Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
"We in the killin' Nazi bizness. An' cousin, bizness is boomin'!"
The eccentricities begin right at the start. The main titles display an eclectic variety of typefaces, and the first music cue is a soundtrack selection from John Wayne's The Alamo. The first scene up is patterned after Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, with a classical piece given the Ennio Morricone guitar treatment. But we don't get the notion, as we did in Kill Bill and Death Proof, that Quentin Tarantino is amusing himself doing hipster homage duty.
In Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino returns to his proven strength of writing great movie scenes that build tension, explore characters and deal with a complex storyline. Each "chapter" launches in a new stylistic direction, often with new characters. I haven't counted but the movie doesn't have more than ten or so major scenes, almost like a Hollywood picture from the 1930s. The ratio between dialogue and action is also much more traditional. The fan-boys expecting slaughter on an ADD timetable are going to be frustrated. Inglourious Basterds, an old-fashioned WW2 espionage & action spectacular, has a real story to tell. It may be Tarantino's most ingenious picture yet and is by far his best work since 1997's Jackie Brown.
This ambitious War epic breaks new ground. Big action-oriented American war pictures are a major unexplored area of pop culture. Until the late 1950s most post-war combat films were sober, almost reverential odes to the immediate experience of honored veterans. Then came the escapist war adventure The Guns of Navarone. It was a big change. Audiences came for the same reason they always did, the dramatic action and combat violence, but this time around they were encouraged to delight in mass slaughter. Even ordinary German foot soldiers were fair game and died in great numbers, anonymously. "Nazis" were generically Evil non-entities that made excellent no-fault targets on which the moviegoer could project his personal aggression; they replaced wild Indians as all-purpose bad guys. But the viewer can still feel self-righteously superior: "I'm an American. We're always right and we've never lost a war."
Inglourious Basterds is the first movie to embrace, analyze and transcend the escapist war adventure, all in one go. It's about war, war as propaganda, war in the movies, our love affair with war movie violence, the moral and political implications of war movie violence and the hypocrisy of Terrorism. It's also the most cinematic and thematically integrated picture I've seen in years. Movies, film culture, and the Power of Cinema are central to its violent fantasy. I haven't read a review that acknowledges any of this. The critics that dismiss the movie outright simply haven't a clue or are allergic to the film's violence. The ones that approve wave the Quentin-Is-God flag, as they have since Pulp Fiction.
SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is one of the top ten best-written villains ever. 1 The Nazi security agent dominates every scene, taking great pleasure in his ability to inflict instant mental torture. Landa's air of courtesy toward farmer LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is a mask to confuse and intimidate; soldiers with machine guns are never far away. The jarring episode establishes Landa's pride in his identity as "The Jew Hunter". Tarantino cuts the scene off before we know the fate of LaPadite and his daughters, a trick that goes against exploitation law (thou shall keep all violence on-screen) and as a result leaves us in a state of unresolved tension.
The entrance of The Basterds pitches Inglourious back into the cheap seats, with Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) almost in farce mode as he delivers a Patton- like pep talk to his handpicked squad of Jewish G.I.'s. The setup is pure Dirty Dozen and the speech is full of allusions to "wild Indian" massacre mentality. Raine's neck scar reminds us of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah characters who carry reminders of rope burns and scalping attempts. The scalping idea is the basis of The Basterds' hold on the German imagination. The Basterds section shows that Raines' campaign even gives Der Führer nightmares. It also provides Tarantino's Grindhouse fans with their needed dose of bloody carnage. Tarantino uses his "Kill Bill" instant character sidebar flashback technique to fill us in on the career of Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a Wehrmacht renegade fighting for the Basterds.
The gross scalpings and other atrocities have a weight missing in Tarantino's last few pictures, mainly because Raine's philosophy of battle is precisely how a lot of real combat is fought -- particularly today, when one or both sides of any particular conflict use guerilla methods -- i.e., outright savagery unfit for the seven o'clock news. Sending enemy soldiers back with Swastikas carved in their foreheads is a case of poetic barbarity. The Nazis are branding Jews with numbers, and we know that's only the least of their atrocities. As a way of sending threatening messages to the enemy, the Swastika handicraft points toward real Apache terror as portrayed in Major Dundee or Ulzana's Raid. As Raine says, he didn't parachute into hostile territory to teach the enemy good manners. Bizness is boomin'!
