' ' Cinema Romantico: A Scene To Go Home With You: Fightin' In A Basement

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A Scene To Go Home With You: Fightin' In A Basement

I cannot stress enough the length of Quentin Tarantino's scenes in his WWII epic "Inglorious Basterds." He is breaking all the rules of modern-day filmmaking. Only a specific few directors in this day and age could get away with such audacious length. The Scene in particular goes on for what must be 25 minutes and it is so old-fashioned (classically shot, no shaky camera at any point). 98% other directors show this scene to the studio moguls and the studio moguls start pissing and moaning and demanding Jump Cuts and Changes In Film Stock For No Discernible Reason and Flashbacks and Violence Appearing Out Of Thin Air. "People will fall asleep!" they'd yell. "This scene calls for patience and, well, for God's sake, we're Americans!" But Tarantino can tell them all where to go and leave The Scene unchanged. That's his power. Bless him.
(Wait, have I offered the Spoiler Alert yet? No? Okay. Spoiler Alert!)

The Scene, in a sense, gets rolling in the scene before The Scene. Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a film critic in England before the war, is sent to France for "Operation Kino", the aim to infiltrate a Parisian cinema which will be showing the premiere of a new German film titled "Nation's Pride" at which will be present many high ranking Nazi officers, including Joseph Goebbels himself. His contacts in France are the famed German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a spy working for the Allies, and the basterds themselves, a Jewish American military unit headed up by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).

Hicox, along with Sgt. Hugo Sitglitz (Til Schweiger) and Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), will pose as Nazi officers meeting the beguiling von Hammersmark, their "old friend". Hicox makes it clear that should anything go wrong and they are unable to make it out that any Germans present at their rendezvous point not make it out alive. This is crucial to "Operation Kino's" success.

Lt. Raine is not so taken with the chosen site of this rendezvous - a basement tavern, chosen by von Hammersmark herself. "She's an actress," explains Hicox, "not a military strategist." "You don't gotta be Stonewall Jackson to know you don't wanna fight in a basement," Raine declares. But Hicox advises the basement tavern was chosen as it was isolated and typically unpopluated by Nazis.

The Scene then begins in earnest inside that cinematically wonderful basement tavern with the shot of, yes, a Nazi. Thus, The Scene essentially opens with a Reversal, which is key as there are more Reversals ahead. The Nazi is drunk and he is joined by several other drunk Nazis since Master Sgt. Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling) is celebrating the birth of his son, Maximilian. Sure enough, Bridget von Hammersmark herself has joined them at their table where they play a card game in which you write the name of some famous person on the card, pass the card to your right, at which point the person places the card on his or her forehead and then has to guess the name on that card.

Hicox and the basterds, masquerading as the Nazi officers, then enter (a sublime shot, the table of von Hammersmark and her new "pals" in a long shot with the stairs showing the boots of the entering trio framed in the upper right hand corner). They take a different table. Eventually von Hammersmark makes her way over to them where they all agree they must stay for one drink as to not appear suspicious. In hushed tones she explains the movie premiere has been changed to a smaller theater. But more than that there is "colossal" news. "Try not to overreact," she says. And then begins "The Fuhrer" at which point, of course, the drunken Wilhelm stumbles up and wonders if von Hammersmark will sign her autograph for his newborn son which she does.

"He may not know who you are now," explains Wilhelm, "but he will." Wilhelm stumbles away, von Hammersmark gets set to explain this "colossal" news again but, again, Wilhelm re-enters the picture. Now Hicox grows impatient. Speaking in German he lectures Wilhelm, telling him this is an officer's table and he is an enlisted man. Perhaps emboldened from all the schnapps, Wilhelm mentions the oddity of this Nazi captain's accent and wonders "Where are you from?" Now Stiglitz grabs hold of Wilhelm and, in his own German voice, yells at Wilhelm for questioning his superior and sends him back to his table. They're in the clear. Or are they? A German voice calls out: "Might I inquire?!"

