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Inglourious Basterds / **** (R)Posted Tuesday, August 25, 2009, at 11:27 PM
Adolf Hitler gets his long overdue comeuppance in Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds".
Once upon a time... in German Occupied France
In May 1940, the German Army occupied France. They discriminated against Jews by recording all of their whereabouts and banning them from many public places. Starting in 1942, all Jews were required to wear a yellow star designating them as lesser citizens. Jews were rounded up to live in ghettos where the living conditions were unbearable, and eventually the Germans developed their plans for the Final Solution--a more efficient way to eliminate "undesirables". The Final Solution involved the mass execution of Jews and other social and religious groups felt to be inferior by the leaders of the Nazi Party. By the end of World War II, in May 1945, some 6 million Jews and "inferiors" had been "eliminated" throughout Europe by the Nazi regime. It is said that only about 200,000 Jews survived the Holocaust. This is one of humanity's darkest chapters.
THE CRITIC IN THE SHOW
A couple of weeks ago, I played a role in a professional production of the play "The Diary of Anne Frank". It was a small role. Mr. Kraler was a character made up by Frank to represent two men, Johannes Kleiman and Victor Kugler, employees of her father's business, Opekta. They helped hide the Frank family and four other Jews in the company's secret annex building for two years during the German occupation of Holland. It was a difficult play for all the actors, many of whom suffered headaches and other signs of stress while dealing with replicating the emotions of these real people who went through this terrible ordeal. My role was relatively easy in comparison to the others, but there was still the obligation to do these brave people justice. Their sacrifice was more heroic and noble than anything an actor could do in representing them. What was going on around them was unthinkable, and yet they rose above it. To see people you knew and worked with and cared for carted off simply for being Jewish, never to be heard from again. It must have been like living a nightmare.
Back in the eighties, there was a young man who loved movies. He worked in a video store and consumed them by the genre. Exploitation, horror, noir, crime, western, sci-fi, war movies; he loved them all. He loved movies so much he aspired to make them himself and soon sold some screenplays to Hollywood and proceeded to direct his first movie starting from a workshop at the famed Sundance Institute. "Reservoir Dogs", released in 1992, was certainly an accomplished first effort; but it was with his second film in 1994, "Pulp Fiction", that Quentin Tarantino's unique gift for film was realized and accepted by the masses. QT revolutionized a cinema that had become stagnant since the '70s, and he did it with a retro flare visually and on the soundtrack, but with a fresh new dialogue-heavy take and layered plot lines. A QT character doesn't talk like real people, he talks like a movie character in love with the way people talk in movies. His movies also seem to relish in their cinematic looks and atmosphere.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Pt. 1
Some have asked me whether this movie is based on a true story. If you've seen the movie, you know beyond any doubt that it is most certainly not. Some have asked if it is a remake. No, although it almost borrows its named from "Inglorious Bastards", an Italian made 1978 movie about a band of American commandos on a special mission behind Nazi lines. Some say the idea of the commando unit in this "Basterds" is taken from the German unit portrayed in Sam Peckinpah's 1977 German Army point of view WWII film "Cross of Iron", but I don't really see it. QT's Basterds are an American unit made up of Jewish soldiers commissioned to work undercover behind enemy lines killing and scalping Nazis for the express purpose of spreading fear and doubt throughout the Nazi ranks. While that set up certainly suggests an interesting World War II movie, what develops from that initial idea is something purely Tarantino, and most-likely only QT himself could pull it off.
WHAT WENT DOWN
QT's movie isn't really about The Basterds, however. It is about a plot to take down most of the higher ranking officials in Hitler's Third Reich during the premiere of a Nazi propaganda movie that the Führer himself may be attending. Of course, the long and winding road QT takes to get to that plot and the intertwining storylines that cross and parallel each other in order to get there are also purely Tarantino. The Basterds are merely a cog in the wheel of that plot.
