Inglourious Basterds

“Inglourious Basterds.” Quentin Tarantino, director. Weinstein/Universal, 152 minutes.

In one of his early, low-budget films, Alfred Hitchcock cast himself in two minor roles to avoid paying an extra actor, and a tradition was born. His famous walk-ons continued in almost every film, first because he superstitiously believed it contributed to his success, and later as an inside joke he played with his fans. Searching for his cameo appearances became such an obsession with viewers that it often distracted them from the story, so Hitch began inserting his appearances early in the film to get it out of the way and let the audience settle into the story.

Director Quentin Tarantino has developed a similar trademark in his movies, patterning many of his scenes after iconic moments in classic films and naming his characters after famous film figures. Fans love identifying the clues, and Tarantino loves giving them something to look for. Even the misspelling of the film’s title is a game he plays, perversely refusing to explain its meaning in interviews, which gives every fan’s guess an equal chance at being correct.

“Inglourious Basterds” is no exception. Set in France during World War II, it opens like a spaghetti western with its wide windswept vista, its whistling sound track, a young girl hanging clothes on the line, a bad guy seen arriving in the distance, and a cat-and-mouse interchange between this menacing visitor (Major Landa, played by Christoph Waltz) and the deceptively calm farmer (Denis Menochet). Menochet is riveting as the farmer cornered in his own house in this opening scene, and Waltz is the quintessential Nazi officer throughout the film, suave, sinister, and psychologically sadistic.

During their conversation, Landa says proudly, “So they call me ‘Jew Hunter,'” with a self-satisfied smile, reminding film buffs of the recurrent joke, “So they call me Concentration Camp Erhard” in Max Lubitsch’s excellent WWII farce “To Be or Not to Be” (1942) with Jack Benny and Carole Lombard. (There I go, showing off that I “got it.”)

And that’s one of the problems with Tarantino’s precocious technique. Film references, both subtle and pronounced, permeate his films, inciting self-satisfied chuckles from show-offs in the audience that can be just as distracting as watching for Hitchcock to appear. My recommendation? Just watch the movie. “IB” is a fabulous film, tense and engrossing, with remarkable performances by a sometimes unlikely cast (Mike Myers plays it straight as a British General Ed Fenech, and Rod Taylor is almost overlooked as Winston Churchill) and Brad Pitt at his brassiest best. So sit back and enjoy the show–and save the game of “Where’s Waldo” for a second or third viewing.

Several story lines develop and intersect in this taut, entertaining thriller. Aldo Raines, (Brad Pitt–and yes, a reference to both Aldo Ray and Claude Raines) is a likeable, wisecracking lieutenant in the Army Special Services leading a “Dirty Dozen”-like assassination squad of Jewish-American Nazi killers. A moonshiner from Tennessee, Raines speaks with a slow drawl but reacts with a quick draw. Like the “Bad” assassin in Leone’s “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” he’s open to negotiation, but he always keeps his word. Pitt is exuberant as Raines, thoroughly committed to his cause and over the top in his delivery. He owns every scene.

Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) is a young Jewish woman passing as a French cinema owner in Nazi-occupied Paris. Laurent’s Shoshanna is cool, haughty, and mature beyond her years. She has survived an attack in which all of her family were killed by Nazis, and has an understandable hatred for anything and anyone German. When Joseph Goebbels comes to town looking for a theater in which to premier his latest propaganda film (a film featuring a German hero in a bell tower by the way, reversing a famous scene from “Saving Private Ryan”) Shoshanna hatches a devilish plot.

Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is the beautiful, daring, German actress working with the Allies as a double agent, a la Carole Lombard’s character, Maria Tura, in “To Be or Not to Be.” (STOP ME!) Like Maria Tura, she must use all her acting skills to remain calm and lively when her meeting with the Allies and Nazis doesn’t go as planned. Kruger is radiant as the sultry, playful, and quick-thinking von Hammersmark. In fact, the entire cast shines.

Tarantino eschews the modern cinematic technique of using jerky handheld cameras in favor of the more traditional stabilizing dolleys and cranes. Many of his scenes are wide and beautiful, whether they take place in a German forest, a French hillside, an ornate movie theater, or a basement tavern. His close-up shots are deliberate and meaningful. In short, he knows how to handle a camera.

While I highly recommend “Inglourious Basterds” as one of the best films so far this year, I must warn you that it is, like most Tarantino films, occasionally and swiftly brutal. War is hell, and it is bloody. Fortunately these scenes are brief and well telegraphed, so if you’re squeamish like me, just close your eyes for a second. The story and the acting are worth an occasional squirm.

If there is any message to this film it is this: there is nothing glorious about war. It kills good people and turns good people into killers. Whether driven by grief or glory, no one gets out unscathed –not the Germans, not the Jews, and not the Americans. Raines, who proclaims himself “part Injun” and demands 100 Nazi scalps from each of his men, kills without batting an eye. While we might laugh at his drawling demeanor and marvel at his unflinching courage, we can’t possibly glorify his tactics. His band of assassins are indeed “inglourious basterds.”

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