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AUGUST 25, 2009

Scalping History

Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds takes the director's usual liberties, but this time with a subject that's too big for him.

By Mark Jenkins

Also opening in D.C. this week, two films I reviewed for NPR: COLD SOULS and SHORTS, as well as CAPTAIN ABU RAED, a film whose director I interviewed for NPR.

QUENTIN TARANTINO HAS SO MANY FAVORITE DIRECTORS that it's hard to catalog them all, especially since some of them are almost no one else's faves. But it's not true — as some blinkered commentators claim — that the video-store savant only appreciates B-movies, or just Hollywood product. Tarantino's production company, A Band Apart, was named for a film by that most influential of arthouse directors, Jean-Luc Godard. (The title's usual English translation is Band of Outsiders.) And it's surely from Godard that Tarantino learned to jumble and juxtapose genres, styles, and ideas.

Tarantino's latest, Inglourious Basterds, finds the writer-director in 1940s Paris, and not simply because that's a fine place to kill Nazis. It's also the future home of the nouvelle vague: Godard, Truffaut (from whom the director borrowed Kill Bill's premise), and the rest. And the birthplace, arguably, of cinema itself. Where better to build a nitrate-film funeral pyre for Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels, two of history's most infamous movie buffs?

Like all of Tarantino's movies since Reservoir Dogs, Basterds is many things, not all of them well-advised or even interesting. The advance word was that the film would be a spaghetti-Western variation on World War II bad-guys-on-a-good-mission fantasies like The Dirty Dozen, with the U.S. soldiers being Jewish so they pack a special gripe against Adolph in their rucksacks. That is indeed part of the movie, and the part that features its biggest star, Brad Pitt. He plays Lt. Aldo Raine (a tribute to 1950s actor Aldo Ray), a part-Cherokee former bootlegger who teaches his Jewish GIs how to scalp Germans — and whose cartoon drawl is almost as scary as his blade.

Pitt's billing aside, though, the basterds's mission doesn't amount to much. Instead, the story is chiefly a duel between another old-movie archetype, the suave Nazi, and the young Jewish woman who escaped from him. In the opening set piece, SS Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) plays cat-and-mouse — or hawk-and-rat, to use his terminology — with a French dairy farmer who's hiding some Jewish neighbors in his basement. The long (and queasily comic) exchange is followed by the Dreyfus family's murder, but daughter Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) escapes. The next time we meet her, she has a new name, Emmanuelle, echoing Thirst's Old-Testament-evoking vampire-virus. (It's probably also a bow to the '70s soft-porn franchise.) The fugitive has a rather conspicuous new gig: She runs a movie theater in Paris.

The film takes a few more detours, and apparently had even more that ended up as outtakes. (In one version, Shoshanna inherited the theater from a woman played by Anglo-Franco-Hong-Kong actress Maggie Cheung, whose presence would have given Basterds a whiff of Kill Bill's soy sauce.) But the bulk of the action involves Shoshanna and her cinema, which is just about to switch from showing Storm on Mont Blanc to Piz Pälu. (Don't know them? Time to brush up on Leni Riefenstahl's pre-Nazi mountain-film roles.) As the story continues, so does Tarantino's riffing on classic German cinema, with references to such classic directors as G.W. Pabst and a scene in which Emil Jannings parties joins the Nazi brass for a film premiere at Shoshanna's theater. (A pro-Nazi actor, Jannings stayed in Germany while the directors of his best-known films, The Last Laugh and The Blue Angel, headed to Hollywood.)

The gala happens at Shoshanna's place because she's attracted the attention of a handsome young German soldier, Fredrick Zoller (Goodbye Lenin's Daniel Brühl). He turns out to be "the German Sgt. York,'' a war hero who's been cast in a movie about his own exploits, Nation's Pride. The film's premiere, which might be expected to happen in Berlin, has been scheduled for Paris, and Fredrick prevails upon Goebbels to move it to the cinema run by his new crush. Planning the affair requires Shoshanna to make small talk with Landa, the supervisor of her family's slaughter. But such unpleasantness can tolerated, if it leads to an opportunity to kill Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazis, including Landa. The weapon? Highly flammable nitrate film and a locked theater, creating a, well, holocaust.

Also arriving for this climax are characters from other subplots, including Raine and his scalpin' Jews and a German actress (Diane Kruger) who's already endured one of the director's talky bloodlettings. But their arrival just makes the movie's various subsidiary narratives —- including the one that's supposed to be central — seem beside the point. Perhaps the film should have been titled, in a nod to Amelie, The Fabulous Destiny of Shoshanna Dreyfus.

Tarantino has admitted that he originally conceived Shosanna as a relentless killer, a characterization he later shifted to Kill Bill's The Bride. But Basterds is a revenge fantasy nonetheless. In a fairly silly interview with The Atlantic Monthly, Tarantino defends the movie's righteous violence from the charge that it reduces Jewish avengers to the level of their Nazi enemies. The piece's author, Jeffrey Goldberg, is ambivalent about the film, but accepts the notion that Tarantino has done something no Jewish director would. Steven Spielberg, Goldberg writes, is "too nice a Jewish boy" to massacre fictional Germans.

Actually, this isn't true. If Spielberg is constrained, it's by history. He couldn't see an authentic way to way to make Schindler's List a shoot-'em-up. Yet the director did have some savage sport with Nazis, in both Raiders of the Lost Ark and Indiana Jones and the Lost Crusade. In the latter, he has Indy toss uniformed Germans from a zeppelin without a thought. In the former, he has the Ark of the Covenant melt their faces off — a much more Jewish payback than scalping.

In a way, Spielberg's bloody daydream is more unsettling than Tarantino's, because it's so offhand. While Lt. Raine and his boys make a big production of their brutality, Indiana Jones swats Nazis as if they were flies. But both directors are toying with a subject that's beyond them. World War II's horrors can't be rewritten, whether for fun or — in Tarantino's case — out of impatience that reality isn't more like an action flick. ("Did everybody walk into the boxcar?" he asks Goldberg, rhetorically. "Didn't somebody do something?")

Inglourious Basterds is finally kind of boring, because Tarantino's transgressions have become routine. Whether he's referencing Karl May, anachronistically inserting a David Bowie song, or staging another post-shootout medical shocker, the spirit of thing is stale.

The movie's last word comes from Pitt's Raine, ironically speaking for his creator. He carves a swastika in a German officer's forehead and says it "just might be my masterpiece." But perhaps the final remark should go instead to Godard, a fierce critic of representing the Holocaust as just another Hollywood entertainment. About a decade ago, he rejected an award because of his many failures. One of them was "to prevent Mr. Spielberg from reconstructing Auschwitz."

INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS — 2009, 152 min; at most multiplexes.