Inglourious Basterds

Brad Pitt in Inglourious Basterds

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

16 April

 

Colditz liberated, 1945

On this day in 1945, the infamous Colditz Castle PoW camp was relieved by the US Army.

Dating back nearly a thousand years, though extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, the castle had been a workhouse, a mental asylum and a sanitarium for the well-to-do before being pressed into service as a prison for high security captives during the Second World War – often people who had broken out of other prisons.

Known as Oflag IV-C, it is the source of many myths and stirring stories about escape attempts during the Second World War. It was a camp for officers (the Of of Oflag stands for Offizier) but also became the home to what might be called celebrity prisoners – two nephews of the King of England, the son of WW1 notable Field Marshal Haig, the son of the viceroy of India etc etc.

Undoubtedly their presence helped protect the other inmates, who were treated strictly according to the Geneva Convention – attempts at escape (of which there were many) were punished with spells in solitary rather than summary execution.

Prisoners also received Red Cross parcels, which often meant they were eating better than their guards. Other notable inmates included David Stirling (founder of the SAS) and Desmond Llewellyn, who would later get James Bond out of awkward situations as Q.

 

 

 

Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir: Quentin Tarantino)

The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s war movie, tells us a lot about what is to follow. Having led into it with some jokey Hogan’s Heroes-style intro credits – including “guest star” nods – Tarantino opens with a shot that immediately evokes The Sound of Music, all sun and alpine meadows, before moving into a long sequence in which Christoph Waltz’s extremely cultured, smart Nazi officer Hans Landa (aka “the Jew Hunter”) has an affable chat with a farmer.

Some time early on in the chat the language the two men are using switches from German to English, as often happens during these sort of films – who wants to watch acres of subtitling, after all? All appears to be normal in the Tarantino universe – pastiche is being delivered by a master of this sort of thing. But by the end of this sequence something else has happened. We’re not in the gentle knockabout of Hogan’s Heroes, the guitar-strumming nun is nowhere to be seen and the shift from German to English has been for a reason entirely to do with plot, not audience-pleasing.

The tension-ometer has gone from a gentle green to a steaming red, Waltz’s horrible true nature has been fully revealed. The farmer has been duped. And so has the audience.

It is a masterstroke, partly because Waltz is so good at delivering Tarantino’s beautifully modulated script (it’s so good, in fact, that QT essentially delivered the same opening, by the same actor, in Django Unchained), but mostly because Tarantino has reinforced our expectations of what he is about to deliver, and then confounded them.

The scene is set for a war movie that tries to have its cake and eat it throughout, giving us what you might call classic Tarantino, and then pulling back to suggest something more.

That something more is seriousness. And though Tarantino can’t help himself here and there with his playful cutaways (we learn how flammable nitrate film is, by god), there’s something about the Second World War that seems to bring out the earnest in the man.

Revenge is the theme, whether delivered by Mélanie Laurent (one of the Jews the dairy farmer was harbouring) or by Brad Pitt (with Clark Gable moustache and swagger as one of the vigilante Basterds) and Tarantino serves it over five clearly delineated, often spaghetti western-flavoured chapters, each one almost a movie in its own right, building towards two assassination attempts on the German high command. In a cinema, Tarantino’s theatre of operations.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The cast includes Michael Fassbender and a revelatory Diane Kruger
  • A-list cinematographer Robert Richardson
  • Subtitles – lots of them
  • The soundtrack – Ennio Morricone to Lalo Schifrin and Ray Charles to David Bowie

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Inglourious Basterds – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Frank

Maggie Gyllenhall, Michael Fassbender (possibly) and Domhnall Gleeson in Frank

 

Frank Sidebottom was the stage name of musician Chris Sievey, whose Frank was a cult novelty act that toured students unions etc in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s, singing chaotically shambolic versions of well known tunes (it could be Kylie, it could be the Sex Pistols) in a wheedling high-pitched determinedly uncool accent. Frank wore a gigantic papier maché head and made much of the fact that he was from the equally uncool Timperley in Cheshire. I saw him perform once, in the University of London Union, and the memory is with me still.

