Review: ‘Inglourious Basterds’

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Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is the WW II movie we’ve needed to see since the war ended. Some might consider it overlong or self-indulgent, but it showcases Tarantino’s filmmmaking skills at their finest and serves as an example of one filmmaker’s singular vision and immense storytelling craft. It is immensely entertaining, and at times brilliant, for its entire running time.

Those going into the film hoping to see lots of bloody action like some of the director’s other films are going to be somewhat disappointed. There is some violence and gore to be sure, but this is a war movie that barely features any of the war. Instead, Tarantino focuses on the people and a very personal story of revenge. This is what Inglourious Basterds is at its core: a revenge film.

From the first scene where we’re introduced to “Jew Hunter” Colonel Landa (brilliantly played by Christoph Waltz) and he lets young Shosanna Dreyfus go instead of killing her as he did with her family, the stage is set for Shoshana’s revenge on the man, and the Nazis, who took everything from her and so many others. This is not just Shoshanna’s personal tale of revenge, however, its the cathartic revenge for all Jews — and by extension all people — who suffered at the hands of the Nazis.

The Jewish revenge is played out in the film brilliantly by the Inglourious Basterds themselves and in Eli Roth’s Danny Donowitz, the bat-wielding “Bear Jew” in particular, who smashes Nazi skulls and their wills with a smile. This film provides the audience with something they never got from real life: closure. To finally see the Nazis, and in particular Hitler, get the ending they deserve is a testament to the power of this film.

Even though this film is called Inglourious Basterds, in most ways it is actually Col. Landa the “Jew Hunter” who is the real lead of the film. From the opening scene to the last scene, he drives the action and sets up what is to come. It is he who “creates” Shoshana and her quest for revenge and it is he who, in the final scenes of the film, allows the Basterds and Shoshana to carry out their revenge.

The Basterds fill their roles nicely as well, especially Brad Pitt’s swaggering leader, Lt. Aldo Raine, who gets most of the good comedic lines in the film and provides much needed breaks in the tension. Also of note is Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a character so bad-ass you are particularly disappointed when he meets his demise during the film and Diane Kruger as Bridget Von Hammersmark, a famous German actress who is secretly working for the resistance to take down the Third Reich.

This is Tarantino at his most intelligent and at the height of his cinematic gifts. Its obvious from the film that he loves movies and that movies can be a driving force for good. He even going so far as to make movies one of the central driving forces of the story and in many ways, the mechanism of revenge.

Shoshana owns a movie house in France where all the key Nazis will attend a film premiere, the double agent helping the allies is a famous German actress, Archie Hickox, the British agent sent in to help the resistance, is selected for the mission because he was a movie critic and, of course, the final scenes take place in a movie house where the theater itself becomes a crucible of Jewish revenge against the evil Nazis as hundreds of film reels made of explosive nitrate are torched to start a fire that will burn the Nazis, including Hitler himself, to a crisp.

This is not actual history, this is Tarantino’s version of history. In his story the good guys not only win the war they get to take revenge on the people who started it. In Tarantino’s version of history, we all get our collective revenge. Its not pretty but its what we need.

Its fitting that in the end we are given the release and satisfaction that was denied people in the actual history of WWII. We get to see Adolph Hitler die. But not only does he die, he is killed by machine gun blast after machine gun blast. Sure, its a bloody mess but for good or ill, there’s something very emotionally satisfying about seeing Hitler shot repeatedly in the face with a machine gun.

A person I was with during the screening felt the film was slightly too long and could have been trimmed in parts. I could not disagree more. The film is exactly how long it should be and contains exactly the right amount of information it needs to tell the story. These characters serve a very important purpose in the film and need time to develop.

In the age where shots in many films last a split second, where action is used to tell a story, where stereotypes and caricatures stand in for fully developed and multi-dimensional characters, seeing a film where the director takes time to explore characters, their lives and their motivations, is welcome indeed. This is a deep story of revenge and resonates with emotion so we can’t possibly expect to care about these weighty issues without having time to become enveloped in the story and the people who inhabit it.

With this film, Tarantino wants you to feel for these characters and experience their emotions along with them. So when they make their ultimate sacrifices you not only understand, but you feel sympathetic for them and believe in what they are doing. He manages all that, and more, with this film. You feel every death is a great sacrifice and in the end, it gives the conclusion the weight and importance it deserves.

After what some may consider a few missteps, particularly where the Grindhouse movies are concerned, have no fear because Tarantino is back in a big way. When Brad Pitt’s character Lt. Aldo Raine says at the end of the film “I think I’ve made my masterpiece” he could not have characterized Inglourious Basterds more succinctly. This is in every way Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece and proves, once and for all, that he is truly one of the best.

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