Sunday, September 13, 2009


It must be autumn, because I am beginning to see better film choices in the theaters. These three (two of which continue my journey into German history) are all very different, and all are wonderfully edgy in their way.

My first and most enthusiastic recommendation is for "Inglourious Basterds" (10), Quentin Tarentino's latest and greatest. I've always admired and enjoyed his work, particularly his wonderful dialogue and visual inventiveness--but have found his last few films to be not quite up to the promise of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction." This one exceeds all his prior work, in my book. He always strikes me as playful--but here the mix of emotions and ideas he evokes is more complex and deep rather than just dark.

I hesitate to say anything that would give away much of the plot because I am convinced the movie is best enjoyed with no advance information that could undercut its tension and suspense. I saw it the first time without even knowing that it was set in German-occupied France in the 1940s, though you figure that out early on. Tarentino weaves an array of fascinating characters in and out of a multi-chapter story--some appear only once, and others appear in mixed combinations throughout the film--and the first couple of chapters use spaghetti-Western conventions to introduce the essential conflicts, between the Nazis (and, in particular, a chilling and vivid officer who has been nicknamed "the Jew Hunter" and has been given the task of hunting down the last Jews remaining in occupied France); a fictional band of American Jews led by a Tennessean of Apache descent played by Brad Pitt, who set out on a vigilante mission using Apache methods (including scalping) to terrorize the Nazis; and a young Jewish woman who is the only member of her family to survive slaughter by the Nazis. Along the way, Tarentino plays on and then remakes interesting and disparate movie conventions (the proper British sporting nerves of steel, Germans officers who are frequently unfailingly polite as they twist the knife, and the Americans behaving like uncultured ruffians and callously expecting everyone to speak their language). He also plays with the whole convention of film--an important French character owns a movie theater which if variously coopted by the Nazis, and Joseph Goebbels's ambition to create a film industry that would surpass what he saw as a Jew-dominated Hollywood machine plays prominently in the film, which also involves a revenge plot that plays out in a film-within-the-film and an act of destruction that involves a literal use of film.

In every case, Tarentino makes playful use of these conventions and ideas. The story and characters feel fresh, the connections arise naturally, and the outcomes surprise yet seen somehow right. The dialogue is characteristically rich and often funny--yet the emotions feel genuine and often powerful. The acting is first-rate across-the-board; other than Pitt (who is clearly having a ball), Tarentino has wisely cast mostly European actors unknown to American audiences. The portrayals of Hitler and Goebbels are particularly good, and the French actress who portrays the young Jewish woman conveys a delicate balance of steely vulnerability and determination. The best, though, is Christopher Waltz, an Austrian television actor, who won the best actor award at Cannes for his role as the Jew Hunter. I consider his performance to be one of the best I have ever seen. From the very first scene (one of the most riveting opening scenes of any film I can remember), his combination of exaggerated courtesy and chilling coldness is so rich and complex that you both hate him and live for the moments he is on-screen. With a facial structure that, to my mind, strangely and coincidentally resembles Tarentino's, he functions as Tarentino's surrogate, in a way--like Tarentino to the audience, Waltz's character can barely contain his glee as he engages in wordplay and exaggerated courtesy while his listeners wait for him to lower the boom, inspiring both admiration and foreboding. Waltz owns the Oscar for best actor is there is any justice in Hollywood--and at this point, I'd say Tarentino himself has a fair shot.

Though nowhere near as fun, "A Woman in Berlin" (9.5) is just as good in its way. Set during the time of the battle of Berlin at the end of World War II, it depicts the terrible suffering of German women during the Soviet invasion. As so often occurs in war, women were raped indiscriminately, and so frequently that a woman could ask a friend whom she had not seen in awhile simply, "How many times?" and both knew the import of the question.

In the late 1950s, a German woman who had lived through that time anonymously published a book about her experiences. A highly educated reporter who had lived abroad before the war, she detailed the brutal rapes she suffered and how she reached the decision that she could survive only if she determined who would "get" her. From then on she pursued a Soviet officer with whom she built a complex liaison; one could not actually say she seduced him, or that it is possible to term what sprung up between them as love--yet she did manage to save herself.

The book received an angry and critical reception in the late 1950s, and was considered an affront to the virtue of German women. Shocked and hurt, the author insisted that it not be republished until after her death, and even then not in her name. It was finally published again, to a more friendly reception, in 2003, and this German film is based on the book.

The film is devastating in the complexity and truth of its portrayal of a piece of women's experience in wartime that is little understood and rarely talked about with insight. The director mostly (and wisely, I think) spares us witnessing the actual rapes; there is no need. One sees just how vulnerable women are, the ripple effects of the damage to their bodies and spirits (not least because they face forever being treated as damaged goods), and how limited are their options for asserting some control over their lives and destinies. Though it is not an entertaining night at the movies, I do highly recommend this film for anyone with the courage to look hard at the truth of this reality, which is playing out again in Africa and the Middle East as we speak. This feels like an important opportunity to bear witness.

Switching gears completely, I also recommend "Humpday " (8), a more daring voyage into the terrain lightly explored in the silly but delightful "I Love You, Man" (5.5) earlier this year. Like that film, this one might be termed a "bromance," but this one goes more horribly awry. The two buddies at the center of the film, Ben and Andrew, have taken different paths in the decade since their heyday in college. Ben has settled down into a marriage and an adult job, while Andrew has been living a vagabond existence traveling around and starting but never finishing various art projects. When Andrew drops in unexpectedly on Ben and his wife Anna, old rivalries are revived, as each challenges the identity the other has forged; they begin to compete over who has retained more of an edge, and Ben begins to let Anna down in small ways. Nothing can prepare her, however, for the news that the two, in a drunken dare, have decided to make a gay porn film in which the two of them have sex. They imagine a film depicting two straight men having sex will be a daring artistic statement--or at least, that's what each tries to convince the other even in the midst of barely concealed regret and doubt.

Once the idea sees the light of day, nothing appeals to either of them less than this prospect, but the stalemate in which they find themselves convincingly follows from a relationship that is arrested in form of macho oneupsmanship. I realize that the set-up sounds creepy, and I actually avoided going to the film for a bit thinking the plot would be truly awful in the wrong hands (which I suspect would be most hands)--but I needn't have worried. I was so glad I decided to see it because, though definitely cringeworthy, it is also hilarious and insightful and, ultimately, surprisingly thought-provoking. The cast is terrific (they improvised many of the important scenes) and the director, Lynn Shelton, shows real promise.


sean said...

Hi Judge,
hope all is well with you. A woman in berlin is playing at our local theater just a few streets down. Julia (whom you've not met) was a bit reluctant to go see it b/c as a German living in the US she's been surfeited with films about Germany which always take WWII as their setting, but after reading your review we've decided to go screen it.

My most recent viewing, oddly enough, was a Seijun Suzuki film called Story of a Prostitute which narrates a doomed relationship between a "comfort woman" traveling with the Japanese Army in China and a maladjusted soldier. Worth a look. Suzuki, who's known in the US primarily as the maker of yakuza gangster flicks, is one of my absolute favorite Japanese film makers.

Have fun.



Thanks, Sean. Hope you find "A Woman in Berlin" worthwhile. Because of the subject matter, I suspect not many people will go see it--but for me it was profound.