With the entrance of Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) into the tale we arrive at the complaint that Inglourious Basterds is a swamp of anachronisms. Duh! That's the whole point of the show. With few exceptions, war movies have always imposed present-day attitudes, music and style onto spectacular bloody combat. I doubt that stirring symphonic Sousa marches and service anthems were really present at Wake Island or Bataan. The escapist war comedy Kelly's Heroes injects hippies and Man With No Name in-jokes into the mix. Inglourious Basterds is an even wilder fantasy, but it never misrepresents the character of the participants. Hitler's "cheesencracken sauerkrauten" tirades and Aldo's extreme backwoods twang are jolting, but not exaggerated. When we hear source music it's always from the period; Tarantino's eccentric editing choices and eclectic music cues are imposed from the outside. Morricone's The Battle of Algiers theme establishes The Basterds as guerilla pros, while Afro-French film projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido) prepares his firebomb to an Elmer Bernstein cue from Zulu Dawn.
Tarantino's movie-score choices are more than downloads from his fave mix list. The QT wannabes slap a pop track onto a gunfight scene and call themselves geniuses, but Tarantino's cues always enhance the scenes they're over. A stylish montage shows a fatal lady-in-red preparing her makeup, putting on rouge as if it were Apache war-paint. The accompanying track reverberates with a David Bowie song. What sounds like an unlikely audio choice for a scene happening in 1944 comes off as inspired. It's no more inappropriate to put 80s pop over 1944 Paris than it is to put scat vocal jazz over Bolivia in Butch Cassidy in the Sundance Kid. Both work in context. When he's on his game, Tarantino's films are far greater than the sum of their found and borrowed cinematic parts.
The key moment in many escapist war movies is when some authority figure tells the hero that this particular suicide mission might end or shorten the war. The sacrifice of combat becomes a holy crusade, when the reality of war is usually much less noble. Inglourious Basterds goes goofball with its high-level briefing scene. General Fenech (Mike Myers) doesn't exactly play his phony Brit in Austin Powers mode, but with Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) a casual participant we're reminded how ridiculous (and exposition-laden) these scenes are. Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbinder) plays the Film Critic-turned commando leader like a cross between George Sanders and Raymond Durgnat ... tossing off highly anachronistic references to "subtextual" meanings in German cinema, and using movie titles as punch lines: Paris When It Sizzles. It's our films versus their films -- this is war! 2
Archie finds himself in a Parisian pub full of Germans, with Deutsche movie star / double agent Bridgit von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) ... a situation as ridiculous as any WW2 espionage movie where glamorous spies somehow evade the Nazis over cocktails. The basement bistro scene is another extended Tarantino masterpiece-in-miniature that generates suspense the old-fashioned way. Halfway through the proceedings, SS investigator Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) arrives, ratcheting up the dramatic tension. 3 Aldo Raine attends the premiere in a white tuxedo, a wonderful jibe at unlikely impersonation scenes (Charles Bronson a Nazi officer?). Smirking like a hick trying to play Cary Grant, Aldo would of course be spotted by a blind man, a dead blind man. It's ridiculous, yet we've seen it a million times before. The rest of the big premiere scene is rigorously realistic, but it doesn't matter ... Tarantino generates tension with his clash of discordant elements.
In Paris Tarantino connects the dots for his honest-to-goodness overarching master theme, which sets historical reality against movie-version glorified reality. Venal Nazi opportunist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is little different than a power-mad Hollywood mogul, the kind who can cover up star indiscretions, even an occasional murder. Goebbels' latest propaganda film Nation's Pride has an uncomfortable "American" feel. War hero sniper Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) shoots hundreds of Americans from an Italian tower, much like our own Texan madman Charles Whitman. Zoller is spinning his fame into film stardom and a political future with Goebbel's biopic, which is clearly patterned on Howard Hawks' Sergeant York. Instead of equating German soldiers with turkeys ("Gobble Gobble"), Nation's Pride shows American bodies piling up in absurd numbers -- a "fun" spectacle that Germans (and Mexicans, and Japanese, and American Indians) have had to watch in American movies for half a century.
