Okay. So, we've got this movie, Inglourious Basterds. Twenty minutes into it, it starts over. Twenty minutes after that, it starts over again. Now, incredibly, at one hour and four minutes, it starts over for the fourth time, with a whole new protagonist, who won't live through the act, and introduces yet another major character. I can't think of another movie that's ever done this. Even 2001 eventually settles on a main character and follows his story to conclusion. High and Low switches protagonists for an hour before coming back to its original protagonist, but Basterds has, so far, boasted three completely separate protagonists and is now introducing a fourth. And it fully expects us to be invested in this brand new character.
Archie Hicox is a British film critic (!) who has become a lieutenant in the British army. What does Hicox want? From his resume, it seems like Hicox would like nothing better than to do what I do (or what Tarantino does): he wishes to sit around thinking about movies. War, however, has pressed him into the business of killing Nazis, and, as Raine says, "Cousin, business is a-boomin'." How is Hicox different from Raine? Well, he isn't as cheerfully bloodthirsty as Raine, although he doesn't have any problem killing the enemy when he's asked to. Maybe he kills out of a sense of duty and honor to queen and country, or maybe he hides his homicidal impulses behind a scrim of cool manners and respectability. I'm inclined to believe the former: Hicox does what he must, but he is, at heart, an aesthete. He's sufficiently removed from the passions of WWII to think of Goebbels's propaganda machine as a movie studio, and he spends time analyzing movie-attendance trends when he should probably be thinking about troop movements.
In any case, Act IV of Inglourious Basterds begins with a relatively straightforward briefing scene, where Hicox is given his mission by his superiors, Gen Fenech and Winston Churchill. Hicox explains what he knows about the German movie industry, and Fenech explains his plot to blow up the theater where the Zoller vehicle, Nation's Pride, will premiere.
So, Act III ends with Shoshanna plotting to blow up the theater, and Act IV begins with a completely different, government-sponsored, military plot to blow up the theater. Why two plots, by two different teams who have no knowledge of each other, to reach the exact same end? I'm actually not sure, but I hope to figure that out by the end of this analysis. One thing is for sure, the fact that there are two plots to blow up the theater does not, in any way, detract from the suspense of is the theater going to get blown up? Rather, it adds to it -- with two teams of people trying to blow up the theater, the theater had damn well better get blown up, and yet, we also know that the theater can't get blown up, because we know that the Nazi high command was not killed in a movie theater in Paris in 1944. This, it turns out, is the greatest trick Tarantino has up his narrative sleeve, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.
American movies, in Goebbels's view, are an affront to Nazism not unlike Jesse Owens -- the studios are run by Jews, and are cranking out tons of propaganda of their own. He sees his war not so much on battlefields but in movie theaters. Which is, of course, how Tarantino sees just about everything. There is, in the end, no "reality" for Tarantino, only movies, an idea Basterds makes forcefully clear.
Hicox's mission: team up with Raine and his Basterds, then team up with actess Bridget von Hammersmark, attend the premiere of Nation's Pride with Hugo Stiglitz and Wilhelm Wicki, and, posing as a German officers, blow up the theater.
Next, we have a brief scene with Hicox, Raine and the Basterds, where Raine complains about the location of the meet-up with von Hammersmark and Stiglitz smolders. Like the briefing scene at the top of the act, it is relatively straightforward, and exists to build suspense for the act's centerpiece, the staggering 20-minute tavern scene that follows.
At the top of the tavern scene, we see von Hammersmark playing a party game with some German soldiers. The game, as luck would have it, concerns identity, with each player trying to guess who he or she is.
The first player we see bears the identity 'Winnetou." Winnetou, for those unaware, is a character created by German writer Karl May. May was a hugely popular writer of, of all things, Old West adventures. Winnetou was the Noble Savage to cowboy Old Shatterhand. He was also, as it happens, an Apache, as is, in part, Raine (or so he says). The Shatterhand adventures were huge in Germany for generations, with many admirers, including Einstein, Schweitzer and Hitler.
As the soldier tries to guess Winnetou's name, von Hammersmark has a curious bit of dialogue -- she explains that the rules of the game apply not to the creator of the character, but only to the character him-or-her-self. "The nationality of the author has nothing to do with the nationality of the character," she says. Maybe it's just me, but it appears Tarantino is trying to say something about his own movie here -- after all, most of the characters pretend to be some nationality or other they're not at some point or other during the narrative. But also, I think there's a subtle invitation to see the Germans as something other than Germans. But again, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
So here comes Hicox, Stiglitz and Wicki, down into the tavern. Von Hammersmark is an actress, and Hicox and his team find themselves putting on a little show, a little improvised play. The drunken German soldiers are a surprise, but one of the rules of improv is to never say "no," so von Hammersmark, the lead in this play, says "yes" to everything -- yes, the drunken soldiers can stay, yes, she'll sign an autograph for Sgt Wilhelm for his newborn son, yes, the SS officer who saunters in is welcome to join them. Hicox does his best to keep up with all this improvisation, but he finds, eventually, that the improv style backs him into a corner.
