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Inglourious Basterds

Released: 2009

Genre: Action & Adventure

Runtime: 2 hr 33 min

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak

Jewish-American soldiers plot to assassinate Hitler in Quentin Tarantino’s WWII magnum opus.

Funny, witty and violent as hell.

Review by: MiamiMovieCritic

Added: 8 years ago

Funny and witty and violent as hell, Inglourious Basterds may be the quintessential Quentin Tarantino movie. That’s not to say I like it as much as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – at least, not yet – but this 2 ½ hour World War II epic may go down as the film where Tarantino’s strengths as a director found their fullest artistic expression.

Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is broken up into chapters. The first chapter, called “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied Reference” (a reference to Sergio Leone’s great Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America), is one of the most suspenseful sequences Tarantino has ever directed. I was reminded of the scene in Pulp Fiction where Jules and Vincent pay a visit to the slacker kids who have stolen Marcellus Wallace’s briefcase. There’s an element of dread about these scenes; Tarantino’s characters have the power to put the fear of God into you.

The most fearsome character in Inglourious Basterds is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in an electrifying performance), a high-ranking Nazi who’s been assigned to track down the Jewish families still hiding in France. He visits the secluded home of a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet, looking like the young Stanley Kubrick) he suspects of hiding a family called the Dreyfuses. Landa is a master interrogator, switching between German, French, English and Italian to give him full advantage in any given situation. He uses a metaphor about beasts (not to mention a comically large Sherlock Holmes pipe) to trap the farmer into confessing. Landa’s interrogation is every bit as suspenseful and well written as Clarice Starling’s meetings with Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. This is one of the most rigorous intellectual exercises I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The scene is also thrilling in cinematic terms. The shot that reveals the Dreyfus family – taking us from the farmer’s dining room and plummeting beneath the floorboards – etches itself into your memory. This is important because what the scene is really doing is setting up the film’s main revenge plot. “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” closely resembles the “Origin of O-Ren” sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Both are about a massacre that alters the life of a young girl, and both use Ennio Morricone music to give the tragedies an operatic quality. I think the Kill Bill sequence – with little animated O-ren cupping her mouth before the word “whimper” can escape – is more powerful. But the opening of Inglourious Basterds is on the same level. A bravura shot framed by the doorway recalls the famous ending of John Ford’s The Searchers. It’s through the doorway that we see the massacre’s lone survivor escape.

The second chapter introduces us to the basterds (Tarantino has described the misspelling as an artistic flourish, “a Basquiat”). They’re a team of mostly Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee roughneck who claims to be the direct descendent of the mountain man Jim Bridger (1804-1881). The scenes of the basterds, who are so brutal they spread fear throughout the Nazi ranks, show off the director’s gift for comic timing and his tendency to switch moods without warning. Tarantino has taken a lot of flak for this violence-as-comedy thing over the years; wringing laughter from death is simply appalling to some people. (Michael Haneke, the director of Funny Games, made an entire movie – and then remade it – in an attempt to prove that Tarantino and his ilk nothing but amoral frauds.) I think it’s a legitimate argument, but again, Inglourious Basterds is the film where all of the director’s trademarks come full circle. You don’t feel bad about laughing when the people getting killed are Nazis. In a wildly violent flashback, a German badass named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) kills several of his comrades before joining the basterds. In this sequence and others, Tarantino’s mix of irony, comedy and bloodshed feels just right.

A few of the other Basterds make strong impressions. Tarantino’s protégé, Eli Roth (the director of Cabin Fever and the Hostel films), has some nice moments as Donny Donowitz, nicknamed “The Bear Jew” for his talent for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. And B.J. Novak’s line readings are so hilarious that I’m almost tempted to start watching The Office just to see if he’s as good as I think he is. Pitt is comic gold as always. My only complaint is that Aldo never laughs; nothing beats the sound of that hysterical laugh (e.g., the scene in Fight Club where Tyler gets beaten senseless by Lou the club owner).

The film’s remaining chapters are devoted to a plot to blow up Hitler (ridiculously played Martin Wuttke). We’re reintroduced to Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of the farmhouse massacre, who’s now hiding out in Paris and running a cinema. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is in Paris to show his new film, Nation’s Pride, starring a German war hero named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). As luck would have it, Frederick meets Shoshanna and develops a crush on her. Shoshanna uses this to her advantage, and, at Frederick’s insistence, the premiere for Nation’s Pride is moved to her theater (all the better for her to blow it up using the theater’s large supply of highly flammable nitrate film).

Frederick is one of Tarantino’s most deceptive characters. He’s played by the fresh-faced young star of Goodbye Lenin!, and he seems like a nice enough guy as he and Shoshanna talk about 1940s European cinema and he pesters her about going out with him. But Frederick is a fascist, and he isn’t smart or sophisticated enough to remain true to himself (like Landa does) within the monstrous framework of the Third Reich; his personality has been swallowed whole by the Nazis. It’s shocking when we hear him say “Heil Hitler!” or when he refers to Goebbels as “Joseph”. By the end of the film, he’s a monster.

The basterds also plan to blow up the theater, though Shoshanna doesn’t know about it; it’s one of Tarantino’s most original touches that the two sets of plotters never find out about each other. The second plot, named Operation Kino, leads to an extraordinary 20-minute scene in a basement, where a German spy named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is waiting to lead the basterds to the theater. The suspense hinges on a bizarre accent used by Archie Hicox, a British Army lieutenant played by Michael Fassbender, while he’s masquerading as a Nazi. There are at least four great performances in this scene. My favorite is August Diehl’s over-the-top turn as Major Hellstrom, a blonde-haired Nazi poster boy who becomes suspicious of Archie’s accent. Diehl is like the laughing face of Death; his face mirrors the phantasmagoric projected image we see later inside the theater.

The climax (featuring a lot of dead Nazis, one of my favorite David Bowie songs and the best dress in all of Paris) is easily the most entertaining thing Tarantino has ever done. I haven’t even mentioned Mike Myers’ amusing cameo as a British army general or David Wasco’s period-perfect production design. Almost ten years in the making, Inglourious Basterds has emerged as that rarest of things: an artistically satisfying crowd-pleaser.