It seems like every other day we get an announcement of another actor that Quentin Tarantino has convinced to join his upcoming Manson-era epic, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The last time Tarantino assembled a cast quite this large was in 2009, for his alternate-history World War II thriller Inglourious Basterds.
Looking back, the movie is defined by Christoph Waltz’s towering performance as Hans ‘The Jew Hunter’ Landa, but it contains a smorgasbord of great turns from the likes of Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, BJ Novak, Eli Roth and Mike Myers. Admit it – you’d definitely forgotten Mike Myers was in Inglourious Basterds until just now.
But there’s one performance that often gets overlooked – Diane Kruger’s performance as German actress (and double agent) Bridget von Hammersmark. This is a shame, because she deserves to be mentioned alongside Jackie Brown and The Bride as one of the great female characters in a Quentin Tarantino movie. The role was originally considered for Nastassja Kinski, an actor nearly 20 years Kruger’s senior, but Kruger’s ageless, old-Hollywood face only adds to an unforgettable performance.
Inglorious Basterds is a movie about the power of cinema as an instrument of war, both literally and thematically. It makes repeated reference to German filmmakers like Leni Riefenshtal and the propaganda machine of Joseph Goebbels. But it also ends with an actress, a film critic, and a projectionist conspiring to kill Adolf Hitler and blowing up a cinema – and succeeding.
It’s an utterly insane plan – one that only an ardent cinephile director like Tarantino could’ve cooked up – but for one brief shining moment, Hammersmark totally makes us believe that it could work. From the moment we first meet her drinking and cavorting with Nazis with a bar in Occupied France, it’s clear why she was chosen as a spy. With her glamorous makeup and feathered cap she sticks out like a sore thumb, but she’s smart enough to know that the best course is to hide in plain sight – after all, such a beloved actress could never be an enemy of the Reich. It’s an acting decathlon from Kruger, layers upon layers of performance and emotion.
The tense scene that follows is mostly a back-and-forth between Michael Fassbender’s British operative and a too-clever-by-half German officer, but it’s Hammersmark who subtly manages the situation; keeping the testosterone from boiling over by cracking jokes and proposing parlor games. And when the scheisse inevitably hits the fan, it’s Hammersmark who understands the subtle slip-up that gives the game away – the Brit ordering three glasses with the wrong fingers.
You can’t always choose the people you work with, as an actor or a spy, and it’s ultimately the remaining Basterds who sign Hammersmark’s death warrant with their hilariously awful attempts at conversational Italian. After an unbearably tense exchange, she’s strangled in a dressing room by Hans Landa – or more accurately by Tarantino himself, who actually choked Kruger for 30-seconds while capturing the shot. It’s a move that garnered plenty of controversy – especially considering the dangerous stunts Tarantino allegedly forced Uma Thurman to perform on the set of Kill Bill – but Kruger has gone on the record stating she was not forced to do anything she did not want to during filming.
Diane Kruger is a celebrated actress of both French and German cinema (she speaks both languages fluently), but she’s long overdue another part in a big-budget English-language film. As much as we might wish for it, we reckon it’ll be a long time before National Treasure 3 finally gets the green light. Still, we’ll always have a tiny bar in Nazi-occupied France.