Saturday, September 03, 2011

Implausible "Basterds"

I experienced Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" for the first time this past evening. While I thought it was a very watchable film, the highly disappointing conclusion did much to detract from all that had gone before.

Would I be spoiling anything to talk about the conclusion now, two years after the film's release? If you haven't seen the movie, you might want to stop reading. Still here? Sehr gut. Eh bien, continuons.

"Basterds" features most of the Tarantino tropes we've come to know and love (or hate):

-French language, women, and culture
-Sam Jackson (voiceover narration)
-Harvey Keitel (the voice on the phone)
-lengthy, self-conscious, quasi-Shakespearean speechification
-badly acted cameos (in this case, Mike Myers as a fatuous British officer; cf. Tarantino himself in "Pulp Fiction")
-Mexican standoffs (mentioned by name as Mexican standoffs in this film)
-mounting tension fueled by alcohol, suspicion, and increasing threat of violence (cf. the classic Joe Pesci/Ray Liotta "Funny how?" scene in Scorsese's "Goodfellas" for a fantastic version of this trope)
-nonlinear narrative
-bladed weapons
-exposed brains (cf. Marvin in "Pulp Fiction" and O-ren Ishii in "Kill Bill," inter alia)
-abuse heaped on black folks

You doubtless know the story: it's the early 1940s, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is in charge of eight US soldiers, the eponymous Basterds. Their job is, quite simply, to terrorize the Nazis. Most of this is done off-camera; one major incident is shown. Another subplot, meanwhile, involves a Jewish girl named Shoshanna who escapes her family's massacre by the troops of "Jew-hunter" Colonel Hans Landa; once in Paris, she gives herself a Gentile name-- Emmanuelle Mimieux-- and begins a new (and bizarrely high-profile) life as the owner of a downtown cinemathèque. Shoshanna/Emmanuelle takes a lover, Marcel, who is black and thus the target of racist comments by the occupying Nazis. A young German soldier becomes enamored of her; Shoshanna repeatedly spurns his advances, but it turns out that this soldier, Fredrick Zoller, is a sniper and war hero who is now starring in his own war film, "The Nation's Pride." Zoller's got connections with Goebbels, whom he convinces to screen "Pride" for an A-list audience at Emmanuelle's cinema. Word that the German brass-- including Hitler-- will all be in one place spreads to US/UK intelligence, and thus Operation Kino is born: all of the German high command will be killed in one fell swoop.

Hans Landa (incarnated by the linguistically and theatrically amazing Christoph Waltz) plays a role in all of this, from beginning to end. His inimical presence is the thread that connects almost all of the events in the film. His character really is a version of Joe Pesci's Tommy DeVito in "Goodfellas": Colonel Landa titters, whispers, rages, negotiates, and strangles. You're never quite sure what he might do at any given moment, but you always suspect he knows more than he's letting on, and that he's just toying with you.

Landa is the Jew-hunter; Raine is the Nazi-killer (was it ever established whether Raine himself is Jewish?). They finally meet face-to-face in the final reel. By that point, most of Raine's team is dead; Shoshanna/Emmanuelle and Fredrick Zoller have killed each other; Marcel has burned-- along with the German high command (yes: Hitler, too, although he gets machine-gunned before being toasted)-- in the blaze of Operation Kino. And that brings us to the painfully implausible conclusion.

When Landa and Raine meet, the circumstances are these: Raine and his Basterd underling Smithson Utivich* have been captured while inside the cinema; they're driven to a German safe house, where Colonel Landa then reveals that he is perfectly fine with allowing the German high command to die-- as long as he can be given US citizenship and a raft of cushy perks as part of the deal for turning himself in to the Americans and for helping to end the war. Raine consents (or seems to consent) to the deal; Landa is put in touch with US brass, Operation Kino succeeds, and Landa is guaranteed his reward.

My question: why would Landa do this?

I had a hard time believing that Landa, who spends 99% of the film showing off his mastery of duplicity, would make a deal in which he essentially gives up his advantage over his enemies. The final scene features Landa and his radio operator driving Raine and Utivich to the American front lines. According to the deal that Landa had cut with the US brass, the Americans were to appear as captives, but once across the border, the Germans were to release the Americans and pose as captives themselves. That Landa would consent to this arrangement is beyond me, and he gets what he deserves for his stupidity: once across the lines, Landa gives Raine his pistol and Raine's infamous knife. Raine repays this gesture by shooting the radio operator dead. Utivich scalps the corpse, then helps hold Landa down so that Raine can carve a swastika-- Raine's trademark "stamp" to make sure a Nazi is always identifiable-- into Landa's forehead.

I admit it: moments like the above made "Inglourious Basterds" a truly watchable movie. Tarantino's films seem increasingly talky, but "Basterds" was a feast for language lovers, and didn't skimp on the violence and gore (watch brave men blow each other's balls off!). I think I even picked up a good bit of German vocabulary thanks to those subtitles. But despite the movie's many virtues, the script's treatment of Landa was unforgivable. That such a cunning man would so suddenly become naive was a plot twist that pushed me beyond my capacity to suspend disbelief. In all, I'd have to say I was disappointed by "Inglourious Basterds"-- a great ride until the end ruined it.

*The surname "Utivich" is pronounced "Yudah-vitch" in the film, which sounds almost like some sort of international pun: the "-vitch" suffix indicates "son of" in many Slavic languages, while "Yudah" sounds like the German "Jude," i.e., Jew. Is "Utivich" then "Son-of-Jew"?


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