacre in the cinema that is the climax of the film.
As usual, one can see scenes from movie history played with, everything from To Be Or Not To Be to The Eagle Has Landed, and one hears music which is taken from other films, most obviously Ennio Morricone, whose presence also echoes the hommage to Sergio Leone in the title of the film's first 'chapter' 'Once Upon A Time In Nazi-Occupied France'. This is less of a problem than it might seem, because the scenes themselves are brilliantly written and almost as well played.
But it's also because the film is not about war as much as it is about the cinema of war, most specifically the pleasure audiences get from watching large numbers of Nazi bad guys mowed down by their heroes. Its most interesting conceit is a German version of Audie Murphy, a baby-faced sniper whose heroic killing of scores of Americans in Italy is being turned into Goebbels' greatest success as a propaganda film, A Nation's Pride. The soldier, played by Daniel Bruehl, falls in love with the cinema-owner, and gets the Paris debut of the film scheduled for her theatre. And there in a nutshell is the plot. The British (Rod Taylor as Churchill and Mike Myers as the inevitable plan-ridden general) bring British, devise a plan to send a German film scholar, Archie Hicox (Archie Leech, Alfred Hitchcock) to meet up with the German actress who's a British agent, Bridget von Hammersmark, and you can guess where it all goes from there.
The irrelevance of the Basterds themselves to all this is obvious in the way four of them simply disappear from the film, and another pops up again only when Brad Pitt is arrested, with no explanation of where he was or when he was arrested himself. One assumes there was much footage left on the cutting room floor (or intended for a more complex DVD reissue later on—in fact, I saw that Maggie Cheung had a role as the original theatre owner, who leaves the cinema to Dreyfuss, her 'niece'). The only extra in this DVD is a bit from the German propaganda film itself, powerfully effective and every bit as modern as anything in QT's work propre.
In the end, it's only Pitt's Aldo Raine who is willing to settle for less than ultimate revenge, an odd sort of compromise that merely points out the bloodthirsty-ness of all that has gone before. In the Kill Bill films, QT looked at over-the-top violence and cartoonish body counts, and we smiled until we got bored. Here he's looking at the context in which such things are acceptable, and the seriousness of that point is reinforced by the seriousness of the set-pieces, which remind us of the awful reality which underscores all World War II memories.
Tarantino gives Waltz a showcase, though the moment he pulls out the Meerschaum pipe to show he's really not a Jew-Hunter but a 'detective' is more out of Airplane than anything else. Bruehl is excellent also, and Diane Kruger (as Bridget) and Melanie Laurent (as Dreyfuss) are equally good. But the real star is cinematographer Robert Richardson, Oliver Stone's one-time cameraman, who gives the whole production a look which encompasses the history of war movies, as well as casting a lush, dream-like feeling over the whole thing. It gives the film a lustre which helps carry you along, but in the end, like so much else of QT, it's unsatisfying, not stretching you beyond the narrow boundaries of its own exploitation. At least in parts. I await its revival at countless Christmases to come.