Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds

Before we get to talk about Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), let’s have a quick quiz. Who, among the three infamous dictators—Hitler, Stalin and Mao—caused the maximum number of civilian deaths in his country (“democide”)?

If your answer is Hitler, then you are wrong. According to historical estimates, the Chinese communist leader Mao Tse-tung’s policies and actions led to the deaths of nearly 77 million of his countrymen, surpassing those killed by Nazi leader Adolf Hitler (20 million) and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (61 million).

And yet how many Hollywood films are made with Mao as the arch villain? Or even Stalin?

It’s not that Hitler becomes less evil because he killed less number of people than Stalin or Mao did. The German dictator’s genocidal atrocities or policies of eugenics were despicable. Still, the constant projection of Hitler as the only evil doer in the western man’s consciousness baffles me. Excepting Idi Amin, I haven’t seen Hollywood going after other dictators as vigorously as they go after the fuehrer.

Clearly, Hollywood is fascinated by Hitler: Almost every year, Hollywood studios plan a slate of anti-Nazi movies. Last year, the offerings peaked (with "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas," "Adam Resurrected," "The Reader," "Valkyrie") as The New York Times film critic A. O. Scott noted: “A minor incursion of this sort is an annual Oscar season tradition, but 2008 offers an abundance…” (Why so many Holocaust films now, and for whose benefit?)

Scott goes on to ask: “The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy quantification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions. Why are there so many? Why now? And more queasily, could there be too many?”

Perhaps Scott wrote the piece too late in the day. Or maybe the failure of Death Proof hastened it. Apparently Tarantino had been working on the script of Inglourious Basterds for ten years, even before he did Kill Bill. He is said to have delayed the project because he was not finding the right ending. I can understand his dilemma but he never resolved it. In a relatively well-made Holocaust revenge film, it is the ending that rankles, that seems a bit forced and contrived. A brilliant opening sequence should have been offset with a masterful last scene but it doesn’t. It is a narrow miss that prevents a good Inglourious Basterds from leapfrogging to being great.

I was curious about the film’s title from the beginning (and thought Vishal Bhardwaj stole it for his Kaminay) but like most other motifs in Tarantino’s films, this too turned out to be derivative (or homage, whatever you may choose to call): It comes from a European film Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978) which was released in the USA by the title The Inglorious Bastards. Maybe that’s the reason why Tarantino film’s title is slightly misspelled. Major change that one, huh?

Set in the second world war, Tarantino’s fairy tale Inglourious Basterds(it was earlier meant to be titled as "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France") has a four track narrative underpinned by a main villain—Christoph Waltz as the Nazi Col. Hans Landa, a polyglot evil genius and a Jew-sniffer par excellence. There is the perpetrator (the Nazi occupiers of France, represented by Col. Hans), the victim (Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna Dreyfus), the spy (Diane Kruger as double agent Bridget von Hammersmark) and the avenger (Brad Pitt and his team of Inglorious Bastards).

As I have mentioned earlier, the opening scene of the film is excellent, classy as a masterpiece, more visceral and evil than scenes of scalping mined throughout the film. Christoph Waltz establishes himself in this very first scene and you look forward to seeing him time and again on the screen. After Waltz’s introduction, when Pitt and his mates make their onscreen appearance, they don’t make that much of an impact—even though Pitt’s voice and body language are well-directed. Eli Roth (as Sgt. Donny Donowitz), with his deadly clubbing scene, is chilling—more chilling than the scalping scenes that looked a bit fake to me.

When it comes to violence and bloodshed, Tarantino seems to take unpretentious pleasure in making people suffer and bleed. He did it with some sophistication in Jackie Brown (Samuel Jackson’s killing of Chris Tucker and Robert De Niro) but it has all been gruesome and in-your-face in Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill Vol. 1 & 2. His films, one can argue, document the ways in which violence can be inflicted upon people, good or bad. Inglourious Bastards abounds in some new (different from his past oeuvre) methods of sending folks to the next world: scalping, clubbing and even the good old technique of strangulation.

What redeems Tarantino’s nearly B-grade penchant for portrayals of violence is his great ear for dialogues. And there are plenty of clever lines in this film. I loved the line by Goebbels in the film when he says, ‘America’s gold medals can be weighed in negro sweat’. But my favourite still remains the Harvey Keitel line from Reservoir Dogs: “If you shoot me in your dream, you better wake up and apologize to me.”

Despite the unusual screen time (nearly three hours), the revenge drama flows smoothly. As the scenes roll out, you recognize the typical Tarantino stamp on them: the book-like chapterisation, the set-piece of the theatre’s burning down (the revenge), the shootout scene in the restaurant (reminiscent of the garage scene in Reservoir Dogs but amazingly executed), and the imagined sex scene between Goebbels and his assistant (reminiscent of the sex scene between Robert De Niro and Bridget Fonda in Jackie Brown). Tarantino’s favourites Samuel L. Jackon and Harvey Keitel are also present in this film through their voices.

Even though cinema is all make-believe and cinematic reality is different from historical reality, it is the film’s ending that is dissatisfying—or more than dissatisfying, irrational (yes, even fiction, to succeed, must make us suspend our disbelief!). Why would a hardcore Nazi officer change side? If he did not believe in Hitler’s philosophy, why did he comply with his orders for so long? Oh, yeah, he was just doing his job and somebody tipped him offscreen that the Hitler was anyway going to lose the war!

If you don’t have a higher threshold for suspension of disbelief, you may as well forgive the film’s somewhat irrational ending (or not even notice it) and come home thoroughly entertained. As for me, I would like to ask Tarantino what was the alternative ending that he had in mind.

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