Inglourious Basterds

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/21/09 00:01:32

"Celluloid Heroes"
5 stars (Awesome)

Quentin Tarantino’s World War II epic “Inglourious Basterds” has been in the planning stages for more than a decade--more than twice as long as America’s participation in that conflict, one might note--and when most viewers go to see it, it is likely that the wait, not to mention the various rumors that have developed about it over the year, will have caused them to have certain expectations about what they are about to see. For most of that time, for example, Tarantino has suggested that it would be a massive “guys-on-a-mission” film along the lines of such well-known classics as “The Dirty Dozen” and “Where Eagles Dare” as well as obscurities like Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 Italian exploitation effort “Inglorious Bastards” and after the release of the first trailer, which announced the conceit of Brad Pitt leading an all-Jewish battalion of American soldiers on a plan to kill and scalp as many Nazi soldiers as possible, it was presumed that the film would be a super-violent epic that would sum up Tarantino’s fascination with WW II films in the same way that “Pulp Fiction,” “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” did for his love of crime, kung-fu and exploitation movies but it soon becomes more than evident that this is not the kind of film that Tarantino wanted to make after all. Instead, he has shifted gears and presented us with a film comprised of maybe a dozen or so scenes, broken up over five chapters, in which epic battle sequences have been replaced with epic-length conversations in which language is the weapon of choice and the tiniest slip of an accent can be as deadly as a bullet to the head. The result may be the first WW II epic that, save for the grand Grand Guignol finale, could be produced as a stage presentation without losing anything in the translation and is an absolutely fascinating work that demonstrates that a film consisting of nearly 2 ½ hours of conversation can be just as gripping and exciting as an endless array of pyrotechnics and stunts in the hands of the right filmmaker.

Right from the start, Tarantino subverts audience expectations by keeping Brad Pitt, the film’s nominal star, off the screen for nearly an entire half-hour before he makes his first appearance. However, it is unlikely that many people will even notice Pitt’s absence because in his place, Tarantino has given us arguably the best-written and most utterly electric sequence of his entire career. It takes place in 1941, not long after the Nazi occupation of France, at a dairy farm run by Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and his lovely daughters and begins with the arrival of Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the new Nazi in charge of overseeing the region. As the courtly colonel initially explains to LaPadite, he is charged with looking for local Jewish families that have not yet been accounted for and while the LaPadite family has already been questioned, he apologetically admits that a change in command can lead to a certain duplication of efforts. As he talks and talks in his ever-so-polite manner, switching languages when it suits him, relishing in his nickname “The Jew Hunter” and whipping out a pipe so ostentatious that no one would ever use it unless as a prop meant to throw someone off-balance, he slowly and methodically begins to rattle LaPadite about the whereabouts of the missing Dreyfus family. Thanks to a sly camera move, we in the audience know that LaPadite is harboring the Dreyfus clan--they are, in fact, hiding underneath the floorboards where he and Landa are conversing. As it turns out, Landa has known all along that the family is there and makes LaPadite an offer that he cannot refuse which leads to the massacre of all the Dreyfus’ aside from teenage daughter Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), who manages to escape the machine gun fire into the nearby woods as Landa watches. As opening sequences go, this is certainly an audacious one and while the idea of two guys sitting at a table and talking for twenty-odd minutes may not sound like the most dynamic way of kicking off a war film, the results here are absolutely spellbinding and set up a pattern that Tarantino has observed throughout his career--long bursts of expertly delivered dialogue eventually punctuated by brief and shocking burst of violence--sometimes expected, sometimes not.