Jon Ronson, the journalist who co-wrote the screenplay on which Lenny Abrahamson’s film is based, was the keyboardist in Sidebottom’s band. And though the comic meander in front of us is from the viewpoint of a new keyboardist who joins Frank’s ramshackle band of outsiders after the previous one has flamed out, the story this tells works at the level of fable, not fact. It’s not a biopic. Metaphorically, Frank is a big papier maché head.

The affable, shaggily friendly Domhnall Gleeson is our guide, Jon (name entirely coincidental, of course). And he leads us through the flatlining progress of a band who court obscurity rather than success, who would rather die than be famous. We see the first shaky gig after Jon joins them, which collapses after one number. We eavesdrop as the band write and rehearse a new album in a skanky holiday park in Ireland, burning through Jon’s money while treating him with contempt because he’s trying to write songs – songs! We watch as Jon and avant-garde bitch and Theremin player Clara fight for Frank’s ear. We journey with them to the SXSW festival in Texas, where, thanks to Jon’s tireless tweeting, the band suddenly stands on the verge of something they’re entirely unprepared for.

And all the time Frank wears the head – on stage and off – the totem of his creativity, his apartness. Frank is the story of artistic bohemians for whom obscurity is a badge of honour, those doughty souls who though they’d never admit it are more in hock to the image than the work. Beautiful losers, to misappropriate the title of Leonard Cohen’s novel.

Ronson’s decision to dispense with the specifics of Sievey’s/Sidebottom’s life means there’s a universality to Frank. Even so it’s going to come as a shock to some that it’s Michael Fassbender inside that big boggly head (though you could easily convince me otherwise). And that Maggie Gyllenhaal has been persuaded to play Clara. Or, indeed, that Scoot McNairy, fresh from 12 Years a Slave, didn’t have other things to do.

Maybe Ronson and co-writer Peter Straughan’s oddball-packed screenplay for the George Clooney film The Men Who Stare at Goats persuaded the actors to sign on. Maybe they were all fans of the poetic emptiness of Lenny Abrahamson’s trio of brilliant Irish films – Adam & Paul, Garage and What Richard Did.

But how to evaluate in terms of a star rating a film that sets out to sabotage itself? I remember that evening 20 years ago watching Sidebottom perform. He was bloody hilarious for about 15 minutes, wackily charming for the following two or three numbers, but then the absence (who’s inside the head? why is he doing this?) started to grate slightly, before the lack of real purpose – neither aiming for the transcendent hit of beautiful music or the intellectual high of a new insight – began to grate. As with Sidebottom, so with Frank. Where’s the tune, in other words.

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

The Brooding Intensity of Michael Fassbender

Passion, power and emotional ferocity are all hallmarks of a
Michael Fassbender performance. But is he just a kitten in real life?


Here’s a funny thing. I’m in the audience at the New York Film Festival. On stage director Steve McQueen and actor Michael Fassbender are answering questions about the disturbing, brilliant film that’s just been shown. Shame, McQueen and Fassbender’s follow-up collaboration to the gruelling Hunger has Fassbender delivering a volcanic performance as a sex addict who’s either dialling rent-a-hooker, beating off at work or devouring porn at home. Intense, dark stuff.

Someone from the floor asks Fassbender a question about the relationship between the two damaged lead characters, a brother and sister (Fassbender and Carey Mulligan). Halfway through Fassbender’s measured, thoughtful reply, McQueen chips in with a helpful clarification. “Absolutely,”, says Fassbender. Pause. “Yes,” says Fassbender, turning to McQueen, his face darkening, his brows beetling. “Please don’t interrupt me again.”

For half a second the big room at the Lincoln Center takes a breath. And then Fassbender’s face dissolves.

