Friday 9 November 2012
Film: Inglourious Basterds (2009)
I had heard that Inglourious Basterds was a WW2 film which had received mixed reviews, but until I saw it I had no idea that it had an alternative history plot, and even then it doesn't become apparent until right at the end. Well, that's enough to justify putting my thoughts about it on my SFF blog, anyway.
As might be expected from Tarantino, the film is stylised, intense, brutally violent, and memorable. It is also very long. There are two parallel story lines which don't connect until the end: the fate of a young French Jewish girl who escapes the Nazis, and the activities of a group of American Jews (led by Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine) parachuted behind enemy lines into France before D-day in order to strike terror into the German occupiers. The plots converge on a cinema in Paris where a propaganda film is to be aired in the presence of the Nazi hierarchy.
There are some particularly high-tension scenes which gripped this viewer: the initial one, in which the Nazi Jew-hunter Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in a disconcertingly brilliant performance which rightly won awards) visits the home of a farmer who is concealing a Jewish family; another set in a Paris bar where a German officer is suspicious of the group of supposedly German officers who are actually imposters; and one near the end where Hans Landa confronts the famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, in a fine performance) whom he suspects of being a traitor. To sum up: this isn't the easiest film to watch and I can understand many people not enjoying it, but I thought it was worth seeing. Oh, I should mention that the actors speak in the languages they would have used, so there is much use of sub-titles; this doesn't bother me, but some might not like it.
To return to the observation I made at the start, it did make me wonder about categorising this kind of fiction. There are debates about whether alternative histories are SFF at all. As somebody who has written both alternative history and SF stories, I have some views on this. I prefer to use the term "speculative fiction" to group together all those stories which are concerned with the world as it isn't. Sub-sections of this are science fiction, fantasy, horror and alternative history (with vampire, zombie and ghost stories being sub-sub-sections); there are no clear dividing lines between these, though, as stories often contain elements of more than one. I will not get into the perennial debate about the difference between SF and fantasy here!
Focusing just on alternative histories, there are two basic types. One aims to be relatively realistic by examining what might have happened if one mundane event had occurred differently (for example, if that British soldier who at the end of WW1 allegedly had Adolf Hitler in his sights but decided not to shoot, had actually pulled the trigger). Even academic historians get involved in this sort of speculation, although they prefer to call it "counter-factual history". However, the further you get from the "point of departure" or POD (the moment when the fictional history diverges from the real one), the more speculative and fantasy-like the stories become, so you get stories now known as "steampunk" (another sub-sub-section) in which Victorian technology and culture extend to the present day. The second basic type of alternative history is triggered by some fantastical event, such as time-travelling. The outcome can be a serious look at what might have happened given that initial premise (my own novel The Foresight War falls into this category), or it can be far more of a fantasy.
I have excluded from this categorisation stories set in a particular period, like WW2, which include fictional characters and events, as I regard these as war stories rather than alternative histories - provided that the broad thrust of the history in which they are set remains the same. For most of the film I thought that Inglourious Basterds was one of these; but unusually, the POD occurs at the end of the story rather than the beginning, leaving the viewer to speculate about what might have happened next.