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08.19.09

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Phaedra

Francois Duhamel/TWC 2009
STRIKING BACK: Brad Pitt and Eli Roth take revenge on the Nazis as 'Inglourious Basterds.'

Patriotic Gore

'Inglourious Basterds': Quentin Tarantino takes on the Nazis and Nazi movies

By Richard von Busack


THAT HITLER—what a showman! Seems like every week there's a new YouTube remix of Bruno Ganz having a Holstein over whatever. The best, probably, is the remixed führer foaming over the news of how bad the new Transformers was going to be. Quentin Tarantino's no-doubt Oscar-winning Holocaust film Inglourious Basterds is almost as deliriously entertaining as a remixed Hitler tantrum.

This new film drips with movie love, and it is not a cheat—the blazing finale is one of the ultimate Mad magazine Scenes We'd Like to See. The long, rich film showcases Tarantino's sense of humor more than his appreciation for violence. The whole thing is held together by one boundless if undifferentiated appetite for paraphrasing movies.

Inglourious Basterds is the should-have-been true story of Operation Kino: the plot to destroy the Hitler Gang through their own love for cinema. Participants in the top-secret plot, witting or otherwise, include sweetheart of the Reich Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, never better), a mysterious Parisian movie-theater owner known as Emanuelle Mimieux but born Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) and a drawling British film critic–turned-commando, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), the author of Twenty-Four Frame Da Vinci, a study of G.W. Pabst. (In writing the story of this lethal critic, I wonder if QT ever heard of Otis Ferguson—"A trail-blazing beacon of film criticism" writes Andrew Sarris, quite justly. He died fighting Hitler; Ferguson was a merchant marine killed off Salerno during the attack on the S.S. Bushrod Washington in 1943.) Opposing these flawed heroes is the smiling-serpent villain, the Helmut Dantine–like Christoph Waltz, as Hans "The Jew Hunter" Walda. Waltz's thrilling loathsomeness is as pure as something you might see in a silent film.

The loose cannons knocking around this picture, turning up to cause mayhem during its five separate chapters, are the Basterds themselves. Brad Pitt's Tennessee ridge-runner Lt. Aldo Raine leads a band of homicidal Jewish guerrillas. Each one is indebted to him for 100 Nazi scalps. Is Tarantino as interested in these scalp hunters as he is in those delicious moments of tension, right before they strike? Maybe not. More than ever, Tarantino shows a penchant for conversation over violence, for delicious anticipation rather than delivery.

Inglorious Basterds is a genuine art movie, right down to its subtitles and crimson and gold surfaces. Nothing is as rapt here as Tarantino's swoon over a beautiful girl on a ladder, leaning on a block-wide, blazing theater marquee, polishing the letters spelling out the name of Henri-Georges Clouzot. Le Corbeau is showing during its first run. "France respects directors," says the theater owner, "Emanuelle Mimieux." Even Occupied France, it seems.

The lady is distracted from her marquee work by the attention of a persistent, baby-faced German officer, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller's frontline heroism, as a sniper with a body count of about 30, is being rendered into a kind of Nazi Audie Murphy movie called Nation's Pride. ("They think I will be the German Van Johnson," Zoller says winningly.) Tentative romance and repulsion between the theater owner and the sniper continue to the film's end.

Then, the Basterds, uncomfortably tuxed, appear undercover in the presence of Nazi luminaries, while Raine holds forth about his youth "at the base of Piz Palü." As they dodge a crowdful of champagne swillers, shaky scrawled captions and arrows point out Goebbels and the rest of the Allied Forces' Most Wanted List.

Tarantino gloms on to all of our movie fantasies of the Satanic ornateness of the Third Reich. The evil is beautifully saturated and looks an inch thick. Even a standard poodle, belonging to Goebbels' girlfriend, looks like it ought be tried at Nuremberg. As the Basterds continue their outrages, Hitler foams in his lair, vowing reprisals and revenge: "Nein! Nein! ... I will hang them by their heels from the Eiffel Tower!"

Once, Russ Meyer, another director who cared little for matters of good taste, was pleased to guest-star a character playing the elusive Martin Bormann in two of his films. Like Mel Brooks, Meyer had been in a soldier in the war: one reason among many that gave them license to have any fun they wanted with those inglorious Nazi bastards. Tarantino follows their example. Personally, I don't mind seeing the occasional Nazi getting posthumously scalped. Sic semper tyrannis, and in movie terms, their lives are worth about as much as the zombies they resemble. And remember the grindhouse creed, as expressed by J. Hoberman: "We don't care who gets it, as long as someone gets it."

Still, some watching this impassioned farrago will think it is a diminishing of real evil. Maybe. Here in cinema form is an essay about Tarantino's mutual fascination with and distaste for the war film. And even if he's a voracious film watcher, he can tell the difference between the passionate but low-budget Samuel Fuller dramas of universal dehumanization and the boring-ass patriotic gore-opera represented by Zoller's film Nation's Pride, with its cascades of bullet shells and a beatific youthful sniper in his church tower. Wonder what Tarantino thinks of Michael Bay? In its depictions of the Nazis' near-orgasmic reaction to the premiere of Nation's Pride, this movie gives you a good guess.

Moreover, there seems to be some commentary here, disguised as strawberry-jam-covered strudel. The revival of World War II in movies in documentaries in the mid-1990s coincided with the Hitlerizing of Saddam—one Good War deserves another. When Bush ginned up the War on Terror, his opponents were slurred as Chamberlainian sissies, sleepwalking toward a new Munich. Pumping up and satirizing the war movies that fueled so many daydreams of righteousness—this is subversiveness itself.

And Tarantino's ambiguity keeps this from being complete idiot-fodder. When the insane Raine works on his grisly signature—a bit of body manipulation with a Bowie knife—there's a shudder discernible in the way Tarantino watches it. Remember the camera that turned away from the ear-cutting in Reservoir Dogs? The blank satisfied look of Pitt's Raine fills the screen in a final shot; Tarantino's gaze isn't quite as dispassionate. It's not easy to get the high ground and take the low road at the same time, but Tarantino does it here.


Movie Times INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (R; 153 min.), directed and written by Quentin Tarantino, photographed by Robert Richardson and starring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Diane Kruger, opens Aug. 21.

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