Monday, August 24, 2009
The Language Problem
It has always struck me as deeply incongruous when a Nazi addresses another Nazi in English. A sequence in Where Eagles Dare leaped out at me back in the mists of time, when Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood are sent into a Nazi enclave in Wehrmacht uniforms, and manage to pass perfectly, despite addressing the enemy in full Burtonian and Eastwoodian English. Really, dude? the skeptical watcher wants to ask. Is your German that good? So good, in fact, that it passes even when it's English? Not a single Nazi so much as looks askance at them. It's very hard to overlook, a real strain on the old willing-suspension-of-disbelief neurons.
Inglourious Basterds picks up this ball of incongruity and runs it into the end zone. Four-fifths of the film is in either French or German, and the American audience is forced to do what cowardly directors swear they won't ever do: read subtitles. In Chapter One, a Nazi interviewing a Frenchman begins in French but then asks, halfway through the conversation, to switch to English. Ah-ha! the viewer says triumphantly, caught you, Tarantino! Pretty sleazy way of getting those damned subtitles off the screen!
But no. The Nazi has bigger plans.
The language-play continues later. A plot-point depends on the assumption that Germans cannot appreciate the subleties of the Italian tongue and are universally unable to detect an American accent. As it happens, the German the Basterds are trying to fool (the same English-speaker from Chapter One) has absolutely beautiful Italian, and there is high comedy indeed as he toys with the hapless Basterds.
While ostensibly an action film, Basterds is very dialog-intensive. The same trope happens repeatedly: Nazi inquisitor twigs to subterfuge, and toys with his interlocutor until dreadful violence breaks out. Reviewers have called these lengthy scenes boring; I disagree emphatically. Tarantino's artful dialog, never oblique or obscure, unfailingly keeping the viewer informed without being obvious about it, is anything but boring. Anyone bored by this dialog is bored by life.
Violent? Come on. It's Tarantino. Heads bashed in with baseball bats? Oh yeah. Prurient closeups of knives and skin? Of course. But the film is so over-the-top, so completely obviously a comedy about war films, that the viewer is never oppressed by it; it's all clearly, clearly fake, and Tarantino just winks at us throughout it.
I'll leave it to greater minds to comment on this film's place in the great panoply of film history, of WWII flicks and the movies made by the Nazis to sell themselves to the German public. It's clear (I mean, really, really clear) that Tarantino wants it to be considered in that light. The fact that a great deal of the plot involves getting the highest echelons of the Nazi apparat into a theater to watch a film extolling a German war hero -- a theater that specializes in Riefenstahl revivals -- is almost rubbing our noses in self-referentiality. To watch the film in a theater over the heads of our fellow film-goers, the view encompassing the backs of heads watching a film showing the backs of heads onscreen watching a film, is truly the only way to fully appreciate this movie.
Don't wait for the DVD, is what I'm saying.