Monday, May 17, 2010

Thoughts On Film: Tarantino Ends the War His Way

"I have a message for Germany: that you are all going to die. And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who is going to do it!" --Shosanna Dreyfus

Quentin Tarantino makes films that are at once distinctly his yet also derivative of the films he loves. Throughout any given Tarantino film there will be character names, camera moves, music cues, and plot lines that can be found in various spaghetti western, samurai, crime, or action movies. His talent lies in taking these different elements and combining them into something that is uniquely his. His most recent feature, 2009's Inglourious Basterds derives its title (but not its plot) from a correctly-spelled 1978 film and like his previous opus Kill Bill the plot revolves around a woman seeking revenge for the murder of her family.

Unlike previous Tarantino efforts, the plot unfolds in fairly linear fashion: the film is divided into five "chapters," the first of which is titled "Once upon a Nazi-occupied France." This is the first clue that this film is no ordinary World War II story. Like anything that begins "once upon a time," it is mere fantasy, a story that takes place during WWII but is not about WWII. While some have criticized the film for being openly historically inaccurate, it makes no claim to be anything beyond a fictional yarn. Indeed, it is probably no less historically accurate than films that offer a veneer of authenticity such as The Da Vinci Code or Braveheart. (In case you're wondering, the Scots did not wear kilts during the time that Braveheart takes place, and William Wallace's father was an aristocrat, not a peasant. It is still a gripping film, but let's not pretend that it is a truthful one.)

***Minor plot spoilers ahead***

The opening scene introduces us to Nazi Col. Hans Landa (magnificently portrayed by Oscar-winner Christoph Waltz, in a role that requires him to switch between speaking German, French, English, and Italian), also known as "the Jew Hunter," as he visits a French dairy farm looking for Jews in hiding. Landa is skilled at linguistic manipulation and, despite his charm, manages during the film to convince nearly anyone in the film to confess to anything he wants to hear. Talking the hapless farmer into an "offer he can't refuse," Landa extracts the location of the hiding Dreyfus family and has his soldiers shoot up the room. Only the daughter Shosanna (the lovely Melanie Laurent, pictured above) manages to escape.

Meanwhile, US Army Lt. Aldo Raine (the hysterically funny Brad Pitt), a straight-shooter from Maynardville, TN, has put together a team of Jewish American soldiers (to include torture-porn director Eli Roth and The Office's B.J. Novak) and one very disgruntled ex-Nazi to carry out a guerrilla mission: kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible and spread terror throughout the Third Reich. They institute a policy of letting one Nazi "escape" every time in order to relay to his superiors the horrors visited upon his compatriots.

Years after the massacre of her family, Shosanna, hair dyed blonde, is running a movie theatre in Paris under the assumed name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. She catches the eye of Pvt. Frederick Zoller, a Nazi soldier who is something of a combined Alvin York and Audie Murphy for the Nazis: a war hero whose fame has led to his portrayal of himself in an upcoming propaganda film, A Nation's Pride. Hoping to ingratiate himself with the pretty cinema owner, he convinces the Nazi propaganda master Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere screening of ANP at Shosanna's theatre. She decides that her opportunity for revenge is here; she will lock the Nazis in the theater and burn it down. Unknown to her, A British officer (Michael Fassbender) and Raine's troops are planning to infiltrate the cinema and do the same thing, with the aid of glamorous German actress-turned-spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).

As with his previous works, Tarantino uses "found" music rather than original score. Particularly notable is his use of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti western cues, something that would seem to be out of place in WWII France yet somehow it works. Then again, what other director would include David Bowie's "Cat People," with its eerily appropriate refrain "putting out the fire with gasoline," in a WWII movie?

Two important concepts are repeated throughout the film: the importance of language and the power of film. Fully half of the dialogue in this movie is not English: most of the main characters speak a mixture of German or French, with some Italian thrown in. (Or in Pitt's case, hilariously mangled Italian.) One scene in a restaurant is played straight through with characters speaking German or French, and waiting for a translator to go between them while the viewer reads the subtitles. While one might expect this to get dull or cumbersome, Tarantino uses this technique to build tension. These characters must rely on language to keep from blowing their covers, and we are shown that even a cultural misstep such as an odd hand gesture can ruin the illusion. At one point, Hammersmark wonders aloud if the Americans can speak anything other than English without "an atrocious accent." Unlike Kill Bill, which had extended complex action sequences, this film instead follows Hitchcock's definition of suspense: action is a bomb exploding; suspense is when a bomb is going to explode.

The cinema functions almost as a character in the story. Shosanna owns a cinema, Zoller is an actor and film lover, an Allied spy is a famous actress, the British officer was a film critic before the war, and Goebbels fancies himself the father of a new age of German cinema. Naturally, all these characters come together at a film premiere, and while the story involves bringing down the Nazis by blowing up a theatre full of extra-flammable silver nitrate film, the point is that this film itself is a sort of victory over the Nazis. Through the power of movies, Tarantino can end WWII the way he wants to end it. Hitler may have died cowering in a bunker, but it seems more poetic to have him meet his end watching a propaganda flick. And Tarantino gets to control who pulls the strings: in his world, the victims of the Third Reich's "final solution" are no longer victims, but active participants who get to play a vital role in bringing the Nazis to their knees.

While this film also contains Tarantino's trademark profanity and violence, it probably contains less of them than his other movies. His dark and bizarre humor is always evident, as is his rumored foot fetish. More than anything, Tarantino loves to have fun at the movies, and this is about as much fun in an alternate-reality WWII as you're likely to have.

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