It is only at this point that our nominal heroes make their first appearance as Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a snuff-sniffing good ol’ boy who claims to be a descendant of famed mountain man Jim Bridger, addresses a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers--Donowitz (Eli Roth), Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), Utvich (B.J. Novak), Ulmer (Omar Doom), Hirschberg (Samm Levine), Kagan (Paul Rust), Zimmerman (Michael Bacall) and Sakkowitz (Carlos Fidel)--that he has recruited for a special mission. In order to throw fear into the hearts of the Germans, they are not only going to skip the whole taking prisoners thing and simply kill every Nazi that they come across, they are going to be scalping the bodies as well. Actually, those that are killed instantly by the Basterds may consider themselves lucky as one of their signature moves is to allow Donowitz to beat their skulls in with a few swings of his mighty baseball bat, a move that earns him the nickname “the Bear Jew” and convinces many SS officers that he is actually a golem created by a rabbi in order to kill Germans. However, like other redneck killers in the Tarantino universe, Raine ensures that one soldier is allowed to live so that he may tell his tale to his commanding officers and spread the word on the Basterds even further. That said, he doesn’t let them get away scot-free and without going into too much detail, he personally ensures that when the war is over and those soldiers take off their uniforms for good, they will still be reminded of their pasts until the day they finally do die. After picking up Hugo Stieglitz (Til Schweiger), a psychotic Nazi whose killing of 13 members of the Gestapo earns him a place on the team, word of their exploits reaches the highest levels of power within the Third Reich.

The story picks up in Paris in 1944, just after the D-Day invasion marked the biggest Allied victory against the Nazi war machine to date, and we find Shosanna running a local movie theater under the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. A German soldier, Frederich Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) chats her up a bit about the films of Max Linder and Leni Riefenstahl (“We respect directors in my country”) and while he seems pleasant enough, she makes it clear that she has no interest in him. The next day, however, he meets up with her again in a local café and when a steady stream of admirers come up to shake his hand and ask for a picture, Shosanna becomes a bit curious. It turns out that he is a celebrity in his homeland for single-handedly killing 300 Allied soldiers from his sniper post (making him “the German Sgt. York”), an achievement that he has just finished restaging for the cameras in a big-budget propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride,” personally produced by none other than Joseph Goebbels himself. In the hopes of ingratiating himself with Shosanna, the smitten Zoller uses his influence to get the premiere of the film to be held at her theater, an event that will be held for an all-German audience that will include all the principals of the Nazi High Command--including Hitler himself. Shosanna agrees to the plans to hold the premiere at her theater but it isn’t because of any fondness for Zoller--she plans on transforming the entire place into a giant oven thanks to the enormous collection of highly flammable nitrate-based film prints stored in the basement in order to get the ultimate revenge on the people who killed her family.

Meanwhile, the British high command have also learned about the movie premiere and have concocted a plan to have it infiltrated and destroyed by British officer Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), a former film critic with a specialized knowledge of the history or German cinema, and the two German-born members of the Basterds, all of whom will be posing as the escorts of Bridget von Hammers mark (Diane Kruger), a glamorous movie star who is secretly working for the Allies as a double agent. Due to an unfortunate series of circumstances, the original plan goes gunny--Hicox is done in by the kind of minor blooper that might have rated a snide mention in one of his reviews but which has deadly consequences in the real world--but when Raine finally discovers that Hitler himself is scheduled to be at the premiere, he decides to press on with the plan with himself and two of his men posing as Italian filmmakers to gain attendance. Therefore, as the premiere finally gets underway, there are no less than two independent plots to kill Hitler unfolding and to complicate matters further, it turns out that Col. Landa is in charge of security. That he knows more of what is going on than he initially lets on is perhaps not too surprising but what he does with that information, on the other hand, is. Of course, some of you may be thinking that all of this is arbitrary since the historical record would suggest that everything has to turn out a certain way. Of course, some of you may be wrong.

