THE WORD MASTERPIECE is not used lightly. Few things from any field can be considered to be one (I’m trying not to sound pretentious here). A masterpiece is something timeless that lasts through the ages, retaining a freshness and awe, in line with the day it was created.
Quentin Tarantino is a film maker non-compare. Ever since Reservoir Dogs (1991) he has directed and written some undeniable classics. Let’s not forget he isn’t merely a director. To write scripts of the quality he produces as well is exceptional and no other director comes close. Steven Spielberg is arguably the most famous director, but look at his script writing credentials and you can see they are a band apart. Just writing a good script is in itself a major accomplishment. To then direct said script, to be such a connoisseur of eclectic music as well, means Tarantino’s films are generally so well realised and full they are a pleasure to watch. That’s enough about his abilities, let’s take a look at Inglourious Basterds (2009). What makes it so exceptional?
Being a writer I am going to look at the script more than anything. Christoph Waltz puts in a sensational performance, as does Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and…you know what, the casting is perfect. There isn’t an actor in a scene who is forgettable. Another part of Tarantino’s magic is to pick the actor that will best bring his script and characters to life.
SPOILER ALERT – (If you haven’t seen Inglorious Basterds queue it up)
When it comes to most films, I can think of a scene or dialogue that is memorable (if the film is good). Those moments of ‘recountability’ the ones you talk about once the credits roll are where the magic lies. Tarantino also happens to specialise in fantastic dialogue that seems natural and organic to the story world.
Inglorious Basterds and Dialogue:
Tarantino deliberated for a decade on what to do with Inglourious Basterds, initially conceiving of it as a mini series before realising the story demanded to be a feature length movie. He released several films during that time, but the wait was not only worth it, but perhaps necessary for him to take the time to flesh it out, and while few masterpieces are conceived and made in short time spans, Basterds is no different. The script.
The first stroke of genius: from the very outset of the film, there is tension. Tension is in every scene. Visible Nazi’s with hiding Jews (Hans Landa at the farm in the opening sequence: Shosana with Frederick Zoller: Shosana with Goebbels). British and American spies with Nazi’s (The Basterds with prisoners: The Basterds in the tavern). Nearly every scene has you waiting for someone to be unmasked for what they truly are. It is almost unheard of for any film to sustain that for the entire duration: Tarantino delivers all the way.
The second stroke: the dialogue is exceptional. Dialogue makes actors look good at their job, but when it is as mesmerising as Tarantino’s, it brings the whole story closer to you as the characters seem so real, so plausible, as if they stepped out of time to perform a few feet away from you. Every character sounds different. Every character has a chance to stand out.
Let’s look at the tavern scene where Basterds Stiglitz, Hicox and Wicki enter having agreed to rendezvous with Bridget Von Hammersmark the German turncoat actress.
Firstly, the rowdy presence of German soldiers is the last thing the Basterds and Bridget want. They are drunk, and their inhibitions are lowered. Their actions are unpredictable. What could be worse for Nazi hunters meeting with a conspicuous actress than to be surrounded by them in a confined space?
Moving from the table of Nazi’s where they were playing a card game (guess who), Bridget settles with the Basterds, greeting them like old friends.
On discovering there are so many Germans, instead of French, Wicki says the most sensible thing: “We should leave.” Of course, they do not. They agree to stay for one drink as otherwise it might look suspicious.
With a little reprieve the group manage to discuss the mission: to blow up the cinema where the highest in command of the Nazi party will be attending a premiere in Paris.
The drunk father who is celebrating the birth of his boy, toasts Bridget and asks for a souvenir. This adds to the tension, as there are any number of things that could go wrong should one of the Basterds slip up.
Hicox tires of the intrusion by SGT. Negri and pulls rank, telling Negri he should leave them alone as he is not an officer, that his behaviour is disgraceful. This is where the tension ramps up. Hicox’s German accent – has an accent – and Negri being drunk doesn’t refrain from questioning it. Had he been sober the scene would have played out very differently, and far less dramatically.
Threatening the German’s works, and they pull their friend aside. However, an unseen man from around the corner appears, upholding Nergi’s assertion that Hicox’s accent is indeed strange. And Hellstrom is a Major, so there is no way he can be pacified by rank alone. He brazenly takes a seat and the interrogation, the nightmare scenario, begins…
MAJOR HELLSTROM Like the young newly christened father, I too have a acute ear for accents. And like him, I too find yours odd. From where do you hail, Cap't? Wicki jumps in; WICKI Major, this is highly inappr - MAJOR HELLSTROM T wasn't speaking to you Lt.Saltzberg, (Turning to STIGLITZ) or you ether, Lt.Berlin. (Looking at HICOX) I was speaking to Cap't I--don't-know-what. The Gestapo Major is now standing beside Sgt.Pola, before the impostors table. Lt.Hicox, calmly explains his origin. LT.HICOX I was born in the village that rests in the shadow of Piz Palu. MAJOR HELLSTROM The mountain? LT.HICOX Yes. In that village we all speak like this. Have you seen the Riefenstahl film? MAJOR HELLSTROM Yes.