The SS officer, Maj Hellstrom, very much considers himself a Landa type -- perhaps he even knows Landa, or has studied his work. But Hellstrom doesn't know, in the way Landa knows; he only has suspicions. And so he plays the fool and plays the identity game, but he's a mere apprentice to the game Landa has mastered. (His identity is "King Kong," and he makes the joke of first guessing "the Negro in America" -- both came from jungles, were brought to the US in a ship, in chains, and displayed in chains, and mercilessly exploited by whites. Is Hellstrom, like Goebbels, a towering racist, or is he merely a canny observer?)
Hellstrom senses Hicox isn't who he says he is, and Hicox offers up the first defense he can think of: he was in a movie! Not just any movie, but a GW Pabst movie, starring Leni Riefenstahl! Not just any movie, but the same movie that was playing at Shoshanna's theater at the top of Act III! His logic being, if you can't believe a guy who was in a movie is who he says he is, who can you believe? And indeed, Hellstrom is almost swayed. But the improv-turned-interrogation (each act features a lengthy interrogation scene) goes on too long -- Hicox and von Hammersmark keep offering explanations for things they shouldn't need to offer explanations for, if Hicox were indeed who he says he is. What's more, Wicki never comes to Hicox's aide, and Stiglitz looks ready to spit bullets as he reminisces about being whipped at the hands of the SS.
(Over at the next table, the identity game continues. "Queen Christina?" asks a player. No, it turns out, Mata Hari. One character is a loyal nationalist, the other a treacherous spy, both were played in movies by Greta Garbo -- a sly joke about the nature of von Hammersmark's improv.)
The improv turns disastrous as Hicox demands that Hellstrom leaves, and Hellstrom drives in the wedge by insisting that the choice of leaving or staying is von Hammersmark. There is no place for Hicox to go now, he's cooked no matter what happens. Von Hammersmark insists that Hellstrom stay, again, saying "yes" to everything in order to keep the improv going. Hicox has let the mission take precedence over the performance and his refusal to improvise properly is all Hellstrom needs to press his case.
The worm turns, and, after 20 minutes of suffocating suspense, everyone in the tavern winds up dead, except for von Hammersmark and Sgt Wilhelm, the soldier with the newborn boy. Hicox, the protagonist we've been following for the past half-hour, is dead and gone without even the benefit of a close-up or a dying word, dead because he cracked out of turn.
Raine arrives to extricate von Hammersmark from the tavern, and negotiates a deal with Wilhelm: let von Hammersmark go, and Raine won't kill him. In spite of Raine's lust for Nazi blood, I believe him in his negotiations with Wilhelm; Raine has found himself in a situation where the bigger mission is more important than the life of a man, Nazi or not. Of course, Wilhelm's deal with Raine cuts no ice with von Hammersmark, who drops Wilhelm with one shot and proves herself to be a little secret Stiglitz.
The action now moves to a veterinarian's office, and yet another interrogation. Raine has none of Landa's charm or Hellstrom's menace, he's just got brute force; he jams his finger into von Hammersmark's wound to get the information he needs. Von Hammersmark passes her test of loyalty, and proceeds to try to sell the plan of continuing with the blowing-up-the-theater plan anyway. Her big sales pitch is capped with the revelation that Hitler himself will be at the Zoller premiere. With stakes like that, Raine cannot help but find a way to get to the theater, and so yet another plan to blow up the theater is hatched. And now we know that theater ain't never blowing up, because we know for sure that Hitler didn't die in no blown-up Paris theater.
Meanwhile, who shows up at the tavern but Landa! Which I find remarkable only because it seems that Landa's duties are rather eclectic. In 1941 he's hunting stray Jews in rural France, in 1944 he's running Goebbels's security operation in Paris, and tonight he's investigating what appears to be an ambush in a rural tavern. I would think, the night before the Nation's Pride premiere, he'd have other matters to attend to, but there is no rest for Landa, and here he is, the great detective, sifting through the wreckage of the tavern and putting together the pieces. Like Cinderella's prince, he finds von Hammersmark's shoe at the scene of the crime, but von Hammersmark is more helpful than Cinderella, she has left her autograph as well, her autograph for the son of the man she killed.