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Inglourious Basterds (2009).

May 7, 2010

The Scoop:
America is an angry country. Passions are running high in just about every public debate these days, with hate-filled rhetoric coming from all across the political spectrum. And that anger is always threatening to bubble over into physical violence at a moment’s notice. But that shouldn’t be so surprising since violence has always been such an integral part of the American identity. (Carving a society out of the wilderness while conquering the rightful natives will do that to a nation.)

It also shouldn’t be too surprising that the natural expression of this anger and confusion at the state of the world is vigilantism. And as they have before, filmmakers are dipping into this zeitgeist to bring us another wave of vigilante movies, from “Taken” to “Kick Ass” to the forthcoming “Machete.” Even the Brits have gotten into the act with “Harry Brown.” But leave it to Hollywood’s reigning poet of violence, Quentin Tarantino, to project our national vigilante anger backward onto one of the worst injustices in human history.

“Inglourious Basterds” is a loud, ultra violent revenge fantasy undertaken on behalf of all the Jews victimized by the Holocaust, as well as the rest of Europe trampled under the Nazis’ boot heels during World War II. But the question is, what does all this righteous violence get us?

The film begins with a terrifically riveting sequence in which steely Gestapo officer Col. Landa (played with conniving brilliance by Academy Award winner Christoph Waltz) plays a tense cat-and-mouse game with a French farmer (Denis Menochet) whom he suspects of harboring a fugitive Jewish family.

Talk about starting your film off with a bang. The tension is slow, luxurious and crackling, showcasing not just the great performances by Waltz and Menochet, but also cinematic maturity of writer/director Tarantino. He created the sequence with a steady hand, especially given that all of the dialogue is in French and German, who languages which he does not speak. It was arguably the high point of 2009 in film.

From such a great beginning, “Inglourious Basterds” takes off on a roller coaster ride from one well-constructed set piece to the next. We meet Lt. Aldo Raine (an over-the-top Brad Pitt) and his Basterds (including Eli Roth, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger and others), a unit composed mainly of Jews who conduct Apache-inspired raids deep into enemy territory, killing Nazis and collecting their scalps. They eventually receive a mission to rendezvous with a glamorous double agent (Diane Kruger) and hatch an audacious plan to assassinate Adolph Hitler at a movie premiere. Meanwhile, the theater owner (the very glorious Mélanie Laurent), who happens to be the survivor of Landa’s earlier farmhouse raid, has plans of her own to take down Der Führer. These storylines converge in a powerfully explosive finale.

This is Tarantino’s most mature, most assured film to date. He juggles the large ensemble cast of mostly European unknowns (who speak four languages onscreen) with aplomb, constructs elaborate and gripping set pieces, and even weaves in his extensive knowledge of mid-century European film. He proves that he’s more than just a recycler of old exploitation genres (not that there’s anything wrong with that) and that’s he’s fully capable of making sophisticated suspense thrillers in the Hitchcock mold.

Tarantino is also a frightfully original screenwriter, completely rewriting history for what is essentially a juvenile revenge fantasy. And here is where the problem with “Inglourious Basterds” lies. Sure, it feels good to vicariously strike back and maim and kill the oppressors who murdered millions of innocents. (Nazis, along with zombies, are the last PC-safe villains left in fiction.) But what does it accomplish, especially when it is translated into the real world?

For decades the Jewish community has been able to maintain the moral high ground with peaceful Holocaust remembrances that speak to the power of nonviolent resistance against hatred and racism. But Aldo Raine and his men aren’t exactly disciples of Gandhi and Dr. King, and they certainly aren’t troubled by the tragic consequences implied by King’s famous aphorism that “an eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.” “Inglourious Basterds” has struck a chord with many audiences, particularly young Jews, who find satisfaction in a response to past injustices that goes beyond simple peaceful rhetoric.

But these are dangerous times, and history has shown over and over again that violence just begets more violence. And no matter how much fun this film is — and believe me, it is — or how skillfully Tarantino wields the power of cinema, the lure of violence can never overcome the strength of peace and love.

Best Bit:
That tense opener. A fantastic movie in itself.

Side Note:
The role of Sgt. Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, played so memorably by horror film director Roth, was originally offered to Adam Sandler.

Companion Viewing:
“The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and “Reservoir Dogs” (1992).

Official site.

Take a Look:
The trailer:

A German wants to die for his country:

A little love for the clapper:

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