As a terrified Nazi PoW kneels on the ground at gunpoint in front of a black, cavernous tunnel, a steady, rhythmic clanging sound of metal hitting brick begins filling the air. Suddenly a figure explodes outwards, a muscled brute wielding an aluminum baseball bat, swinging wildly for anything wearing a swastika.
The SS know him as “The Bear Jew.” But we know him better as Eli Roth.
Roth is the outspoken writer/director behind such modern grindhouse hits as Cabin Fever, Hostel and its even bloodier sequel. But it’s here, in Quentin Tarantino’s latest film Inglourious Basterds, where Roth gets to flex his acting chops. He plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz — a.k.a. The Bear Jew — an angry, brain-bashing member of the titular band of merry Jewish-American Nazi hunters.
“When Quentin asked me to do this, I knew I had to make The Bear believable,” says Roth of his first prominent acting gig (though he did have a credited role in Tarantino’s 2007 effort Death Proof). “I put on 40 pounds of muscle. I wanted you to look at this guy and see all this murderous rage and pain and anger.”
Inglourious Basterds is a pulp fantasy, following the exploits of various characters and their attempts to murder as many followers of the Third Reich as possible, including the Fuehrer himself. It madly shifts gears between muted character drama, cartoonish, gory action blowout and stylized spaghetti western and audiences who pre-screened the rough cut of the film at Cannes were either left mystified or completely enraptured.
But as Roth explains, the polarized reaction is typical of Tarantino’s work.
“Pulp Fiction took general audiences three viewings to get it,” he says. “At first they said it was morally reprehensible. The second time, it had its moments. The third time they claimed it a masterpiece.
“With Kill Bill Part One, some mourned the lack of great dialogue and said there was too much action. With Kill Bill 2 the same people said there was too much dialogue and not enough action. But with Basterds, I really think Quentin has made a landmark film.
“There are at least three scenes in it that students will be reading in acting class and really, you can’t sell it in a 30 second TV spot. It’s an experience.”