January 23, 2015

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds (2009)

"You probably heard we ain't in the prisoner-takin' business; we in the killin' Nazi business. And cousin, business is a-boomin'." – Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writers: Quentin Tarantino

Producer: Lawrence Bender

Studio: The Weinstein Company (USA)

Major Stars: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger

In the genre of exploitation films, there are numerous sub-genres. The blaxploitation film, rape-revenge, splatter, sleaze...the different types seem almost endless. But one that hasn't been explored yet is the World War II exploitation film*.

That has changed. In Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds we have been given our first exploitation film covering WW2. And it kicks ass.

The multi-pronged story should be familiar to most of you by now. A unit of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are air-dropped into Occupied France to terrorize the Germans. They take scalps and bash in heads, the bashing courtesy of "The Bear Jew", Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and his bat. They even have a German soldier who murdered Gestapo officers (Hugo Stiglitz, played by Til Schweiger) in their band. At the same time, a cinema owner in Paris who happens to be a Jew using a false identity is forced to host a German film premiere attended by the Nazi hierarchy, which is targeted by an Allied OSS operation. And tying all these different stories together is SS Colonel Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter", played by Christoph Waltz.

The title may say "Inglourious Basterds", but the story is Landa's. He ties it all together. Nothing in the story would happen (except for one scene) without his involvement. And Waltz plays him to perfection. He is smooth, polite, intelligent and deadly. The opening scene where a Jewish family hiding under the floorboards in a French farmhouse are discovered and killed by Landa's unit is some of the best film-making you will ever see. Landa is exceedingly polite to the French farmer, but you know from the first how dangerous Landa is. From beginning to end, no other character grabs your attention like Landa. Waltz won the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for the role, and he deserved it. In a perfect world Waltz would have won the Best Actor award. That is how good Waltz is in Inglourious Basterds.

The sole survivor of the Jewish family massacred in the opening scene is Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who becomes the aforementioned cinema owner. She is the second most important character to this film. Dreyfus puts the climactic scene into action, an act of Jewish revenge upon the Nazi elite that is stunning and beautifully shot. But it begins to make you wonder why Tarantino named this film Inglourious Basterds when they are, in many ways, tangential at best to the unfolding story.

This isn't to degrade their performances. Pitt chews a bit of scenery as Raine but is a very enjoyable character, one that reminded me more than a little of Lee Marvin's Major Reisman in The Dirty Dozen. Roth is obviously enjoying his role as Donowitz, even as he mangles a Boston accent**. And Schweiger's Stiglitz is memorable in the short time we get to know him. But by and large, the Basterds are mostly ciphers who appear only a few times before the film's conclusion.

And while Tarantino plays it straight for the most part, there are moments that sort of stick out. The British OSS scene is pretty camp, with the British officers (Michael Fassbender and Mike Myers) really playing the effete, snobbish stereotype to the hilt***. While the two scenes with a narrator (Samuel L. Jackson) are okay and are very much in Tarantino's style, they don't exactly fit in with the film he has created here.

But those are very small points against what is a great film. The dialogue is sharp and enjoyable, a contrast to the overly-wordy Death Proof. The memorable scenes are numerous (the two that stand out for me are the opening scene in the farmhouse and the climax in the theatre). And there are the moments of violence that every war film needs. And they aren't there simply to be there; every act of violence has a reason for coming into existence. This film is one of Tarantino's best. And if you wanted to say it is his best film, you wouldn't necessarily be wrong.

Personally, I enjoyed all the nods to German cinema in this period. The mention of Leni Riefenstahl and the Pitz Palu. The appearance of Emil Jannings, one of the great actors of the 20s and 30s (and Nazi sympathizer to his lasting damnation). And the "film within the film" Nation's Pride (directed by Roth) looks like the kind of film Goebbels was funding at that time****.

There is some criticism that must be addressed. Some people slagged Inglourious Basterds for ignoring the Holocaust, or for turning Jews into Nazis. All you can say in response is that...you missed the point. This is an exploitation revenge flick, not a serious look back at World War Two. Tarantino wasn't making the next Downfall or Defiance here. Who in their right mind thinks that Tarantino is going to make a meaningful film about World War Two? Are these critics familiar with his work? That'd be like complaining that Django Unchained didn't address the Fugitive Slave Act.

So where does this go on the Top 100 list? Good question. Craft-wise and quality-wise, it is a really good movie with a really good cast. But it is unlike just about every other movie on the list so far because of the exploitation/alt-history framework. I can't put it ahead of Where Eagles Dare but is really better than M*A*S*H. At the end I can't quite put it ahead of M*A*S*H because that film has an emotional depth that gives it a little more. But right behind it? Absolutely.

If I was giving out numerical grades, Inglourious Basterds would get a 9.7 out of 10 from me. Just a fantastic film all the way around. It's just over 2.5 hours and hardly drags at all. And Christoph Waltz is just amazing as Hans Landa. For that performance alone this film is worth seeing. And if you haven't seen this yet...what is wrong with you? Get moving!


* This is different as opposed to Nazi exploitation flicks. No one would call Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS or One by One a WW2 exploitation flick. Or if they did, they'd be wrong.

** Which is amazing considering Roth grew up in Newton, MA. Still, it's better than those "Pahk the cah" jokes that are nothing like a real Boston accent.

*** That said, the scene with Fassbender in the tavern basement is off-the-charts great, in part because of the very "Britishness" of his character.

**** As a complete aside, there is a quick scene in the film that show Goebbels having sex with his female French translator. This is actually a very accurate depiction of Goebbels. The man was a serial adulterer and earned a rep for trying to get actresses on the casting couch, so to speak.


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