Combustible Celluloid
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With: 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, Sylvester Groth, Martin Wuttke, Mike Myers, Julie Dreyfus, Richard Sammel, Alexander Fehling, Rod Taylor, Soenke Möhring, Samm Levine, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Arndt Schwering-Sohnrey, Petra Hartung, Zack Volker Michalowski, Ken Duken, Christian Berkel, Anne-Sophie Franck, Léa Seydoux, Tina Rodriguez, Lena Friedrich, Ludger Pistor, Jana Pallaske
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality
Language: French, German, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 153
Date: 05/20/2009

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Killin' Nazis

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Along with Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is one of the best war movies of the decade not because it's about war, but because it's about war movies. Most war movies preach to us about how horrible war is, but none of them ask the obvious question: if war is so horrible, why do so many people make war movies? The answer is that war looks like a lot of fun. It seems fun, even if in reality it is truly horrible. It brings out the inner child in most of us, the days of gleeful playground battle, cheerfully exploring our violent, animal sides.

As with Tarantino's other recent movies, Inglourious Basterds serves somewhat as a work of film criticism as well as a film. It sets up all the typical war movie conventions, and then twists through them in new ways, calling attention to them and questioning their cultural dominance. Set during WWII, the new film has several subplots and an international cast of characters whose fates intertwine and eventually cross paths, but two of the exact same themes were also explored in two of last year's most celebrated movies. In Defiance, a team of Jewish rebels band together to defend themselves against Nazis, and in Valkyrie, a group of infiltrators attempt to kill Hitler and some of his cronies by trapping him in a room and setting off a bomb. Even if Tarantino actually saw those movies -- and I'm sure Inglourious Basterds was already in production by the time he could -- the criticism is probably not deliberate. But it works out serendipitously anyway.

Brad Pitt leads Inglourious Basterds, playing Lt. Aldo Raine. He's only in maybe one-third of the entire film, but his spirit sets the tone. He's a fearless tough guy, probably a career soldier, barking orders and issuing threats in his twangy accent. He pronounces "Nazi" as "Naah-zees." As in Defiance, he recruits a platoon of tough Jewish soldiers, but this time with the pure and single purpose of "killin' Naah-zees" (and collecting their scalps). Meanwhile, we get the story of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who as a girl escaped when her entire family was slaughtered by the sinister Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Years later, she has grown into a beautiful woman, whose blonde hair and blue eyes hide her Jewish heritage, and she owns and runs a movie theater in Paris. (This, of course, allows Tarantino to expound upon both French and German movies made up until the war. One title that comes up more than once is G.W. Pabst's 1929 mountain-climbing film The White Hell of Pitz Palu, which stars the infamous Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl.)

Shosanna draws the unwanted attention of a Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller killed hundreds from his perch atop a bell tower and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) decided to make a movie (Nation's Pride) about the event, with Zoller starring as himself. After Goebbels meets Shosanna, he gets the idea to re-locate the movie's big-ticket premiere to her theater. Attending the premiere will be Hitler, Goebbels and other top men, as well as Landa himself. Shosanna starts to hatch a plan to blow up her own theater with all the villains inside.


Meanwhile, the British government is working with a famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and former film critic Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) to do the exact same thing. Tarantino takes great pains to introduce all the characters involved in this larger military operation -- and even brings in Mike Myers for one scene as a portly British general -- and then has them all meet in a pub. That same night a group of soldiers is seated nearby, celebrating the arrival of one soldier's baby boy. The pub scene is the movie's centerpiece and it goes on for some time, introducing many new characters and many exchanges of dialogue, including a guessing game that allows for more movie references. The heroes keep trying to work out their plan, but are constantly interrupted. By the end of the scene, every single character is dead except one.