Although “Inglourious Basterds” may appear on the surface to be the ultimate World War II film in the way that “Kill Bill” was the ultimate marital arts revenge extravaganza, those going into it looking for a traditional war film are likely to come out of it somewhat confused and disoriented by the way that it subverts those expectations at every turn. Instead of intricately choreographed battle sequences punctuated by, at most, a pithy line of dialogue here or a gung-ho speech there, Tarantino instead gives us a series of intricately choreographed dialogue sequences that are often punctuated by brief and brutal bursts of violence. Instead of offering up the standard narrative approach of following a bunch of guys as they go about pulling off their seemingly impossible mission, he gives us several different and disparate storylines and narrative tones and then figures out a way to logically tie them all together in the final scenes as he did to a certain degree in “Pulp Fiction.” Instead of milking audience expectations at every turn, he instead delights in subverting them at every turn. If you had to compare this to other WW II movies, the closest one that I can think of would be Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book,” another slyly subversive work that delighted in confounding genre expectations at every turn. Actually, if you had to compare it to anything, you would be better off comparing it to the spaghetti-western epics of Sergio Leone--like “Basterds,” those films told long tales filled with violence and revenge that nevertheless subverted the conventions of their ostensible genre by stretching them to the breaking point and adding in bits of satire and weirdo humor amidst the carnage. (Of course, Tarantino more or less tips his hat in that direction right from the start by opening the film with a title card reading “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.”)

The difference between those Leone films and “Inglourious Basterds” is that the Leone films used as little dialogue as possible to tell their stories (the better to redub them for the international market) while Tarantino’s film is a talkfest from beginning to end. This isn’t to say that Tarantino isn’t a cinematic storyteller by any means--from a visual standpoint, this may be his most accomplished work to date. However, while his past films have always been filled with characters who have gloried in their long flights of verbal fancy, the extended dialogue sequences here also take on a second dramatic level in the ways that they show just how important language can be and how the tiniest turn of the phrase or the slip of the tongue can have lasting repercussions. Take the various scenes in which Col. Landa interrogates people in order to get them to provide information that, for the most part, he already possesses. In a normal film of this type, Landa’s attempts at intimidation might have been suggested by having him looming over the proceedings or acting in the most menacing manner possible. Instead, he toys with his prey by switching from one language to another while talking just to keep them off-balance at the very moment when they are trying their best to remain as cool as possible. On the other hand, those who don’t recognize the importance of language in the film do so at their own peril. For example, the film critic British officer is able to speak German in a technically proficient manner that would allow him to pass easily enough amongst people who aren’t fully versed in the language--a movie audience, for example--but it is the fact that he sounds more like a person speaking German than talking in it that serves as a tip-off to the wrong person that he may not be what he appears to be. Likewise, when Raine and the others are forced to pose as Italians during the final segment, their sub-Chico Marx accents are so awful that their ruse is uncovered almost before it even begins--then again, what else can you expect from a group so uninterested in the niceties of their own language that they can’t even spell their own nickname properly. (The title is taken from a painfully misspelled inscription on Donowitz’s infamous baseball bat--a conceit that makes a little more sense when you realize that it belongs to someone played by the likes of Eli Roth.)