Freddie Zoller's historical counterpart is Audie Murphy, a G.I. who in his Medal of Honor citation is credited with 240 German kills. Several years later Murphy became a popular movie star and an obvious recruitment model for the U.S. armed forces. Produced as propaganda during wars and as nostalgic distortions between them, war movies are an irreplaceable PR factor for the hero-making industry that keeps war recruits coming.
War movies allow us to re-experience stylized combat over and over, re-interpreting it for new audiences. Standard war stories avoided ethnic complications via the convention of the "melting pot platoon", which always contained a cowboy, a Jew, an Italian-American, etc.. Inglourious ignores all that and instead gets right down to the basic issue of Jewish revenge. The Basterds' comrade-in-arms, whom they'll never meet, is Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), the only surviving member of her family after one of Hans Landa's murder raids. The combined counterstrike against Nazidom fulfills the adolescent fantasy of every schoolboy (Jewish or not) of my generation -- to kill Hitler. Give the audience what they want ... 4
In this ultimate movie fantasy, Basterds is the first time that Nazi Germany has been conquered by subversive filmmaking, and the power of editing. A projection changeover becomes a major suspense device. Movie film of the 1940s is itself explosive by nature, as Tarantino explains in another expositional sidebar. Forget 3D: the movie screen reaches out to strike back at Evil in a wish-fulfillment demonstration of the power of pure Cinema. Critics lament that liberal moviemaking is rarely effective as a tool of social change, but Mlle Dreyfus' "experimental" filmmaking effort really makes its point ... with a few bombs included in the overall presentation, of course. Tarantino has long been accused of playing infantile movie games, but this picture assembles his eclectic pulp scraps into a coherent and original thesis -- Film conquers Evil.
The murder raid aims to blow up Goebbels, Goering and Bormann at the premiere, a big step forward from The Dirty Dozen's mandate to incinerate a few generals. When Hitler joins the premiere guest list Shoshanna and The Basterds' vengeance becomes a delirious ultimate trip. The Nazis gloat over their propaganda film, which then turns around to immolate them for their sins, while Jewish-American guerillas blast the main villains into bloody hamburger. All that's left is for Tarantino to resolve the issue of double-dealing Nazis, the ones that bartered cozy deals with the Allied Command ... with a neat and tidy comeuppance finish.
All this and economy too: made at a time of fiscal crisis for its backers, Inglourious Basterds looks several times more expensive than it is. The movie doesn't require that many sets. The premiere scene is fairly lavish but there are no large army battles to stage. The real work has gone into the casting, which collects a simply amazing array of interesting talent and arresting faces. Christoph Waltz, lately a German-language TV star, deserves this year's supporting Oscar. He's only the top name in a list of terrific, unfamiliar actors: Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Sylvester Groth.
Tarantino is also to be applauded for respecting his audience. He doesn't withhold information and then leave us to figure things out. Viewers that might not recognize Emmanuelle as being Shoshanna from the first scene are given a quick identifier title. He even makes fun of the process, identifying Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann with hand-scratched pointers ... why waste time with more standard exposition? Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds succeeds glouriously at a real suicide mission -- making an exploitation war movie that stands up as superior world-class cinema.
Universal's Blu-ray of Inglourious Basterds makes this great picture look exactly as it did in the screening I saw, with sharply defined images and brilliant colors. There's only one violent detail in the film I turn my eyes away from, and even though it's a long shot there's zero loss of clarity. For the record, the critical blowback about the violence in Basterds is baloney. ... the mayhem is less gratuitous than previous QT pictures, and perfectly in tune with the subject matter: war is never less than an atrocity. It's refreshing to see a violent movie that has more on its mind than exploitation.
