World War II would have been a lot different if Quentin Tarantino had been directing it. The Third Reich would have been given a nervous breakdown.German soldiers would have been terrorized by a cutthroat band of Jewish vigilante soldiers/assassins. And a Final Solution escapee would have gone to Paris and opened a movie house, wherein cinema would have saved the world.
"Of course, these characters didn't exist during World War II," said Tarantino's longtime producer, Lawrence Bender. "But it's possible that if they did exist, the events that occur because of them could have happened."
The subject of Bender's logistical gymnastic is "Inglourious Basterds," a war fantasy with an international cast (including Brad Pitt, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger), a casual grip on history and the unhinged banter and violence that have been the trademarks of its creator since "Reservoir Dogs." Consider the Basterds themselves: Pitt, employing a Southern drawl as Lt. Aldo Raine, enlists a band of Jewish soldiers to "kill Natsies." Which they do with aplomb, particularly the Jewish Bear (Roth), who dispatches his Teutonic charges with a baseball bat. And upon which Tarantino lavishes loving attention.
It is only the fifth feature film - if you discount the shorter work, and consider "Kill Bill" one movie - by a no-longer enfant terrible who has been among the more influential American directors of the past 20 years. And whose new movie has been in the works about half that time.
"I came up with this idea in '98, right after 'Jackie Brown,' " said the 46-year-old director, "and I started writing it . . . but I had a totally different story, and it was just too big - it wouldn't have been a three-hour movie, it would have been a 12-hour miniseries! I had the opposite of writer's block - I couldn't stop writing! I just kept coming up with another character and another twist and everybody had to have a 20-minute Sergio Leone entrance and they never got around to telling about the mission."
The mission? Just a sec. "Even then I had to go, 'What? I'm too big for movies? I can't deal with such a puny canvas as a three-hour movie? Pooshah?' So I didn't do 'Inglourious Basterds,' I did 'Kill Bill' 1 and 2 and dealt with my issues."
Man with a misson or two
Never mind the issues, what about the mission? There are two, actually, in "Inglourious Basterds," which nods its cap to Enzo Castellari's 1978 film, "Inglorious Bastards." ("He loved the name, but that's about it," Bender said. "There's no inspiration from the movie whatsoever.") But it seems much more in synch with "The Dirty Dozen": Just as the homicidal-maniacal Basterds are plotting to kill the entire hierarchy of the Third Reich - including Hitler - at a Paris movie premiere, the owner of the theater is plotting her own revenge: Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who barely escaped the slaughter of her family at the hands of Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), is planning to immolate the entirety of Nazi Paris in one hallucinatory tribute to upscale movies and wholesale slaughter.
"I actually think it's profound," Tarantino said, "and a little sad, that the Basterds and Shosanna not only don't know about each other, they'll never know about each other."
The great Waltz
What audiences will know about immediately is the on-screen power of Waltz, the Austrian-born actor who plays the insidious Landa, a master at interrogation, a "linguistic genius," according to Tarantino, and who is anything but banal in his malevolence. Landa seems bound to become an object of fascination, and in his particular genius, even admirable - which means a moral question hovers about making Nazis at all sympathetic, even if it's for evil genius.
"Why?" Waltz asked good-naturedly. "What is a Nazi? Nazi means National Socialist, so that's kind of a label that's become cartoonized - also, I'm sure, because Hitler himself was such a cartoon character. But I'm a person who's interested in being interested - and that preconceived notion that a Nazi is a Nazi is a Nazis is kind of boring. It doesn't tell me personally anything except that he's a member of that party and there were several million members of that party. Don't tell me they were all alike, like the hyenas in 'The Lion King.' So, let's ask specifically, 'What kind of a Nazi is he?' Then you get into the more interesting stuff."
Having a character in a movie who gets more attention than the director is a rare thing for Tarantino, who always seems to loom larger than life, and larger than film. Waltz said that during the making of "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino defied all the preconceived notions.
"I knew Quentin's image, of course," he said. "It's hard to escape. But the Quentin that I met was completely different. He was very, very sort of soft-spoken and very considerate and supportive and circumspect and a quiet and acute observer - which is much more what I like than this exuberance, which I find entertaining, but I draw my inspiration from these quiet conversations that I had with him. Which were very focused and factual and immensely knowledgeable."
"He's become one of my favorite people in the world," said Kruger, who plays Bridget von Hammersmark, German screen star, spy for the Allies and one of the many references to wartime cinema and iconography - in Kruger's case, Marlene Dietrich. "People talked differently in movies then, more formally, and Quentin was very, very concerned that we get everything precise."
But like others involved in the film, the story was all on the page, which is where Tarantino begins (and sometimes ends). "If you go along for the ride," Bender said, "the ride usually means the characters - if you believe the characters, you go along. That's the thing with Quentin: He writes the characters and the characters kind of write the movie."
The Italian job: 'Inglorious' comes to Huntington
'Inglorious Bastards," the movie that inspired the title of Quentin Tarantino's new film, will be screened Wednesday at 7 and 8:45 p.m. at Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington.
The 1978 Italian-made movie, directed by Enzo Castellari, is about five World War II soldiers who escape just as they are about to be court-martialed. The cast includes Bo Svenson (Sheriff Buford Pusser in "Walking Tall, Part II" and "Final Chapter: Walking Tall") and Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, the former pro football star who later found fame in 1970s blaxploitation movies ("Black Caesar," "Hammer").
Admission is $9; $6 for members. Call 631-423-7611 for more information.