It's rather astonishing that Tarantino would devote such a large chunk of screen time to characters that will never again see the light of day, and it's part of his genius that he even considers doing so. It's a lot like the scene in Pulp Fiction, in which Jules and Vincent decide that it's too early to enter the boys' apartment, so they hang back for a moment and talk further about foot massages, while the camera waits impatiently by the door. It's a detour to a dead end, and nearly any other filmmaker on the planet would simply cut it out, but Tarantino knows that these detours and interruptions can be interesting, and perhaps even more revealing than the straight-ahead plot. Certainly the bar scene allows for more commentary on the nature of the war film itself.

Anyway, the point of all the needless deaths is that the mission must be taken up and completed by -- who else? -- Lt. Aldo Raine and his men, who, to say the least, are a good deal less graceful and subtle than the trained spies. Perhaps the most astonishing thing of all is the ending. Now, I enjoyed last year's Valkyrie, which managed to build suspense as Tom Cruise and his men edged closer and closer to actually killing Hitler. However, we knew that it was "based on a true story" and we knew what the outcome would be. In Inglourious Basterds, the heroes actually kill Hitler and Goebbels, in no uncertain terms. They're riddled with bullets and roasted alive. Why can Tarantino get away with killing Hitler and Goebbels in a WWII movie? The answer is simply: because it's a movie, and not WWII itself.

Indeed, for the casual viewer Inglourious Basterds will take a while to sink in, if it does at all; we're not trained to watch war movies as subversive as this one. We're trained to experience war movies that very seriously contemplate the nature of what it's like to really be there. Tarantino is specifically not interested in that "realism" factor. This film has more interior scenes and designed sets than just about any other war movie ever made, and if you compare it to his beautiful use of Los Angeles streets in Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, you may feel a bit disappointed. It has a similarly artificial look to Kill Bill, but has a good deal more going on underneath.

Perhaps the most interesting idea is the one that Shosanna has; she will blow up her own theater by lighting cans of film on fire. (Samuel L. Jackson's voice appears to explain the history of silver nitrate film and how flammable it was.) What more subversive cinematic act can there be? Instead of violence in film, here we have film as violence. What's more, Shosanna feels the need to shoot a film of herself taunting her soon-to-be victims, which is set to be spliced into the feature at a specific moment. When it does, the flames roar up around the edges of the screen, and even after the screen melts, the projected image of her face still bounces off the floating smoke. It's possible that Tarantino has created his own Leni Riefenstahl here, or perhaps he's striking back at her for using cinema to give such immense power to Hitler.

In any case, Inglourious Basterds is packed with ideas, and the more I've been able to consider it, the better I like it. It has been said that Godard also made film criticism into films, but his were considerably more intellectual, and Tarantino's films still manage to illicit gut reactions as well as brainy ones. All that aside, I'd like to do that part of my job which gets people ready for Oscar season and talk about the performances. Brad Pitt is brilliantly funny -- it's his first outing with Tarantino since his tiny role as the stoner roommate in True Romance (1993) -- though his character doesn't have enough depth for any kind of Oscar consideration. But voters will want to take note of Christoph Waltz as Col. Landa. I had never seen him before, and I doubt that many other Americans have either. This is one great movie villain; he's so snaky and charming you almost want to trust him. He follows my movie rule for a great villain: he should be able to sit down for coffee and conversation with the hero. Landa does just that (although with different beverages, ranging from milk to wine), several times. I doubt Academy voters will be able to digest most of what's there in Inglourious Basterds, but it will be easy enough to recognize Waltz for his achievement.

DVD Details: Universal has released an excellent two-disc DVD set. Disc one includes three extended and/or alternate scenes, plus all of the Nation's Pride footage (six minutes) and trailers. Disc two comes with a digital copy of the film, a roundtable discussion between Tarantino, Brad Pitt and critic Elvis Mitchell (about 30 minutes), a jokey "making of Nation's Pride" (which was directed by Eli Roth), a featurette about the original Inglorious Bastards, a quick interview with Rod Taylor, a brilliant little short about Tarantino's hilarious clapboard operator, his "Camera Angel," greetings from the set to Sally Menke, Tarantino's editor, a tour of poster art with Elvis Mitchell and a poster gallery.

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