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Inglourious Basterds (2009)

WARNING: WE’RE IN THE BUSINESS OF SPOILERS, AND, COUSIN, BUSINESS IS A BOOMIN’

Here are the problems with Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds.” It distorts history to a degree no filmmaker has done with World War II. It makes the Allies as morally repugnant as the Nazis. It doesn’t give us near enough of the Basterds themselves. George Will once dismissed football as nothing more than “committee meetings punctuated by violence,” and one could say “Basterds” is nothing more than tableside meetings (over milk, over strudel, over scotch) punctuated by violence.

But I loved it. Tarantino’s films open my mind—in a way that few films do—as to the possibilities of storytelling. You can do that? I think. That’s allowed?

The opening title card should’ve been a giveaway: “Once upon a time...” it read. Tarantino’s telling a story here. He’s not interested in history. Or the only kind of history he’s interested in is cinematic history. Everything else is a prop.

Watching, I kept wondering what he was up to. Why is he aping Sergio Leone in the opening scene? We’re in Nazi-occupied France not the Old West. Why the Mike Myers cameo and the David Bowie music and the Sam Jackson narration? Doesn’t he want to ground this thing in time and place?

No, he does not want to ground this thing in time and place. That, it turns out, is the exact opposite of what he wants to do.

The opening scene give us the first of those dramatic tableside confrontations (over milk), while introducing both the gloriously insinuating villain, Col. Hans Landa of the S.S., known as the Jew Hunter (Christoph Walz), and the heroine, Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Melanie Laurent), who is last seen running across the countryside, the blood of her family splattered on her body.

Then we get the Basterds and their raison d’etre: killing Nazis. The team consists of Aldo Raine, known as Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt), and 8-10 Jewish soldiers, most of whom are interchangeable. I thought we would get their exploits piecemeal but Tarantino takes us from introduction to legend in 30 seconds. These guys open heads with Louisville Sluggers. They carve swastikas into flesh. They scalp heads. The violence, oddly, is both felt and cartoonish. I can’t think of another filmmaker who can do both at the same time.

As a screenwriter, Tarantino is almost a playwright. He’s not interested in moving from place-to-place. He’s interested in getting us to a place, an enclosed place, and having his characters talk. And talk. And talk. And then shoot guns. Each scene begins like “My Dinner with Andre” and ends like “Taxi Driver.”

The rest of the movie is quickly set up. Shoshanna, passing as a gentile, runs a cinema in Paris, where she’s pursued by a young German private, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a cinephile who, it turns out, is his country’s Sgt. York: a sharpshooter who single-handedly killed over 200 enemy soldiers. “Nation’s Pride,” a film starring himself, has been made about the experience, and Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, is setting up its premiere in Paris. But Zoller, trying to impress Shoshanna, gets them to change venues to her cinema, where, with her black lover, she plans on burning to death members of the German high command using old, explosive, 35mm film reels stored in the basement. This plan becomes even more important when she learns Adolf Hitler himself will be there. “Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf,” as Raine says later in the film, “makes this a horse of a different color.”

The Allies, learning of the premiere (sans the Hitler part), launch their own plan, “Operation Kino,” and dispatch film historian Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) behind enemy lines, where he’s to rendezvous with both the Basterds and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German actress and double agent. But “Kino” goes awry during a dramatic tableside confrontation (over scotch), and some of our most memorable Basterds are killed. Meanwhile, von Hammersmark, Cinderella-ish, leaves a telltale shoe at the scene, alerting Col. Landa to her likely double-agent status.

But so what, right? We know the plan won’t work anyway. Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and Bormann are all at the premiere, and it’s June 1944, and this isn’t the way they go. Hitler and Goebbels kill themselves in their bunker in April 1945. Bormann, it’s assumed, died trying to escape the Red Army in May 1945, while Goering killed himself with cyanide after being sentenced to death during the Nuremberg trials in 1946. We know they won’t die here. At the same time we wonder how Tarantino will handle it. How will he let the Nazis get away but still make it satisfying for us?

Here’s how he handles it: He kills them all in June 1944. He changes history.

Watching, you think: OK, it’s a double of Hitler, right? It’s a stand-in whose face Sgt. Donny Donowtiz (Eli Roth) machine-guns into a bloody pulp. It’s not supposed to be the real Hitler.

