Django Unchained, the much-anticipated upcoming Quentin Tarantino movie starring Jamie Foxx as a rescued slave out for revenge, will only hit our screens early next year a couple of months after its Christmas Day US release.
And to quell your nervous excited energy until then, may I suggest revisiting his previous film, Inglourious Basterds. It’s possibly his greatest work to date, much of the reason behind the Django-hype and simultaneously a very tough act for Django to follow.
Basterds, if you didn’t already know, tells the WWII story of a gang of all-Jewish soldiers dropped into Nazi-occupied France on a secret mission to kill German soldiers under the command of Brad Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine. On the surface, the premise is as simple as that and it sounds quite silly. But then this is damn fine entertainment with also a lot more than what meets the eye.
The movie is grand for manifold factors. But aim a pistol at my nuts and I’d have to say it’s a fine study in tension and doubly great for this unexpected aspect as QT plays against type by downplaying the violence. There’s constantly the promise of cruelty, but until the end we only experience violence, albeit raw and graphic and chilling, in quick jarring bursts. Toward the end of the movie, in fact, the greatest show of violence is first seen in an onscreen film screening of Nation’s Pride, a Nazi movie about the exploits of a celebrated war hero who in staccato fashion mows down the allied enemy. It’s almost as if QT is trying to say something by keeping his trademark one step removed from the audience, until the violence in the Nazi film merges with his own in a ferocious climax.
So that tension I was talking about. Apart from the whole film building up towards the dramatic finish, there are microcosms as the tension is captured in three stand-out scenes.
The first is the opening scene where Colonel Hans Landa visits the home of Frenchman LaPadite who is harbouring Jewish neighbours. The encounter is brimming with suspense as one of the movie’s outright stars, Christoph Waltz, is unveiled. Waltz delights with his borderline psychotic colonel Landa who could at any moment let rip. He gives a performance so commanding, terrifyingly faux congenial yet likeable and endlessly fascinating, that they might as well have carved out ‘OSCAR’ on his forehead. He completely fills the screen when on it and deservedly got the gold statuette from the Academy to prove it. The tension is such that even drinking a glass of milk has something discomfiting about it. And you constantly fear for the vulnerable, outnumbered Frenchman and his beautiful daughters.
One of the Jewish stowaways, Shosanna Dreyfus, manages to escape and later there is a reunion between Landa and herself, delivering the second stand-out scene. This is played brilliantly by Mélanie Laurent and Waltz, as he gives nothing away of what’s going to transpire and she only hints at her anxiety by obliquely tensing up. Only at the very end does her cool facade break down completely after a rare moment of forgetfulness on Landa’s part, filling you with deep compassion for her character.
Before I get to the last scene, let me just also say this. QT gets terrific performances from his actors and can save or create careers. Case in point – John Travolta, shortlived, but still. And Basterds is no different. Apart from Waltz, there is a fantastic international cast with Laurent, Daniel Brühl and Diane Kruger all doing sterling work. But alongside Waltz, the true showpony is Brad Pitt. His Aldo Raine is Pitt like you’ve never seen him before in what has to be my favourite role for him ever. He plays it with a boyish charm and also embodies the film’s overall relish and glee, hamming it up just enough with his drawl, his smirk and his little homespun sayings to be the movie’s centre of fun.
The last outstanding scene, and the best, occurs in a basement tavern where a secret meeting has been set up between the Basterds and their mole, Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Kruger. This scene just has it all. They’re already a little uneasy about it all feeling ripe for ambush, when the three Basterds descend the steps in Nazi uniform to be saluted over-zealously by the German soldiers they find below. The waitress drops the tray, there’s a clattering and breaking of glasses, and we cut to the Basterds paused awkwardly on the steps, startled by this greeting.
But they push on and join von Hammersmark where they start discussing details for their grand plan, Operation Kino, until a drunken soldier, Wilhelm, has the impudence to make a nuisance of himself around supposedly superior officers. As Michael Fassbender’s British Lieutenant reprimands him in German (obviously), the stunned soldier stares back vacantly and then starts commenting on his peculiar accent. The jig is up! Fassbender’s colleagues quickly step in to dispose of Wilhelm with aggressive threats to all his friends to keep an eye on him. Crisis averted? Maybe, but then all of a sudden a hereto unseen Nazi soldier is revealed to be sitting in the corner. It’s almost laughable how the scene keeps escalating with this latest trump card played by the director. As the record player scratches with the music finished, like the fun has run out, the major (played to lingering perfection by August Diehl) approaches and starts interrogating Fassbender’s Hicox. And after barely accepting his explanation, he decides to join them for a game of Celebrity, where they place cards on their foreheads and have to guess the famous figure’s name written on it. It’s all Diehl here as he proceeds to guess his figure, King Kong, with a majestic, controlled display of acting. The scene simmers throughout and shortly after a drink of whisky and a brief standoff it finally explodes in one brisk elimination of almost everyone involved. Damn good stuff.
Anyway… it’s a propagandistic movie about propaganda, about how the propaganda pictures of the Nazis were at the forefront of the war effort and how ultimately the movies could’ve been used to end the war. It’s a celebration of what’s possible with the movies, as QT’s own escapist plot of killing Hitler illustrates, but it’s also a condemnation of how movies can distort reality and affect people. Therefore QT also plays on the idea of the Western genre having demonised Native Americans and includes King Kong to show how cinema romanticised slavery. Significantly, Aldo Raine is part Apache and the crushing blow to the Nazis in a way, the spark that lights the fuse, is dealt by a black projectionist during a film screening. There’s also a chronic preoccupation with nicknames mixed in, of how one is perceived and how legends are built up.
And finally: language, language, language. This film flits between German, English and French and even some Italian like it’s nobody’s business. Apart from loving it for its linguistic richness, which is beautiful in and of itself but also lends authenticity, language is cleverly used as a plot device. QT shows he isn’t just trying to be arty for the hell of it. Inglourious Basterds is a deep hard look at the influence of art and culture on us all. And it’s great storytelling, with the music also deserving a special mention, and ample fun. We should let this movie move us and be very thankful for that. Good luck, Django.