At the same time, “Inglourious Basterds” is a Quentin Tarantino film through and though and is therefore crammed to the gills with bravura dialogue exchanges, strange humor, memorably intense bursts of violence, plenty of references and in-jokes for the cinephiles in the audience and career-making/reviving performances from a wide and eclectic cast of actors. The opening scene between Landa and the dairy farmer has already been labeled an instant classic and while it is definitely the high-point of the show, there are plenty of other impressive moments along those lines as well that do an incredible job of simultaneously moving the narrative forward, allowing the characters to come across as unique individuals instead of just as pawns being driven by the plot and slowly but surely ratcheting up the tension in ways that would have done even Hitchcock proud--the best of the bunch being the talk between Landa and Shosanna in which we are never quite sure if the former realizes that this isn’t his first encounter with her and the extended set-piece in a remote barroom meeting between some ersatz Nazis and some real ones that goes to pieces with just the wave of a finger. There are many bits of sly comedy as well, one of the best being the seemingly superfluous bit in which a British commander (played by a cameoing Mike Myers)explains the parameters of an upcoming mission in a way that serves as a straight-faced parody of such scenes--so much so that some have cited it as the weakest and most inessential scene in the entire film--while quietly setting up some important details that will pay off in the next sequence. (Even if you don’t buy this scene as parody, it is still worth it just for the appearance of Rod Taylor as none other than Winston Churchill himself.) Although the film may not be the wall-to-wall gorefest promised by the ads, the violence on display is done in such a way that even the most bloodthirsty audiences will find themselves affected by it, mostly because, like much of the brutality that he has displayed over the years, Tarantino never quite shows us everything that we think we are seeing and allows our minds to fill in the gory details. And once again, he stuffs in enough film references throughout the proceedings so that the film could almost serve as a screen adaptation of “The Filmgoer’s Companion”--this time around, they range from the fairly obvious (Emil Jannings is one of the invitees at the “Nation’s Pride” premiere) to the fairly obscure (Myers’ character is named Ed Fenech, in obvious reference to famed Eurosleaze sexpot Edwige Fenech) to the wildly unexpected--who could possibly resist a World War II movie with a climax that somehow manages to work in exact visual quotes from not one, but two Brian DePalma movies?

As for the performances, while Pitt, who is easily the best-known actor of the group on display, is clearly having a blast as Raine (the scene in which he deploys his cheerfully phony Italian accent may be the single funniest thing he has done in a movie since zoning out on the couch in “True Romance”), the two best pieces of acting come from the two actors who will probably be the most unfamiliar to America audiences (at least until the movie ends.) As Shosanna, Melanie Laurent is a sexy and savvy wonder who is completely convincing as someone equally capable of breaking a heart or the entire Nazi war machine in the blink of one of her piercing eyes. Proving to be her equal is Christoph Waltz as the fearsomely intriguing Landa. A journeyman European actor for years, Waltz takes the potentially clichéd character of the all-knowing, all-evil chief Nazi and turns him into a three-dimensional person who is always so filled with surprises that he bumps up the energy level of each and every scene that he is in even before he begins speaking in his deceptively silky-smooth manner. Most critics, even those who haven’t like the film as a whole, have already begun short-listing Waltz as a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor nomination (he won the Best Actor prize for the film at Cannes earlier this year) and while I won’t go so far as to say that (mainly because I am loathe to make Oscar predictions in August), I will say that this film should hopefully have the same immediate effect on his career that “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown” had on the careers of John Travolta, Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a great movie and the fact that many of Tarantino’s detractors seem to have taken umbrage over its very existence--for reasons ranging from the alleged tastelessness of having Jewish characters in a WW II film gleefully doing the things that we would normally associate with the Nazis (apparently this is only allowed if such behavior is presented in an appropriately mournful/dull manner a la “Defiance” or “Valkyrie“) to the extreme liberties played with the historical record (forgetting that there were a number of movies made during the war period, many of them comedies that dealt with hunting down Hitler and eradicating him for good) to little things like having an allegedly anachronistic song like David Bowie’s “Cat People” playing on the soundtrack at a key point in the narrative (a glorious bit that I defend on the grounds that a.) the song perfectly encapsulates the mood of that particular moment and b.) the fact that Strauss wrote “Also Sprach Zarathustra” well after the dawn of man didn’t hurt the opening of “2001” a bit)--is but one indicator of just how good it really is. Oftentimes, when a long-discussed project is finally produced and released, it turns out to be a bit of a disappointment because it isn’t able to live up to the version that people have cooked up in their minds--I’m looking at you, “Chinese Democracy.” “Inglourious Basterds” may not be the film that most people were expecting but it manages to more than live up to all the hype. In a typically cheeky bit, Tarantino actually goes so far as to conclude his film with a character remarking “I think this just might be my masterpiece” and while that might not be precisely the case in regards to the film as a whole--it would be hyperbolic to make such a statement based on only one viewing--it is masterful enough to at least warrant such thinking.

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