But then the movie ends and you realize it wasn’t a double. In this movie, Hitler died, and World War II ended, in June 1944. What fun!

Then you think: Tarantino can’t do that, can he?

He can and he did.

You could argue that Hitler’s merely a prop to him, a movie villain, the way that, say, the Sheriff of Nottingham is a movie villain. He can kill him any way he wants. And this is the way he wants. This is the way that suits his story rather than history.

Or you could go deeper level. The greatest villain of the 20th century escaped our clutches. Yes, he took the coward’s way out in that bunker—and it was a coward’s way out—but we didn’t begin to get our revenge for all of the death and destruction he caused. The movies have recreated that moment, that horribly uncinematic moment in the bunker, time and time again, but they’ve always played by Hitler’s rules. They always gave him the end he chose. Until Tarantino. Who machine guns his face into oblivion in June 1944.

The audacity is almost breathtaking. That’s why all that other stuff helps—the Mike Myers cameo and David Bowie music and the oversized, prop pipe Landa pulls out in one interrogation scene. The film is a 20th century hodgepodge. It’s not history. The only history Tarantino cares about is movie history. That’s the one he gets right: From the flammability of early film, to the great 1943 French film “Le Corbeau” that Shoshanna is advertising on her movie marquee, to having German actor Emil Jannings, who won the first best-actor Oscar, and is best remembered for his incredible performance in “The Blue Angel” with Marlene Dietrich, show up at the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.” Initially I thought this unfair to Jannings. But after the movie I did a little Internet research and discovered, big surprise, Tarantino was right: Jannings supported the Nazis. He made Nazi films. He actually died in 1950, but he, too, gets it here in that crowded Parisian theater in June 1944. Auf Wiedersehen.

Some are objecting to the moral equivalency of “Inglourious Basterds.” The greatest cruelties we see in the movie are the cruelties the Basterds visit upon the Germans. But Tarantino said he was making a spaghetti western set during World War II, and he didn’t lie, and spaghetti westerns are all about moral equivalency. When I first saw “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” I thought, “OK, who is ‘the Good’ again?” Because no one in the movie seemed good to me. There was just cool and not cool. Same with Tarantino. He’s never been interested in the good, only the cool.

Still, since there are few wars less morally equivalent than World War II, it makes sense people are objecting. Americans, Jewish-Americans, slit throats and carve flesh. They lock Germans into movie theaters and machine gun them and burn them. The Germans claw at the doors, like Jews clawed at the doors in the gas chambers. The Germans in this movie are Jews, and the Jews are Germans. Some people in the audience want to feel morally superior but Tarantino only wants to feel cool.

The question as always with Tarantino is: How much is he playing with us? The Jew Bear (Roth) knocks out a Nazi’s brains and the Basterds cheer like they’re watching a movie. The Germans watch a movie about Pvt. Zoller and they cheer at each Allied death. We watch this movie and cheer as each German is slaughtered. Or do we? I certainly had mixed feelings. At the mangling of history. At the moral equivalency. Once the Germans became Jews, how can you cheer for their deaths? Tarantino gives us nothing clean. Every gift he gives us is smeared in blood.

It’s surprising how much of the movie is subtitled, isn’t it? A Hollywood movie? “Any of you Americans speak another language?” von Hammersmark asks at one point. Nope. Our language expertise is limited to catch phrases and hand gestures. To finger food. As it is in real life. Yet Tarantino gives us this international cast with their international tongues and American moviegoers still attend en masse. He gets away with what everyone says you can’t get away with. Why not? He’s the man who ended World War II in June 1944.

That cast, by the way, is incredible. Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna plays is straight, Brad Pitt as Aldo Raine plays is for laughs, and Christoph Walz as Col. Landa, who won awards at Cannes and who will probably be up for an Oscar, plays it in-between. And it all works. It all meshes together. I was also impressed with Michael Fassbender as Archie Cox, who, in his British duds, reminded me of a young Laurence Olivier, and the knee-weakeningly beautiful Diane Kruger, who, like Laurent, plays is straight.

Bottom line, “Inglorious Basterds” is a fun movie. It’s fun to watch and it’s fun to talk about afterwards. Getting to whack ol’ Uncle Adolf makes this a horse of a different color. Indeed.

—August 25, 2009

© 2009 Erik Lundegaard