February 21, 2010

Film and the Theatrical in 'Inglourious Basterds': Part 2

In the previous entry, I was primarily concerned with Inglourious Basterds as theater, the first chapter being a perfectly composed one-act play and Christoph Waltz’s performance as Col. Hans Landa the epitome of a play-acting tour-de-force. In the next chapter, Tarantino introduces the title Inglourious Basterds, a troupe of Jewish-American soldiers (and one ex-Nazi serial killer with a taste for German officers) whose sole mission it is to terrify, torture and scalp every man they see wearing a Nazi uniform. In this chapter, the theatricality of the first begins to transition into an ingrained appreciation of film that will come to unite almost all the characters by the film’s conclusion. However, before the idea of film is introduced fully in the third chapter, Tarantino blends film and theater with ‘Inglourious Basterds.’

Besides theater referring to the stage, its players and accoutrements, the word theater can also refer to “a place of actions; field of operations” (dictionary.com). The most common usage of this definition is, of course, in the theater of war, like WWII’s European and Pacific theaters. This is where the Basterds come in. Essentially a roaming theater troupe of mayhem, the Basterds replace Shakespeare with scalping.  In this chapter, even the setting of the Basterds’ murder of a German patrol looks, and is shot like, an outside amphitheater.

Several members of the Basterds are assembled on top of the surrounding small hillsides, their attention focused on Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in the depression below. Raine is in the midst of trying to convince German Sgt. Rachtman (Richard Sammel) to give up the position of another German patrol nearby by stressing that if he doesn’t, Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) will come out and beat Werner Rachtman to death with his baseball bat. Rachtman refuses and in doing so, the real show begins. As Raine informs him, “Actually, Werner, we're all tickled to here you say that. Frankly, watchin' Donny beat Nazis to death is is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies.

A captivated audience. 

Thus, the theater of battle is transmuted into a theater of the dramatics. The Bear Jew is kept off-screen as Tarantino intercuts between the sound of his bat hitting the wall of a dark tunnel, Rachtman’s stoic face, and Lt. Raine, enraptured by the anticipatory theatrics. When Donny finally emerges, it is quite a dramatic entrance, indeed, punctuated by the ecstatic applause of the encircled Basterds. As Donny proceeds to bludgeon a man to death, Raine munches on a sandwich, the equivalent to a bucket of movie popcorn.

The main attraction. Violence: the film within a film.

This chapter also introduces an uncomfortable aspect to the picture, which will continue until its dramatic climax. In establishing a mini-theatrical episode which the characters consider “going to the movies,” Tarantino mirrors the cinematic experience back at us, the viewer. The Basterds’ whooping and shouting, applause and transparent enjoyment of Sgt. Rachtman’s violent death is both an invitation and challenge to the audience. It puts us in the uncharacteristic position of having to choose our reactions. Tarantino is playing with participatory theater, challenging the audience to fill in its own reactions to the action played out on screen. During this scene, Sgt. Rachtman behaves honorably, refusing to divulge information that could “put German lives at risk.” Had he been an American being tortured by Nazis, the audience would clearly pick out Brad Pitt’s character as the villain. However, the name of this chapter is ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ and the name of the film is “Inglourious Basterds,” and the leader of the Inglourious Basterds is Brad Pitt and there he is enjoying a sandwich as chunks of brain and scalp fly from a man’s head.

Another interesting challenge to the viewer that centers on theatrical excess is the parallel between characters, namely between Lt. Raine and Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke). As we are first introduced to the Basterds, Raine is giving a speech that lays out their mission statement in colorful and rousing language. Jingoist is an understatement:

       "Now, I don't know about y'all, but I sure as hell didn't come down from the goddamn Smoky Mountains, cross five thousand miles of water, fight my way through half of Sicily and jump out of a fuckin' air-o-plane to teach the Nazis lessons in humanity. Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed. That's why any and every every son of a bitch we find wearin' a Nazi uniform, they're gonna die. Now, I'm the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger. That means I got a little Injun in me. And our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance. We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. And they will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, and disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us. And the German won't not be able to help themselves but to imagine the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, and our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they're tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with. Sound good?"

At the termination of this speech, there is a smash cut to Hitler chewing out two subordinate officers, railing against the Basterds. His monologue is no less dramatic and no less colorful.

Both men seek to rally and inspire the men under their command. The difference is that Raine is an original character whereas Hitler’s violent speeches have been a point of parody since WWII. Although the scenes juxtaposed are meant to elicit laughs from an audience sympathetic to the Basterds’ vigorous anti-Nazi mission, is there really that great a margin of difference between Raine’s rhetoric and tactics and Hitler’s? That parallel will be continued more fully in later entries. 

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