One bullet has been dodged, with a well thought out cover story or improv, as Hicox is also a film buff. The scene continues. Hicox elaborates on his story, and Bridget corroborates the lie.
MAJOR HELLSTROM So that's the source of your bazaar accent? Extraordinary. So what are you doing here Cap't? LT.HICOX Aside from having a drink with the lovely fraulein?
MAJOR HELLSTROM Well that pleasure requires no explanation. Chuckle...Chuckle
MAJOR HELLSTROM I mean in country. Your obviously not stationed in France, or I'd know who you are. LT HICOX You know every German in France? MAJOR BELLSTROM Worth knowing. LT.HICOX Well, there in lies the problem. We never claimed to be worth knowing. Chuckle... Chuckle. MAJOR HELLSTROM (Chuckling as he asks) All levity aside, what are you doing in France? LT.HICOX Attending Goebbels film premiere as the frauleins escort. MAJOR HELLSTROM Your the frauleins escort? LT.HICOX Somebody has to carry the lighter. Chuckle chuckle. BRIDGET The Captain is my date, but all three are my guests. We're old friends Major, who go back along time. Longer then a actress would care to admit. Chuckle chuckle. MAJOR HELLSTROM Well, in that case, let me raise a glass to the three luckiest men in the room. BRIDGET I'll drink to that.
What a genius back and forth. Humour deflects the verbal bullets while acting provides the quick witted retorts and cover story. But we realise Hellstrom is going nowhere fast, within his first moments of dialogue we know exactly what type of character he is. The danger has merely been supressed under nervous laughter and reluctant participation in chat with Hellstrom.
They begin playing a game at Hellstrom’s behest, of guess who, where everyone writes a famous character on a card and sticks it to their forehead. Hellstrom goes first and very quickly figures out he is King Kong. We know he is highly intelligent, and the prospect of having to play the game in German, is hellish, as it requires adept language skills. All of the Basterds and even bridget are squirming with every second of the fake revelry.
Hicox states that they are good friends and wish to talk alone. Hellstrom is affronted but agrees.
MAJOR HELLSTROM Allow me to refill your glasses gentlemen, and I will bid you and the fraulein adieu. (Leaning in) Eric has a bottle of thirty-three year old single malt scotch whisky from the Scottish highlands. What do you say gentlemen? LT.HICOX Your most gracious, sir. MAJOR HELLSTROM Eric, the thirty-three, and new glasses! You don't want to contaminate the thirty- three with the swill you were drinking. ERIC How many glasses? LT.HICOX Five glasses. MAJOR HELLSTROM Not me. I like scotch, scotch doesn't like me. BRIDGET Nor I. I'll stay with bubbly. Lt.Bicox, hold up three fingers(pinky to index), to Eric the owner. LT.HICOX Three glasses. Eric brings the three glasses, and the old bottle, pouring for the three soldiers. Major Helistrom lifts up his beer stein, and toasts; MAJOR HELLSTROM To a thousand year Reich! They all mutter, "a thousand year reich", and toast glasses. The Gestapo Major puts down his beer stein, and then WE HEAR a CLICK, under the table. MAJOR HELLSTROM Did you hear that? That's the sound of my Luger pointed right at your testicles.
The entire scene rests on the high stakes, of living within feet of the enemy. Hicox blows his cover when asking for three glasses. His German is fine. But he raises his fingers the way an Englishman would, not the German way. Hellstrom leaps on the mistake and they have a stand off, guns underneath the table pointed at one another.
LT.HICOX (ENGLISH) 'Well, if this is it old boy, I hope you dont mind if I go out speaking the kings?
After the drinks have been drunk, from thereon in, the tavern turns into a bloodbath. It’s an exceptional scene for dialogue, for tension, for characterisation and sheer watchability. A masterclass in how to create reality from fiction, that is entirely gripping. Obviously the script is for film, but writing requires the same meld of words that can define a speaker from any other. If Tarantino had only ever written scripts and never had a film made from them, the dialogue and characterisation is so excellent they are worth reading alone. The dialogue is something I can only hope to imitate in translating to my writing.