Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

[Unfinished Business - One of the disadvantages of not writing for a deadline is that I sometimes get sidetracked by other ideas and wind up with notebooks full of the pieces I never finished. Since some of the films I write about are fairly new, publishing my reviews of them becomes a priority. But if I fail to complete the review within a few months of the film's release (in the U.S.), its timeliness (or topicality) expires and my justification for reviewing the film dissipates. If the film is any good, timeliness doesn't matter. but if it is a waste of time, like the film I reviewed below, the only satisfaction I get from publishing my opinion is dissenting from the reviews of everyone else - a perennial pleasure.]

Quentin Tarantino was sitting in a biergarten in Berlin one evening, feeling irritated. Noticing the look on his face, a waiter asked him, "wass ist los?"
"You Germans killed six million Jews!" Tarantino growled.
"But that was 65 years ago, in my grandfather's time," the waiter exclaimed.
"Yeah," Tarantino retorted, "but I just found out about it!"

There is something to be said for the brand of humor that makes jokes of a frightening reality. Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove made the threat of nuclear war funny by taking its basic concepts to their absurd conclusions. It helped that the idea of such self-annihilation was itself more than a little absurd. Hitler was a frightening reality for millions of people, and though he may have looked and seemed ridiculous to some at the time (he stole Charlie Chaplin's mustache), nothing he did was the least bit funny. Audiences may have laughed at scenes from The Great Dictator, the film Chaplin felt compelled to make in 1940, or To Be or Not To Be, made by Ernst Lubitsch, an Austrian Jew, in 1942, but it was either at a safe distance from a battlefield or once Hitler was safely dead. Dr. Strangelove was made when nuclear war was still a very real possibility, so its propositions had power. Anyone watching it now who missed the Cold War must wonder what point Stanley Kubrick was trying to make. It is a little late in the day to be going after Hitler and "gnatsies."

Despite it being his highest-grossing film, Chaplin later admitted that he would never have made The Great Dictator if he had known of the death camps. Lubitsch, however, rather than regret having made To Be or Not To Be, actually defended it when a critic questioned his choice of comedic subject: "What I have satirized in this picture are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology. I have also satirized the attitude of actors who always remain actors regardless of how dangerous the situation might be, which I believe is a true observation. It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be and so do [sic] the audience which I observed during a screening of To Be or Not to Be; but this is a matter of debate and everyone is entitled to his point of view, but it is certainly a far cry from the Berlin-born director who finds fun in the bombing of Warsaw."

I have always found attempts to satirize or make fun of Hitler and Nazism to be feeble and unfunny. Even when made during the war, their effectiveness, even in producing laughter, is dubious. The defeat of Hitler was an obvious necessity, but the prospect of doing so, which would involve wholesale destruction, was not an attractive one.

Since the war, the number of comedies that have taken on the subject has been small. Mel Brooks seems to be fixated by Hitler. In his first film, The Producers (1968), he introduced an evidently psychotic playwright, Franz Liebkind, who had written "Springtime for Hitler: A Gay Romp with Adolf and Eva at Berchtesgaden." The trouble with Brooks's use of this preposterous play as the centerpiece of his film (and his 2001 musical) is that, while he tries to represent it to us as the worst play ever written, his satire shifts from Hitler to the audience, which laughs uncontrollably at every gag and turns the play into a hit.

Lately there has been a number of dramatic films that have tried to amend history by depicting how some Germans resisted the Nazis - and were crushed in the process. These films, two of which are the excellent Sophie Scholl - The Final Days (2005) and the entertaining Valkyrie (2008), don't rewrite history, as some critics have argued. They simply try to alter an oversimplified view of the German people that incriminates them all in the crimes of the Third Reich. Sophie Scholl was a student at the University of Munich who belonged to a resistance group called Weiße Rose.(1) She was arrested, along with other members of the group, after dropping hundreds of anti-Nazi leaflets down corridors and stairwells at the school, and was tried and executed.

Valkyrie is a highly sensationalized dramatization of a plot to assassinate Hitler led by Claus von Stauffenberg.(2) It makes for an excellent show. That the plot failed spectacularly, with the plotters either summarily shot or hanged from meat hooks with piano wire (Hitler even had their executions filmed so that he could watch them die over and over again) undermines the film's erstwhile attempts at entertainment. But how else could Tom Cruise have got away with playing a Nazi if he hadn't at least tried to kill Hitler?

All this seems excessive as an introduction to my comments on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I watched an interview with him on Charlie Rose subsequent to the film's release in the U.S., and I wondered how long it might have taken Rose to realize he was talking to an idiot. There are moments in his film that are borderline imbecile - like the "Bear Jew" speech given by Hitler, not to mention the whole "Bear Jew" concept. Notice how Tarantino safely calls his bad guys "Nazis" (or, as pronounced by Brad Pitt, "Gnatsies") rather than Germans.

The film is so chock-full of references to other films that it would take a team of deranged film scholars (redundancy intended) to identify them all. Tarantino repeats his habit of stupidly throwing in music from other films, which only made me wish I were watching them instead of Inglourious Basterds. We know he has seen countless movies, but why did they all have to be the wrong movies? Tarantino's production company is called "A Band Apart," after the Jean-Luc Godard film Bande à part. Godard should sue.

The concept of the film seems to have come from a deservedly obscure Italian 1978 film called The Inglorious Bastards, which had the advantage of being unassuming trash (not to mention proper spelling). And Tarantino apparently saw the documentary on film archivist Henri Langlois that I
reviewed last year.

It's difficult to single out any of the actors for scorn, but certainly the worst offender is the one who was singled out for awards, Christoph Waltz. Only Diane Kruger manages to provide an honorable performance, despite all the inanities around her. The rest of the cast in merely unmentionable.

What possible satisfaction could be derived any more from machine-gunning and blowing to pieces a theater-full of "gnatsies"? Who can laugh at the depiction of Hitler and Goebbels as semi-hysterical fools? The condition of our being able to laugh at Hitler at all is that he should be dead and the Third Reich a distant memory.

(1) Michael Verhoeven's 1982 film Die Weiße Rose is even better than Sophie Scholl.
(2) Recently discovered evidence proves that there were at least 42 plots to assassinate Hitler.

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