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The Gory Glory of “Inglourious Basterds”

Posted in Action, Comedy, Drama, Oscar winner, Oscar-nominated with tags , , , , , , on June 14, 2010 by ericstraus

Quentin Tarantino is certainly known as a director who pushes the limits of filmmaking, with particular regard to violence.  “Pulp Fiction” and “Reservoir Dogs” are gritty, intense movies that force us as viewers to toe the line between story-driven violence and gratuitous violence.  With his latest film “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino again pushes the boundaries of what kind of violence is acceptable to see, but this time there’s a twist.  The majority of the victims in the film are Nazis, and as loathsome and evil as many of them were, how much gory, bloody brutality are we allowed to watch them endure?  At what point can we stop laughing at Nazis getting their vicious comeuppance?  Combined with some great acting and a good story, Tarantino really sticks this question to us throughout a very good movie.

Set in German-occupied France toward the end of World War II, “Inglourious Basterds” tells the tale of two storylines that merge near the film’s end.  Storyline number one is about an elite group of Jewish-American soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).  Raine makes it clear to his cadre what their purpose is: to not only hunt and kill Nazis, but to make an example of them, to drive fear into the German’s hearts.  Raine explains that he expects his soldiers to literally scalp at least 100 Nazis per person.  “The Basterds,” as they become known throughout France, quickly garner the reputation that Raine desires.  They always leave one survivor to report back to the higher-ups, and they carve a swastika in that survivor’s forehead.  Raine’s group quickly becomes the thorn in Hitler’s side.  When an opportunity comes along to eliminate every high-ranking Nazi in one location, The Basterds make a plan and prepare for battle.

The other storyline is a tale of revenge, centered around a clever Nazi colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz).  Dubbed the “Jew Hunter,” he is charged with rounding up (or killing) Jewish families hiding in France.  After her family is murdered while hiding in a farmhouse, young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes as Landa watches.  Years later, Shosanna has gained ownership of a movie theater in Paris.  When Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller takes an interest in her, she develops a plan for revenge.  Both her plan and Raine’s plan involve killing all the Nazis attending a German propaganda film premiere at Shosanna’s theater, and the film goes back and forth between storylines until the film’s climax.

There is a good amount of laughter for such dramatic subject matter – Raine and his group have some great lines, and even while we see them scalping Nazis, jokes are batted about.  But the real charm and humor of the film comes from Waltz’s performance, for which he won an Oscar.  He presents himself as a man of class and intelligence, and during his interrogations he so subtly condescends and lets us know he already knows the answers to the questions he is asking.  The opening scene of the film where Landa gradually breaks down the farmer’s guard and makes him admit he’s hiding the family beneath the floorboards, is simply amazing to watch.  The dialogue Tarantino wrote for him certainly helped his performance, but Waltz’s eyes could have won Oscars themselves – we see his thoughts and know his intent simply by looking into his eyes. 

The other actors do terrific jobs as well.  Laurent is wonderful, hiding her seething emotions while she uses Zoller’s infatuation to her advantage as she plans her revenge.  She does get to meet Landa in another scene, and we can see the intensity building up in her as she fights to keep her identity secret from Landa.  Pitt is a great actor, and while this was not his best role, he brings a good amount of levity.  The most amusing scene with Pitt’s Raine is near the end, as he has infiltrated the movie premiere by posing as an Italian stuntman.  When Landa, who is fluent in many languages, begins to speak with him in Italian, Raine answers using his Tennessee accent, creating an unheard of linguistic juxtaposition. 

It’s a fun story, seeing how the two plans mesh at the end of the film.  But as I mentioned, at what point do we stop laughing at seeing Nazi heads exploding?  Tarantino does what countless filmmakers have done in the past: make the Nazis seem inhuman, and therefore it’s acceptable to laugh when their limbs are hacked off, especially when it’s Jewish soldiers doing the killing.  But how much is too much?  Is there a limit?  I’ll admit I don’t know the answer, and I don’t think Tarantino does either.  But I believe he was trying to find it with this film – and maybe it’s not just about Nazis, maybe he was asking a broader question about violence in general.  The German film premiering at Shosanna’s theater is the story of Zoller’s miraculous victory over an allied assault; he gunned down over 300 soldiers while trapped in a bell tower.  With every American death on screen, the Nazis cheer with delight, including Hitler himself.  It’s an ironic sentiment because that’s exactly what the audience of “Inglourious Basterds” is doing with each humor-infused Nazi death in the film.  So at what point do we, as human beings, stop cheering for death? 

Perhaps Tarantino’s vision was not as deep as I’m making it out to be.  Regardless, his film can be enjoyed for what it is – an original fictional storyline about WWII with great characters, entertaining dialogue and good action sequences…pretty glorious, actually.

Final Grade for Inglourious Basterds: A-