Wow, so how about being really late on this one! What a bitch! I kept putting this one off for some reason, but now that I’ve taken the Duh! chip off my circuit board, I’m ready to get serious and tackle this little piece of alternate history. Now, when I heard that they were remaking the schlocky WWII Italian movie The Inglourious Basterds, or Que Maledetto Treno Blindato if you’re Italian Spiderman, I was mildly intrigued. The original film was your standard Italian-Spanish co-production, complete with bad dubbing, a possibly lifted soundtrack, and an air of blaxploitation that you couldn’t get away with now in Hollywood without being Quentin Tarantino. But the more I heard about it, the less it sounded like the original. It looked stranger and stranger to me the more trailers that came out, until I was convinced that they must have changed almost everything. Well, now that I have seen Inglourious Basterds, I can say conclusively that they didn’t change almost everything; they DID change everything. This is a completely different movie, and I’m shocked that they could even call it a remake or a re-imagining, because it just seems like Tarantino used the name of the original as a bucket to catch all the absurd-isms and retro themes he was going for. But would you believe that I liked it a lot?
The story is told in chapters, much like Kill Bill, or, I don’t know, almost every book in the history of the world. We begin with with the threat of Naziism growing deep into the heart of Germany, as a ludicrously evil man named Col. Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter” is finding and executing Jewish families all along the countryside. One family in particular, the Dreyfuses, are hiding from him underneath a neighbor’s house. When Landa catches them, he obliterates all of them save one, named Shosanna, who barely gets away. We’re then taken to a facility where Lt. Aldo Raine, an American, has hand-picked an elite group of 8 Jewish-American soldiers called The Basterds for a mission he describes as “Nazi hunting”. To scare the sauerkraut outta those Nazi sons of bitches, his group will employ guerrilla warfare and scare tactics, as well as scalping any German troops they kill and carving swastikas into the heads of those they allow to live. They’re smart, they’re fast, and they won’t leave until they’ve made their mark on the Nazi morale. Hitler himself even begins to take notice, and it isn’t long before the Basterds make their mark all their way across Europe.
Things come to a head when the Basterds are asked to head up a huge mission to kill key members of Nazi High Command at the premiere of a new movie by Joseph Goebbels. This mission will require the element of disguise, as well as a little espionage ingenuity, so they will be aided by top British soldier and former German film critic (!!!) Archie Hicox, who will coordinate the assault on the movie theater. The only thing that might stand in their way besides the Nazis is the owner of the movie theater, who just so happens to be Shosanna!!! She has changed her name and opened up a movie theater in Paris, which has been hand-picked by Goebbels as the site for the premiere. She is terrified at first, but soon comes up with a plan to burn down the theater with everyone inside. Will this plan work, or will the Basterds be the ones to strike against those damn dirty Nazis first? Will they be able to carry out an espionage mission, or are they a little too forward for that? And will they even make it there, considering the premiere’s security is headed up by the evil Col. Landa himself?
Tarantino is a meticulous mad scientist, cobbling his style from a myriad of different pastiches and techniques. This film, though, I must say, is probably his most well-disciplined and serious film to date. I don’t want to say the best, just yet, as I might need to watch it again to get another feel for it, but it’s pretty impressive, as far as technique goes. He’s really matured as a director, and this is a movie where he experiments masterfully. His experiment appears, though, to be about the nature of manners. Inglourious Basterds is maniacally mannered, to the point of lunacy. The first fifteen minutes of this 153 minute giant is what appears to be a very calm sit-down with Col. Landa and Shosanna’s neighbors. Chairs are pulled out, pleasantries are exchanged, milk is poured achingly from a simple bottle to a simple glass, and we are left in the dark for the entire duration while they talk of dairy farms and rural communities while a Jewish family waits beneath the house for their execution. It is effective, and the entire movie, with the exception of the Basterds themselves, reflects this prim, mannered society. It might not be exclusively a movie for the Pulp Fiction crowd, but rather for the discerning movie-goer at large.
You still have your normal Tarantino stand-bys though. The violence is spectacular but brief. There are probably about five scenes of genuinely horrifying spectacle, and you would be hard pressed to see anything more brutal in a WWII drama, but they are blips on the radar screen of this vast movie. And it’s vast because there is so much dialog! You could fill a cozy Parisian movie theater with all of the words coming out of these people’s mouths. The script probably weighed more than some of the actresses here! It’s ridiculous, and yet it makes perfect sense. Everyone is debonair, suave, and ready to die and kill at a moments notice, the Allies especially, and it’s wonderful to see a movie as much in love with language as I am. There is a bar scene near the middle of the movie where everyone is in disguise, trying to get out of a den of Nazis, and while I was watching it I couldn’t see the end of the scene. It was that long, and it was that unpredictable that I was physically befuddled by the movements of the script. Pretty powerful stuff, man; I’m a little in awe of it.
Pitt agitates me a little as the lead. I thought I would like him more, but it seems that his Southern drawl has devolved since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and is now a slimy, disgusting thing that hurts me to hear. Aldo Raine is that character I love, but I love him solely to make fun of. He’s funny, but mostly annoying. Eli Roth is a winner as “The Jew Bear”, a huge Jewish soldier with a penchant for crushing Nazis with a baseball bat. He’s got a certain Jersey chutzpah that made me laugh quite a bit. Melanie Laurent as Shosanna electrifies. I like how strong she is as a female character during WWII, her silent struggle against the Nazis a cry of an impassioned, empowered woman. But the real star here is Christoph Waltz, who plays Col. Landa. What a devilish guy! He is a stone-faced killer who has it in for our heroes with an intensity that is right below his face and ready to erupt at just the most opportune moment. Landa is polite, courteous, and a snappy dresser to boot, but there is something so insidious about him that words don’t do it justice, and Waltz captures it effortlessly. I look forward to seeing him in many, many more films in the future.
So go see Inglourious Basterds in theaters, or the dollar theaters since I was so damn late. It’s not a light viewing, a laugh-out-loud piece of comedy gold, or historically accurate by any stretch of the imagination (especially the end). But I think it might be Tarantino’s best-made film, and it’s quite a boon to his already eclectic and immersive filmography. If you’re up for a meticulously mannered World War II film that features realistic scalpings, Joseph Goebbels giving it doggy-style, and Mike Myers dressed up in old person make-up, don’t miss this one. I give Inglourious Basterds 9 Bear Jews out of 10. A high recommendation!
Tomorrow I get a little taste of Mother Night! Until then!