The man who played the hunger striker Bobby Sands in Hunger, the brooding Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre, the lairy Connor in Fish Tank, is laughing. Laughing and doubling over, a tear springing to the corner of his eye. He’s pricked the slight pomposity of the event, just a bit, and he’s absolutely delighted.

“People think that I’m very intense,” Fassbender told CBC recently. “But I’m very silly really. I like to laugh and have fun.” There’s the word, and from his own mouth – intense. So why are we surprised that the characters Fassbender portrays and the man he claims to be are so very different? Actors are meant to fool with words and gestures, that’s their job. But there is something remarkable about Fassbender. Maybe it’s the way he can turn that intensity on and off, modulate it. Someone should tell Christian Bale.

The 33-year-old German-born, Irish-bred actor dropped out of London’s Drama Centre in 2000 – unhappy with its disregard for movies – and with what must be the luck of the half-Irish landed a part almost immediately on Band of Brothers, alongside Tom Hanks. Since then he’s turned up in more huge films than people would give him credit for – 300, Jonah Hex, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class – winning nominations and awards for all of them.

The chronology doesn’t tell the whole story though. With Band of Brothers Fassbender really thought he’d made it. In fact he followed up the TV ten-parter (he was in seven episodes) with a lean patch, working in bars, doing night shifts loading trucks, doing the odd Holby City on TV, turning up in a pop video, the sort of acting gigs most actors are familiar with.

Luck changed for the better, by an order of magnitude, when Steve McQueen cast him as Bobby Sands in Hunger in 2008. “I was 30 years old, recession was just around the corner… and for someone to take a chance on an unknown actor, you know. To take the risk…” his voice trails off. This is another genuinely lovely thing about Fassbender – he’s clearly ferociously committed to McQueen –”Apart from a big argument on the first day of Hunger, we just [he clicks his fingers]”.

Fassbender doesn’t feel strongly about the director because McQueen saved his acting bacon, he’s convinced of the director’s genius and of the importance of their bond. “My dream from the age of 17 was to have a relationship with a director. I was looking at Scorsese/De Niro, Lumet/Pacino. That would be the ultimate, to have a collaboration like that. To be on a wavelength that powerful with somebody. That was why I was so lucky to find in Steve with Hunger.” McQueen, incidentally, returns the evaluation: “Michael is a genius really. I want to work with the best actor there is. And I think he is, basically.”

Shame is Fassbender’s Mean Streets. In a just world it would win Oscars all round – even the tiniest roles in this film burn like phosphorous – but Oscar doesn’t go a bundle on masturbation, hookers, the suggestion of incest, all that jazz. A sex-addict who was also in a wheelchair, maybe…

“He [McQueen] mentioned to me in 2008 that this was an idea and I was ‘fine, just tell me when and where’. I didn’t even need to see a script. It was that simple.”

Would Fassbender have been put off if he had seen the script? Did he know how much full-frontal business there was going to be? Did he understand how damaged, deranged, desperate the lead character was?

And how do you set about playing that sort of part anyway, a questioner from the floor asks, reminding Fassbender of the shocking weight loss he went through to play Bobby Sands. “I just went out and had lots of sex, just tried to embrace it as best I could.” He’s laughing again, so is the entire room. Then, Serious Face. “Preparation? Just reading. I spent a lot of time with the script.”

Thoughts go immediately to Daniel Day-Lewis, how he refuses to step out of character during shooting. He could take a lesson in lightening up from Fassbender, one of his biggest fans.

So, a handsome devil, a bloody good actor and a fun guy who’s prepared to get butt naked in the name of his art, it’s no surprise that Fassbender is suddenly everywhere. Coming soon, he’s the lead in Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s first sci-fi film since Blade Runner. He plays psychiatry pioneer Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. And he’s reteaming with McQueen for Twelve Years a Slave, with Chiwetel Ejiofor and some guy called Brad Pitt.

Michael Fassbender, you are so made.



© Steve Morrissey 2012