Oh .. the evaluation, pardon. The knockout audio track is more pleasurable on Blu-ray, mainly because I didn't have to wear earplugs as I did at the screening. The English subtitles offered work around the already existing titles used to translate those parts of the film in French and German.
Mr. Tarantino has clearly been involved with the extras, which play to his legions of fans. A few extended and alternate scenes will interest those who study his methods. I'm not an Elvis Mitchell adherent so I didn't watch too much of the round table discussion with Tarantino and Brad Pitt, who is more pleasant than his media image would indicate. Pieces on director Enzo G. Castellari and his original Inglorious Bastards are generous enough to mention that film's home video availability. Along with galleries of international posters, Tarantino includes two funny collections of slates, two interviews with actor Rod Taylor and a "Killin' Nazis Trivia Challenge" game. We also see the uncut sniper scene from Nation's Pride, which we learn was directed by Eli Roth. A comic short subject presents Roth as Goebbels' fictitious ace director, touting the Nazi propaganda film as if the Germans made EPK's for their product. Another roundup of posters for films seen in Shoshanna's theater tells the relevant history behind pictures like The White Hell of Piz Palu and Le Corbeau, one of many movies filmed in France during the occupation.
The second disc is a Digital Copy ready for "download to your iPod, Mac or PC -- enjoy Inglourious Basterds everywhere".
I'm probably the last to figure out the irregular spelling of the title ... Weinstein and Universal must have decided that changing one letter of the second word would keep bluenose newspapers from rejecting their ads. Tarantino is on record saying it's an artistic flourish. Any director who uses the words "artistic flourish" in an interview, and can get away with it, deserves the benefit of the doubt.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Inglourious Basterds Blu-ray rates:
Supplements: Extended, alternate scenes; discussion with Brad Pitt, Tarantino, Elvis Mitchell; The Nation's Pride uncut; The making of "Nation's Pride"; Rod Taylor interview pieces; the original Inglorious Bastards; galleries, funny slates, funny messages to the editor; "Killin' Nazis" trivia game + DIgital Copy.
Packaging: 2 discs in keep case
Reviewed: December 11, 2009
1. Landa's closest antecedent that I can recall is Alexander Granach's clever Nazi detective Gruber in Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die.
2. There are different levels of historic distortion in movies. I've just seen Mission to Moscow, a propaganda piece that may have been necessary for U.S. relations with its Soviet ally, but now plays like a scandal to match Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. 1983's The Right Stuff is a rousing tribute to NASA's Mercury astronauts. But my father, who knew several of the spacemen, hated it. To him the film turned the astronauts into clowns and grossly oversimplified every issue. And then there are people who refuse outright to watch a film about Che Guevara, and those that can't enjoy The Spirit of St. Louis because of the politics of Charles Lindbergh.
3. Hellstrom's entrance was perhaps inspired by the SS menace played by Derren Nesbitt in 1968's Where Eagles Dare, another key escapist war fantasy involving an absurd commando mission. The scene that Nesbitt interrupts is actually a very good theatrical set piece of the kind that Quentin Tarantino specializes in. The immediate confrontation is so absorbing that we forget the rest of the movie for a moment ... the scene used to get applause in theaters, if only because the audience for Where Eagles Dare didn't expect anything so sophisticated!
4. Hitler in Paris for a movie premiere? Hey, that never happened! Hitler visited Paris exactly once, for less than an hour, right after taking the city. His unscheduled motorcade raced from monument to monument early in the morning and then rushed back to his Berlin-bound airplane. By 1944 Hitler had ceased almost all public appearances. Yes, the security at the premiere is also ridiculous ... two lousy guards? The Führer's bodyguard detail would have 200 troops present, with watchful agents in every nook and corner of the theater including the projection booth. Official Nazi buildings in Paris were ringed with sandbags, machine gun nests and roadblocks.
But why let any of this get in the way of Tarantino's fantasy? Old Adolph just wants a good time and some buttered popcorn.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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