Sunday, September 27, 2009

Rebooting the Second World War: Inglorious Basterds ****

Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds has the attitude of a Ramones album and the virtuosity of a Thomas Pynchon story. Tarantino's past films have taken formulaic genres and reinvented them. He threw out all the rules of Hollywood film making and a tidal wave swept the film industry. Inglorious Basterds takes things further and defies history itself. Movie goers will be discussing it for years to come, at least I will.

The title's somewhat misleading as there are four storylines which all converge at the end - very much like another WWII epic Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, a moonshiner from Tennessee who leads an all Jewish unit that wage "Apache" warfare on the Nazis. We never learn much about them except that they love scalping Nazis. One of them beats them to death with baseball bats. The Basterds are an obvious nod to The Dirty Dozen (1966), who are group of violent misfits we can get behind because they kill Nazis.

Another unforgettable character, the "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa (Chrstolph Waltz) easily steals the film. Colonel Landa hunts his victims through charm, intimidation, and intelligence. The opening scene in which he interrogates a French farmer would make Hitchcock proud. Hollywood has a history creating sadistic Nazis, perhaps most memorably Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List. He was a barbarian thug. While Landa is nothing of the sort, instead he's cultured, charming, and, a master of languages. An important point since not all Nazis were thugs; they were cultured people who listened to Beethoven. Tarantino's decision to create charismatic Nazi villain is actually truer to history than many WWII films.

Strong female characters also play a key role. Melanie Laurent plays a French girl who witnesses her family getting massacred and plots revenge, similar The Bride in Kill Bill. Diane Kruger plays German movie star Bridgette Von Hammersmark. These story lines, particularly Melanie's, add an emotional element to the film.

A few words about the film's violence. First of all, it's tame for a Tarantino film. Some may be repulsed by the the basterds - others gleeful. What's better than Nazis getting what they deserve? Does Tarantino dare his audience to cheer on the violence? There is no simple answer. The Allies also did horrible things to win the war such killing thousands of innocent civilians in their strategic bombing campaigns (not to mention the use of nuclear weapons). The cartoon violence in the film will excite and unsettle audiences.  If anything, it should make us think about violence, instead of simply responding to it.

Finally the war depicted in the film is more like a fantasy loosely based on the actual war. History has taken a course no one can change. Everyone wishes Hitler had been stopped in the 1930s and the war could've been avoided. The film offers some wish fulfillment on the surface, but also forces us to think of alternative paths to history.

Inglorious Basterds is an immensely entertaining film. Mike Myers plays a Scottish Colonel recalling Trevor Howard in The Third Man. A David Bowie song randomly appears. Tarantino has made his war movie; he has raised the bar once again.

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