Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak, Omar Doom, August Diehl, Denis Menochet
R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality
Why is Quentin Tarantino so effective at evoking strong emotional responses with his films? Whether its disturbing, entertaining, gory, evocative or creative Tarantino earns just as many fans as he does enemies with his movies. Inglourious Basterds is another in his measurable oeuvre of films that screams at its audience to pay attention and be entertained.
Set during World War II, a group of Jewish resistance fighters seeks to slaughter as many Nazi soldiers as possible; Their commander instructs them he wants as many Nazi scalps as possible. They are immeasurably successful, but at a price: they are also hunted. Lt. Aldo Raine (Bard Pitt) leads the Inglourious Basterds as they trek across Europe seeking their prey and slaughtering them one by one and sending back the occasional marked lamb to show off their handiwork.
While Raine and his crew are working to directly kill the enemy, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is working surreptitiously to bring down the Third Reich after her family was viciously murdered in the film’s opening sequence. Her diabolical plan is hatched when a misguided German private, who single-handedly held off the enemy at a major battle, and has become the subject of a new propaganda film, falls for her. He suggests to his director, and by tandem the Nazi army leadership, that they host the premiere of the film at her tiny Parisian theater.
The story is anything but straightforward, but Tarantino makes it feel that way. Carefully plotted and structured to arrive at an explosive and satisfying conclusion takes great skill and although there are some bumps along that road, he is ultimately successful.
Aiding him in his endeavor is a talented cast led by Parisian actress Laurent, Austrian thesp Christoph Waltz (as the smooth-tongued Nazi exterminator Col. Hans Landa) and American Pitt. Pitt almost seems to be playing the film for humor, creating a character so serious that his actions are almost comical, from the ludicrous accent to the cheesy mustache and permanent facial mannerisms.
In contrast, at least thematically, Waltz is anything but humorous. He plays a character so repugnant and vicious that his mild manner and friendly gestures belie a horrible temperament, which perfectly captures the charisma inherent in the Third Reich that allowed them to so effectively creep into the minds of the public and encourage them to support their evil machinations. He clearly recognizes the needs of the role and executes them perfectly, shifting from French to German to English in character with the ease of a studied actor.
As his nemesis, Laurent has been forced to become what hunts her: a gracious, but calculating heroine. As her plans hatch, you can see the wheels turning and were it not for the fact that she was on the side of the just-minded people trying to bring down the Nazi regime, her character would be every bit the same as Col. Landa. That they were so alike is what keeps the dramatic tension alive between them for so long.
Tarantino’s screenplay is better than his directorial effort, but not by much. The story is engaging and entertaining, giving the audience several occasions to celebrate much like the German audience at the propaganda premiere, it also questions that mentality. We celebrate victory oftentimes ignoring the negative implications resulting from that accomplishment. Like those soldiers cheering the on-screen slaughter of those trying to bring them down, we can’t help but shout our approval as the film gives us all what we’ve desired most and that’s to see suffer those who had perpetrated one of history’s most outrageous atrocities.
As a director, Tarantino’s weaknesses abound. Although many scenes feel as if they were cobbled together from three different stories, weaving into one whole, we can’t help but recognize the conclusion and see all the threads that lead us there as appropriate. Some trimming may have been in order: the opening scene, set in a cabin where Landa questions a French farmer about harboring Jews, lasts far too long, though the dramatic tension in the scene and the dialogue are as rich as anything else in the film.
Tarantino doesn’t just want us to be entertained. His story, whether surreptitious to some or blatant to others, is to show us just how much alike we are. With people on both sides of the war behaving similarly, the only thing the audience recognizes is which side was the right side and which is the wrong, but Tarantino, very cleverly suggests just the opposite.
As I mentioned earlier, the viewer rejoices in what happens on the screen, but does not recognize how alike that response is to those of the Germans in the film. We are at once repulsed by their reaction, but celebratory of their own demise to that point. And I can fully attest to those same feelings. There’s a certain satisfaction in seeing the events as they transpire at the end of the film, but if we can recognize that in ourselves, it makes us far better able to amend our ways so that we don’t take that slippery slope towards exclusion, prejudice and injustice.
November 10, 2009