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Though it almost shares a title (but little else) with director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 spaghetti-war flick The Inglorious Bastards, which was just a dirtier Dirty Dozen knockoff, Quentin Tarantino knows a good title when he sees it. With a minor spelling change he gave us his own comic book WWII movie, Inglourious Basterds. With a definite nod to François Truffaut’s The Last Metro, it’s like a Powell & Pressburger (49th Parallel, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing) piece of propaganda, if those guys were still making those flicks in the 1970s. What at first glance may seem like a nasty and mean Nazi revenge fantasy is actually a tribute to the power of cinema and the power of Tarantino’s beautifully composed dialogue. This may be the most talky war script ever written, but unlike the pointlessly inane ramblings of the film he made two years before this, Death Proof (his half of the double feature movie Grindhouse), this dialogue is used to constantly build suspense, and in the hands of an expert actor like Christoph Waltz, it often sounds like an evil poetry. Aided by the clever score, pirated from other films, and the sharp period detail, Inglourious Basterds proved to not only be one of Tarantino's most ingenious creations, but is a film that has aged well (in the brief years since) and is sure to take its place with the best of the genre (lets call ‘em Naziploitation flicks).
Inglourious Basterds is an equally shared international ensemble piece divided into chapters. First you are introduced to a cat n’ mouse playing German SS man, "Jew Hunter," Col. Hans Landa (Waltz in a mannered piece of scenery chewing that deservedly won him an Oscar). The film opens with him interrogating a French dairy farmer who is hiding a neighboring Jewish family in his floorboards. He toys with the man before his soldiers shoot up the floor, but the teenage daughter Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to escape into the countryside. Meanwhile an American unit commanded by a very Southern Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt acting like a cross between Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn) leads a group of Jewish soldiers known as the "Basterds" on a dirty trick mission to torture and wreak havoc on Nazis, becoming legends and the thing of nightmares to Nazis, including even a flummoxed Hitler (Martin Wuttke). A few years later, Shosanna, now known as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" (and resembling a young Catherine Deneuve), runs a hip cinema in Paris and is any movie geek’s dream girl. Unfortunately she has the unwanted attention of a young German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye, Lenin! and The Edukators). He is even starring as himself in a recently completed film about his sniper exploits called Nation’s Pride, directed by head Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller convinces the higher-ups, including security-chief Hans Landa, to hold the premiere at Shosanna’s cinema, with the German high command in attendance, including the Führer himself. Shosanna and her boyfriend hatch a plan to burn the theater down during the screening.
A British intelligence agent (Michael Myers, doing a perfect accent) and Winston Churchill (an unrecognizable Rod Taylor) bring in a secret agent, Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, the start of his reign as the current “it” actor), a German-speaking film critic/historian to meet up with a double agent, German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the Basterds to go blow up the theater (not knowing about Shosanna’s own plan). This leads to an incredibly intense and eventual violent meeting in a basement bar. Nothing goes according to plan, leading Pitt and two of his men to do their best Chico Marx, posing as Italian filmmakers to infiltrate the movie premiere, with more insane twists and surprises to come.
Like so many of Tarantino’s films one of the highlights and most important elements of Inglourious Basterds is the soundtrack. This one hit a number of personal notes for me. As a kid, I recorded scenes off the TV from the violent action movie Dark of the Sun to capture sections of Jacques Loussier’s very Morricone-like score with a tape recorder. So I got goosebumps when I heard it used so well here. I also had the soundtrack to Paul Schrader's remake of Cat People because I loved the David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder theme song “Putting out Fire.” Here it is used beautifully as Shosanna gets ready for her night of mayhem (the moment has no resemblance to a WWII flick; instead it seems to be paying a homage to Schrader and others of that era, like Tony Scott’s The Hunger). Of course Tarantino uses a lot from the master, Ennio Morricone, whose Spaghetti Western scores helped to popularize the genre and has done literally hundreds of movies since, ranging from Italian gangster flicks to The Mission and The Untouchables. There’s a showy piece from Perry Como collaborator Nicholas Perito, the theme from the Burt Reynolds’ good ol’ boy flick White Lightning, a Lalo Schifrin piece from Kelly’s Heroes, and most hilariously is a Billy Preston track from the blaxplotaion flick Slaughter. This may be Tarantino’s best mix tape yet.
Like Tarantino’s earlier Kill Bill (and later Django Unchained) Inglourious Basterds is a beef stew of B-cinema ingredients, but unlike his other films this isn’t just a well choreographed “best of...”. Yes, you can spot many of the references and nods, but it’s also loaded with original ideas, the best of which come from Tarantino’s own love of film and the pop culture language of video store geeks. The scene in the tavern where everyone is pretending to be someone else is a verbal joust of stay-alive while a pop (and classic) culture drinking name game is played. The heroine Shosanna owns a revival movie house (like the New Beverly, the cinema Tarantino recently took ownership of). Fassbender is a badass soldier but also a film lover. The Mata Hari like Kruger is an actress and film lover. Pitt and his guys pose as filmmakers (and Pitt’s character’s name bares a striking resemblance to war movie star Aldo Ray). Even the Nazis all seem to be obsessed with movies. Pessimists might say that the only way Tarantino can intellectually relate to WWII is through film, but I would counter that’s the best way anyone who didn’t live through it can. Like many of us, I learned a lot more about the war and our history through movies than I did from history class. If some dimwit walks out of Inglourious Basterds thinking the allies won the war by blowing up a movie theater and that America had a Jesish terror squad working behind enemy lines, then I would direct that idiot to see Downfall or Schindler’s List or Come and See or Saving Private Ryan or The Great Escape or The Bridge on the River Kwai or Army of Shadows or one of the dozens of other maybe more reliable terrific films on the subject. You know what they say, the filmmakers are the new history-book writers (or if they don’t say that yet, some day they will).
Inglourious Basterds won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor (Christoph Waltz). It was nominated for an additional seven Oscars for Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Sound Mixing.