Saturday, August 22, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: A Revue

(Don't read this before watching the movie. If you do, don't bother watching it. Unless you see it on HBO for free. Then it's okay.)

Tarantino fans might think I blaspheme when I say this, but here goes: Inglorious Basterds is my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie yet. Now to be fair, Tarantino's previous masterpieces haven't dealt with the genres that I am particularly familiar with, so perhaps they did contain the peculiar blend of homage and parody that I appreciated so much in IB. This movie though, hit all the right places, at least for me.

The movie is divided into chapters, and each one of them is awesome by itself. I especially enjoyed the first chapter that acquaints you with the chilling terror inspired by the sociopathic SS officer Hans Landa. I also really liked the chapter in the middle, when two of the basterds and a British spy must rendevous with an agent in a cellar full of drunk German soldiers and secret policemen. Other reviewers found this scene boring, but I was on edge throughout the scene, waiting for the inevitable moment when the spies' cover would be blown. There were several ways that could have gone down: the bumbling drunk Feldwebel Wilhelm or the suspicious SS Sturmbannf├╝hrer Hellstrom could have found seen through Lt. Hicox's not-quite-there German accent, Stiglitz anger at being in the presence of a hated Nazi secret policeman could have got the better of his patience, the double agent von Hammersmark could have betrayed the spies. But the way the British Agent blew his cover was amazing and (IMO) showed the kind of geeky attention to detail I like to see in movies, but seldom do.

The chapter that really blew me away though, was the end. So many "historical" movies change the course of history to fit their story or even worse, their writers' political and moral biases. But rather than change the lives of obscure Roman emperors (as in Gladiator), Crusader noblemen known only to historians (as in Kingdom of Heaven) or Scotsmen known more through legend than History (Braveheart), Inglorious Basterds makes a change we all know to be a historical innacuracy. After all, Hitler did not die in Paris in 1944 - he died in 1945 in Berlin by his own hand and the Second World War ground on for another year because of it. But if you are willing to watch the emperor Commodus die in the Colisseum by a gladiators hand when he was actually by his Praetorian Guard, or see Balian of Ibelin showed as a working class hero who shows remarkable tolerance to Muslims instead of a bigoted aristocratic Crusader, you really have no grounds to complain about this innacuracy. I may be overanalysing this, but I see the end of IB as a big F.U. to historical accuracy in Hollywood movies.

Yet another thing I like is the Tarantino's refusal to resort to the many creative shortcuts in charatcer development that fills the pages of Apart from the characters who were intended as homages to stock characters in such movies (such as Mike Myers' walking stereotype of a British General), almost none of the characters are cliched. The stoic and heroic Frenchman Perrier LaPadite, who seems to be almost a shoo in for a place in Yad Vashem, caves under the implicit threat to his family and betrays the Jews he was sheltering. The nameless German NCO the Basterds capture in chapter 2 seems to be brave, respectful and honourable - in other words the archtypical "Good German" in the vein of The Eagle has Landed's Rolf Steiner. But then, just before he is killed. he shows himself to be an antisemite by shouting a racist epithet at the mostly Jewish unit that has captured him. There are other instances through the film where bit characters subvert the tropes you expect them to follow, and appear to be more human than simple stock characters.

The one little quibble I had with the film was with the translation of the German ranks in the English subtitles. The character of Feldwebel Wilhelm, the new father from the cellar scene has his rank translated as Master Sergeant (although I am pretty sure the subtitles say "Staff Sergeant"). Feldwebel, a rank that is not really equivalent to any American rank (although it is close to the British concept of a Warrant Officer, or an Indian Subhedar). While it is understandable that this nuance is not easy to convey in a line of subtitles, a generic "Sergeant" would have worked as a translation, as it can mean any number of senior NCO ranks in armies. The translation to specifically Master Sergeant or Staff Sergeant is clearly wrong though. Similarly, the translation of Sturmbannf├╝hrer Dieter Hellstrom has his rank translated as Major. Now while SS Sturmbannf├╝hrers were held to be equivalent to German Army Majors, Hellstrom is not a soldier but a member of the Gestapo and a secret policeman. The British police rank of Inspector is equivalent to British Army Lieutenants, but you would not expect American adaptations of Sherlock Holmes stories to refer to Lieutenant Lestrade of Scotland Yard, would you? But hey, I am a the kind of military geek that can write a paragraph on the comparison between military ranks of the SS and the US Amry, and such little inaccuracies bother me. YMMV.

In the end, I guess Inglorious Basterds is definitely the kind of movie you would like to read the annotations to and watch again, as Roger Ebert said. There are so many little details and references in the movie, that seeing it once just will not do it justice. I plan to watch the movie again, and I would definitely buy a DVD, and so should you. It really is that good.