Like many a Tarantino plot, there are some major players--the Americans (i.e. The Basterds), the British, the Nazi SS--hard at some big time plans, who will come to see those plans teeter on the quibbles of some fairly minor players. The Basterds have spent a good deal of the war building up a reputation as the Nazi headhunters they were commissioned to be, letting only a few live to tell the tale, never taking prisoners. The Nazis have been building their reputations hunting Jews, Colonel Hans Landa in particular has risen through the Nazi ranks from one of their best Jew hunters to head of security for the special screening of the propaganda film "Nation's Pride", about a sniper named Zoller who held off hundreds of American troops single handedly and starring Zoller himself. The British have developed Operation: Kino, a plot to kill most of the top ranking Nazi inner circle by sending The Basterds in with one of their own to blow the screening up. Unbeknownst to the British, Americans, or Germans is the fact that Zoller has developed a crush on a young woman who is the proprietor of a small but beautiful movie house. When Zoller convinces Goebbels to move the venue to his crush's cinema, he sets into motion events that neither side will be able to predict, for his crush is none other than Shosanna Dreyfus the sole survivor of one of Landa's hunting parties. She will now have her revenge.
Of course, this synopsis cannot suggest the style and skill with which Tarantino executes his strange tale of vengeance. Like all of his films, he laces his heavy storyline with moments of lacerating humor, mostly along the more morbid lines here, as when he has a German soldier recount the tale of how he came to live through one of The Basterds raids, or the pomposity with which he depicts the British High Command's attitude toward what will basically be a suicide mission for The Basterds, or the boyish charm he infuses into Landa, easily the film's most evil character. The violence--when it comes--is graphic and gory.
Tarantino once again displays his exquisite use of music in the soundtrack, as when he opens the film and introduces The Basterds with the spaghetti western music of Ennio Morricone, or his use of David Bowie's song from the early '80's horror movie "Cat People" as Shosanna prepares for her final revenge. Not only does the out of period music fit incredibly well, but the French actress, Mélanie Laurent, looks remarkably like the young Nastassja Kinski from "Cat People". And then there are all the twists and unexpected developments Tarantino throws in throughout the story.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, Pt. 2
QT has established his knack for redefining actors' careers with his casting, often resurrecting fallen stars. There are no career revolutions for American stars in this one, unless you count Mike Myers ("Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery), who shows up in an unusual cameo as the British general in charge of Operation: Kino. While I don't think this brief appearance will do much for his career, Myers is spot on in his presentation of how the British SIS Command is historically depicted in WWII movies.
As for the primary cast, QT gives Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") yet another whack at one of his fun oddball roles with The Basterds' commander, Lt. Aldo Raines. He delivers a speech to his troops that only a very select few actors could even hope to pull off. Mélanie Laurent ("Indigènes") displays an amazing skill to tell a story with her eyes, as she must hide her intensions and true identity to the SS as they rearrange their screening plans to fit her theater. And Christoph Waltz has already deservedly won Best Actor at Cannes International Film Festival with his quite comical performance as the delightfully evil Landa. Let's hope the Academy remembers him in February.
There are some wonderful supporting performances as well. Til Schweiger ("King Arthur") is intimidatingly funny as a German officer who joins The Basterds because he enjoys killing his countrymen even more than they do. Michael Fassbender ("Hunger") carries the British pomposity established by Myers into The Basterds' realm. German-born Diane Kruger, probably the second most recognizable star to American audiences due to her role in the "National Treasure" films, provides the beauty for the film as a German actress spying for the British. Eli Roth ("Death Proof") is adequately deranged as the deadliest of the Basterds, known to the Germans as The Bear Jew. As with most of Tarantino's endeavors, the fates of all his characters are totally unpredictable.
Nothing can make up for the horrors that befell the Jewish people during World War II. The nobility of the many people like Kleiman and Kugler, who tried to help Jews during the Holocaust could never be replaced by acts of vengeance. Vengeance isn't noble and makes us as bad as them. As with all of his heroes, Tarantino requires some sort of penance or sacrifice from his characters for the moral liberties they take. But, without diminishing the trials and struggles of all who suffered and fought during World War II, I am compelled to say about this fantasy of vengeance against the German Army, "It's about time those &*^%#@ Nazis got what they deserve." True, it's only a movie; and no matter how Tarantino reimagines history in "Inglourious Basterds", it will never change 6 million civilian exterminations. But isn't it great to see Hitler and his cronies finally getting it really stuck to them?
"Inglourious Basterds" is currently playing at Galaxy Cinema in Sedalia.
Read my uncensored review at A Penny in the Well and see my Nazi hierarchy star rating scale and a clip from the movie.
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Andrew is a professionally trained actor and stage director. He was a reporter for the daily newspaper The Marshall Democrat News. He has been critiquing film since Mr. Lucas released the first of his "Star Wars" prequels in 1999. His reviews can also be seen at his blog site.