Now the camera finds Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), isolated at a corner table, reading, smoking, drinking a boot of beer. Another Reversal. The scene begins anew. He approaches this officer's table and notes the oddity of the accent of this Captain he doesn't know.

Hicox cooly explains the location of his German village and how there they all speak in this way. Employing his film knowledge he goes on to advise if Major Hellstrom has scene a particular German film - which he has - he would have seen himself and his family. Von Hammersmark confirms this information. Hellstrom seems to be satisfied (or is he?) and joins them at their table. (Perhaps the funniest moments in the entire sequence involve the glowering looks Stiglitz gives to Hellstrom throughout. He just cannot wait to unleash hell on this guy.) Hellstrom suggests they play the same card game as the other German soldiers and they do. After Hellstrom correctly guesses the name on his card Hicox advises the Major that, as they are old friends, they wish to spend their time alone and without disruption and that he is intruding. Hellstrom asks von Hammersmark if he is intruding. Obliged, she says no. Hellstrom then laughs, affirms he is, in fact, intruding, and agrees to leave them be after be buys them one last drink in the form of some special scotch. He will not have any, though, nor will the fraulein, but the other three will, and so three glasses are requested.

At this instant something is given away. What, the movie never explicitly says (until later) but you can see from the expression of Hellstrom and then from von Hammersmark that something irreversible just took place and, sure enough, under the table, Hellstrom points his gun at Hicox's, shall we say, groinal region. Ah, but then Hicox reveals he had his gun pointed at Hellstrom's groinal region since he sat down. Oh, boy. Hicox finishes his scotch since - in a wonderful line - he explains there are special circles in hell for people who waste good scotch. (Amen.) And then....

Violence erupts. The real Nazis, the fake Nazis, the tavern owner, everyone. Guns are fired, bullets fly, blood is spilled, and all of it lasts no more than 14 seconds. (I know because I watched it a second time and counted out loud.) A scene that has gone for 20 minutes, tension mounting, and mounting, and mounting, and mounting, and then all hell breaks loose for 14 seconds and then it's over.

In a way Tarantino himself was building to this all along. In "True Romance" (which he wrote) and in "Reservoir Dogs" (which he wrote and directed) there are scenes like this but they are more concerned with the explosion of violence. At this point in his career Q.T. has learned the buildup is always the best part and the better and longer the buildup the more shocking the violence, especially if the violence is breathlessly short.

Only one man still stands. The new father, Wilhelm. But then we hear footsteps up above of Lt. Raine and his men. He wants to know if anyone from "his side" has survived. They haven't. No, wait! They have! Von Hammersmark, though injured, is still alive. Raine needs her alive to keep "Operation Kino" a go. But to get to von Hammersmark he has to strike a deal with Wilhelm that neither of them will kill the other which, going back to the scene before The Scene, is no good since no opposing Germans can be left alive. Will Raine have to go back on his word? Will Wilhelm get out alive? And then Wilhelm says disgustedly of von Hammersmark, "Take this f---ing traitor away." And then he gets shot dead. Not by Raine. But by von Hammersmark. The last Reversal. And you realize, Wow, poor ol' Wilhelm was right. His son may not know her now but he will.


Wretched Genius said...

Everyone in that scene is great, but Michael Fassbender as Hicox is masterful.

Though I also love the basement scene, I find myself more often rewatching the opening scene with Christoph Waltz, which is another great scene of slowly-mounting tension leading to an explosion of violence.

Nick Prigge said...

Yeah, Fassbender was awesome. Obviously Cristoph Waltz is getting all the attention, and there was a little Oscar buzz for Melanie Laurent and Diane Kruger, but not many people seemed to talk about Fassbender. It's ashame.

Castor said...

Great scene and I agree that it's the best in the movie although the opening scene is mesmerizing to say the least.

Too bad Melanie Laurent got snubbed, she was more than worthy and the heart of this fantastic movie.