Sep 09

Subtitling Gravity’s Basterds

Do You See + FT11 comments • 362 views

From one star reviews upwards, everyone has noticed that Inglorious Basterds, much like its director, is a bit talky. There are moments of action, explosions, and the obligatory Mexican standoff, but here Tarantino runs a Mexican standoff that has to explain how its a Mexican standoff before it is worked out. All of which you might expect from Quentin, he likes his words, and at least his pop culture riffing is restricted here to pre-war pop culture (German film). What is interesting in a director who is seemingly interested in lots of the formal aspects of film-making is the language issue. I don’t have a problem in the German characters speaking German, French/French. The numerous signposted switches between native languages and English are a bit clunky but done with a knowing wink. but for a film which uses three different subtitled languages (sometime in the same scene) the fact that all the subtitles are rendered in the same shade of yellow is a little disappointing. The sequence that relies on a bad German accent is almost dying out for some sort of formalist signposting. Come on, they are German, use a GOTHIC typeface.

Apart from that Tarantino’s war fantasy, with his Churchill, and the full compliment of German high command is pure fantasy. A fun (if talky) fantasy, and one which ends in a way a previous generation could not understand (suicide bombing is now de rigeur). Tarantino is fighting a movie war, and uses the movies in it – the titular squad of Basterds play pretty much third fiddle in their own film. Instead its a Jewish revenge film played out in increasing scenes of stupidity and comedy framed by its own medium. And perhaps its because I am reading it at the moment, but its disconnection from the reality of war, and its never ending cast and side alleys reminded me of Gravity’s Rainbow a lot. For the V2 rocket substitute film and propaganda, for Major Marvy we have Brad Pitt. It does show how a notoriously unfilmable book could be film, and it also gives you a view that it would, on the whole be a bad idea. Like Inglorious Basterds.


  1. 1
    Martin on 10 Sep 2009 #

    Just wanted to say here Tarantino has not gotten enough attention for the language thing, which is defter than you’re giving him credit for. I’m an American who speaks fluent German and fairly good French, and, as such, the movie was a joy for me just on that level alone. I’m not sure what you mean about the signposting — when Landa switches to English in the first scene, it’s at least motivated by the plot. I’m trying to remember, was there a second instance of really clumsy switching? Not sure.

    You appear to respect Tarantino’s achievement with respect to the languages while shrugging it off a bit. Personally, I can’t think of an American movie that was so thoroughly, effectively, and accurately polyglot, and considering that Tarantino is often chided for being sophomoric and childish, this seems to be a not inconsiderable achievement. Again, cannot understate how great the German was in the movie, just rich and accurate and spot-on. Even the guy being caught out was done to perfection — his German was outstanding, but not 100% accent-free. Such a comforting change from actors trying out seir Churman eck-sent.

  2. 2
    Pete on 11 Sep 2009 #

    This is something to be cherished, albeit in a film that could have done with slightly less words. Tarantino has done this before, his various dialogues in Kill Bill in Chinese and Japanese were apparently excellent (jarring perhaps with the milleau). BUT the poor accent of the English film critic, the flipping between French and German for the various French stationed troops, even Landa’s Italian all had to be TOLD to me rather than using something more formally inventive as can be done with subtitles.

    There is a clunky “what language” bit with the German officer killed with the baseball bat, and Landa with Aldo at the end also seems a bit clunky. Clunky is fine, its the kind of film Tarantino is making – but then as a fantasy war film he could have had everyone speaking whatever language he wants. It deviates so far from reality that it turns into a violent though linguistically PC version of Allo Allo.

    Yours is a good point though, and it is bracing to see a film which is over 50% subtitled grossing over $100 million in the US. That and Slumdog Millionaire suggest that if the pill is sweetened by actually being a film produced by English language speakers?

  3. 3
    Martin on 11 Sep 2009 #

    I’m trying to imagine how an almost perfect but barely faulty accent can be expressed through subtitles. I can’t think of a way. What made that scene so remarkable was that the critic’s German was so very good. English speakers have lazy tongues compared to Germans, who achieve very small but discernable trills and otherwise very tight vowel differentiation in practically every word. As an example, a word ending in R, like Kommissar, an English speaker will always be in danger of ending it with an H unless he really concentrates, whereas the German speaker, even an unlettered one, will nail the trill every time, making something like Kommissarr. This is second nature. That guy’s German was perfect, and yet it was appropriate that the enlisted man would catch it — it was that (barely) noticeable. That bit seemed to play out pretty organically, for me.

