The scene takes place toward the end of Quentin Tarantino's rollicking World War II action-drama "Inglourious Basterds." As fire engulfs a Parisian movie theater packed with German military commanders, pandemonium ensues, diverting attention from the real action: a heart-pounding confrontation between a crack team of Nazi-terrorizing Jewish covert operatives (the so-called "Basterds") and the Third Reich's top brass.
It's vintage Tarantino, hyper-real ultra-violence that arrives as a kind of catharsis after more than two hours of intricate plot twists and baroque dialogue as the Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), do their best to destabilize German forces in Nazi-occupied France through their unique brand of terrorism: collecting the scalps of Hitler's troops.
But for cast member Eli Roth -- who portrays a merciless, baseball-bat-wielding Nazi killer dubbed "the Bear Jew" by fear-stricken German soldiers in the film, which opens Friday -- the scene is memorable for a different reason.
"We almost got incinerated," Roth exclaimed during a recent outing to Hollywood's Amoeba Music, where he was riffling through racks of DVDs. "The fire comes up. They thought it was going to burn at 400 degrees centigrade and it burned at 1,200. That's like 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit! You see the swastika fall. It was not supposed to. It was fastened with steel cables; the steel liquefied."
He paused midstory, however, discovering used copies of "Hostel" and "Hostel: Part II," the films that were produced by his friend and biggest booster Tarantino and cemented Roth's reputation as one of horror moviedom's most extreme, successful (and reviled) auteurs. Roth's primary function is to make films, you see, not act in them (his output as a writer-director-producer even spawned its own sub-category in the genre: "torture porn"). His role in "Inglourious Basterds," however, is more than simply a glorified cameo. It represents a kind of creative apotheosis in his relationship with his mentor, Tarantino -- a culminant experience that drew upon Roth's skill set as a filmmaker, his hometown and his religion.
Marveling at his movies' price tags -- "12 bucks, what a deal!" -- Roth continued his on-set story, explaining that the actor who shared the scene with him, Omar Doom, "had to go to the hospital. I was on the ground, my feet were up, I had ice packs all over me. . . . The fire department said another 10 or 15 seconds, the structure would have collapsed."
In other words, torture porn's poster boy -- the filmmaker who committed to celluloid such images as a cheerleader jumping into the air and doing a split onto a gigantic hunting knife -- and the guy who ruthlessly bludgeons, bombs and machine guns every Nazi in his path in "Inglourious Basterds" finally got to taste the pain himself.
"I got torched," Roth said solemnly.
A controversial career
Although Roth will tell you he relishes being a provocateur and enjoys pushing people's buttons ("I upset people so much they had to create a new genre for me!"), spend an afternoon with him and it becomes abundantly clear that he's done some thinking about the slagging he's taken from detractors who say his movies are misogynistic and desensitize viewers to violence, ultimately dismissing Roth as a moronic frat boy.
"When people direct insults at me, I can take it," the Boston-born New York University grad (and son of a Harvard professor) said later, sipping a protein shake (with extra glutamine). "I'm an easy target. But I know where my stuff comes from.
"I have a strong art-history background," he continued. "I could discuss all these painters I grew up looking at, authors I read. How there's far more violence in those works. Why aren't you upset about that? Instead they write about me, 'Eli Roth, that fraternity boy.' People can't get past the blood."
Most injurious to Roth -- an amiable, fast-talking workout buff who was voted Men's Fitness magazine's "most fit director" in 2006, but who, for the record, has attended precisely one frat party in his life -- is the perception in indie movie circles that he somehow glad-handed his way into Hollywood's big leagues. "I've been making movies since I was 8, working on movies since I was 18, didn't make my first movie until I was 30 and didn't even have money until I was 33," he said. "Then people are like, 'He got it easy.' It's so much easier to think I cheated than to think I worked my ass off."
Roth's career began to take off in 2002. After toiling in lowly movie production jobs for a decade, he cobbled together $1.5 million to shoot his debut feature, "Cabin Fever," a canny horror flick about a group of kids stricken with a flesh-eating virus while vacationing in the woods.