    You seem to have an objection to talkiness per se, and yet this is a Tarantino movie, so I’m a bit helpless to indicate what he could have done differently. You say that since it was a fantasy, Tarantino had the option of doing something different, yet that direction appears to result in a less rich movie.

    And as for subtitles, again, I don’t see why TELLING you what’s happening is any worse than using subtitles, which were obviously extensively used in any case. Airplane aside (jive scene), I can’t really summon any examples of subtitles being used to convey anything much more interesting than what was being said, and you aren’t offering counterexamples of that great masterpiece that used subtitles in the way you’re suggesting. The fonts got on my nerves enough in KB, I don’t think I could have stomached much variation on the bottom of the screen. It would quite simply have been ridiculously affected.

  4. 4
    james on 12 Sep 2009 #

    there’s the scene in “Annie Hall” where their self-conscious internal monologues appear in subtitles while they have a chatty, trivial conversation… you know the one I mean?

  5. 5
    Pete on 12 Sep 2009 #

    I know the one you mean.

    I am taking out a common gripe of mine on Tarantino I know, that directors rarely engage with the subtitling process to make it a integral part of the film. I can think of about three off the top of my head, Korean film Take Care Of My Cat (and that’s subtitles as texting, English subs were usual tat), Tony Scott’s Man On Fire and Kill Bill does it a wee bit. Hence hoping in a script which takes place in four languages could be more experimental on delivery. It strikes me it is a pretty cheap experiment to try out in editing.

  6. 6
    james on 12 Sep 2009 #

    yeah, I’m also surprised more people haven’t tried it.

    … haven’t seen “Basterds” yet, though I plan to. QT hasn’t made a movie yet that couldn’t have been improved by excising a solid hour or talking (first half of “Kill Bill 2,” first half of “Death Proof,” etc). People need to stop telling him “you write great dialogue!” (he doesn’t) and start telling him “your movies are too long.”

    That said, I think his recent films are actually his best, by far. “Pulp Fiction” is easily his worst… it’s like a Godard film minus the sex and politics (which are always the best parts of any Godard film)

  7. 7
    Pete on 12 Sep 2009 #

    Certainly the Grindhouse version of DeathProof is much better than the longer solo theatrical release. Tarantino has a gift for a kind of dialogue, pop-culture snappy, which appeals to reviewers because its how they (wished they) talk, about what they talk about. Actually that isn’t fair, he does write good dialogue scenes, and writes pretty good action scenes AND writes on the whole quite compelling genre plots. He just has no restraint, and no understanding as to why the genre and exploitation films he loves so much are usually 80 minutes long. Always leave them wanting more, not less.

    IB’s biggest crime is taht its his worst plot – the Basterds themselves are all but coincidental characters in a wholly different film. That film Shossanon’s) would have been pretty good if corny, and also would have rocked in at 1.30.

  8. 8
    Chewshabadoo on 13 Sep 2009 #

    I love the way subtitles are used in Heroes – rather than sitting in the same spot, they are placed in a similar position in the frame to how a comic strip might place them, sans speech bubbles.

  9. 9
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 14 Sep 2009 #

    Slumdog did that too – integrated them into the scene by placing them near the character who was speaking – which made me wonder how Boyle et al removed them for the Indian version. Though no doubt they did.

  10. 10
    Martin on 14 Sep 2009 #

    That’s fair, Pete. I think I’m coming at this from the perspective of, OK, you wish QT had made a slightly different film, fine. But the film that was made stands as the richest multilingual American film in memory. (I haven’t yet heard any plausible contenders.) Not only is that a considerable achievement, but critics have largely ignored that aspect to lecture him on morality, as if he were some high school dropout– oh wait, Tarantino actually is a high school dropout, which renders his daring and meticulous willingness to mix languages so compellingly all the more impressive. Isn’t it just as/more interesting to celebrate that? It’s a bit like saying, “Hitchcock’s Rope wasn’t bad, but they probably should have brought in an editor….”

  11. 11
    Pete Baran on 15 Sep 2009 #

    Cheers Martin, and of course you are right to celebrate the multilingualism (especially as it is something you are in a position to REALLY appreciate). And I certainly can’t think of a US film that comes close – The Bourne films perhaps should but stick firmly within their US intelligence clique and of course kills off the interesting German character.

    I’ll be talking about a European multilingual film in my Top Ten of 2008 though in the next couple of days (with even less interesting subtitles!)

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