Is there anything more insidious than a polite villain? Their carefully cultivated manners completely shielding their disturbing ulterior motives. Their slickly charming personalities purposefully concealing the ugly truth. Their compliments masking their hateful hearts.
In Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, no one is more polite that Col. Hans Landa, a Nazi officer who prides himself on his superb detective work. In the slow burning opening scene (set on a hot day in 1941) he is eager to meet with a French dairy farmer. The audience is very aware of why he’s there. So is the farmer and his three grown daughters.
But the Colonel is crafty. He’s incredibly well-mannered, friendly to a fault. He speaks fluent French in an attempt to quickly ingratiate himself with this understandably worried foursome. He asks for a glass of fresh milk, guzzles it down in one shot and offers generous praise for its quality. Then, he politely suggests that the daughters step outside so the two men can speak privately.
Col. Landa is trying to locate a missing Jewish family, another set of local farmers, in this area of Nazi-occupied France. They’re the only ones unaccounted for. The farmer knows exactly where they are but keeps his cool.
Direct questions are asked. Short answers are given. At one point, Landa suddenly declares that he’d prefer to conduct the rest of the meeting in English. The farmer, who can speak it himself, is agreeable to the change.
Then the devilish Colonel turns philosophical about what animals remind him of Jews & Germans and as he speaks, it’s clear that beneath his artificially convivial tone lies a depravity that is highly observant. He already knows the farmer is harbouring this missing family. And more importantly, he knows exactly where they are.
What happens next is nothing short of stunning. Even more shocking, one gets away.
That’s a hell of a way to begin what is essentially a hyper-violent, heavily fictionalized World War II revenge fantasy that cares not a lick for the Geneva Conventions. Inglourious Basterds isn’t remotely interested in being realistic nor anti-war or even pro-war, for that matter. What it is interested in is reimagining a famous global conflict in a way far more suited for a lawless western than the real world. And it does so brilliantly. As of this writing, this is Quentin Tarantino’s finest film to date.
The sole survivor of the opening massacre, Shosanna (a highly sympathetic Melanie Laurent), manages to alter her appearance persuasively enough to blend in as a striking, blonde moviehouse owner in Paris with her loyal black boyfriend/projectionist, Marcel (African actor Jacky Ido making the most of his limited screen time), assisting her all the way. One night in June 1944, while she’s in the process of changing the marquee, an over confident Nazi private (Daniel Bruhl who’s very good here) attempts to befriend her by talking about movies. Deeply disgusted by all things Nazi, she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt or finish putting up the title of the new movie that will start playing tomorrow. Curiously, Private Zoller doesn’t seem to get the message. Or more precisely, he doesn’t care. To him, this is foreplay before the inevitable conquest.
The next day, while she’s reading in a local pub, Zoller spots her in the window and comes inside. Dreading yet another encounter with him, she gets a bit of a breather from the determined marksman when he encounters a few, excitable autograph seekers. As Zoller explains to the increasingly disinterested Shosanna (who uses the pseudonym Emmanuelle for obvious reasons), he spent three days in a sniper tower knocking off hundreds of Allied soldiers. On the fourth day, the survivors retreated.
Recognizing the potential propaganda value of such an achievement, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels (the appropriately sleazy Sylvester Groth) commissioned a film version of his story, Nation’s Pride, with Zoller cast as himself. Absolutely revolted, Shosanna blows him off yet again and storms out of the pub.
But Zoller remains undeterred. Soon after, while back up the ladder to finish changing the marquee title from the previous night, Shosanna is ordered into an arriving Nazi vehicle and taken to a restaurant where Zoller just happens to be having lunch with Goebbels and his translator/mistress. The Nazis are planning to have a big premiere party for Nation’s Pride and Zoller wants the location changed from the Ritz to Shosanna’s theatre even though there are far fewer seats and only a couple of opera boxes available. This movie is such a big deal Hitler himself is expected to attend.
An initially reluctant Goebbels ends up being agreeable to the change on one condition. He wants a private screening at Shosanna’s theatre first.
Meanwhile, we learn about Operation Kino. The British have turned a famous German actress, the glamourous, absurdly named Bridget van Hammersmark (Diane Kruger in a fine performance) into a spy who knows a whole lot about the Nation’s Pride premiere. The plan is to have her sneak three allied soldiers (dressed in tuxedos) into the theatre with her: one passing as her escort, the other two as German propaganda filmmakers. Once inside, they plan to blow the place up, as the movie plays, with all the major Nazi Party members in attendance. Essentially, if they succeed with this important mission, the war is over.
What van Hammersmark and the allies don’t know is that Shosanna and Marcel already have a similar plan in motion, one far less risky than the one the military has come up with.
Unfortunately, van Hammersmark is, at best, an inexperienced amateur as she meets with her allied contacts in a basement bar filled with unfriendlies. (They were expecting more privacy.) A whole series of unforeseen events leads to vintage Tarantino, a highly tense stand-off that effectively forces a major change of plans. It would not be out of place in The Wild Bunch.
That major change of plans involves American Lt. Aldo Raine (a very hammy but highly effective Brad Pitt) and a couple of his men becoming more important players in the dangerous scheme. Collectively nicknamed the Basterds and made up entirely of pissed off renegade Jewish soldiers, they’re out for Nazi scalps. Literally. One wonders if they’ve ever been reprimanded for their actions.
Clocking in at a little over two and a half hours, Inglourious Basterds is a patiently told yet extremely entertaining pseudo-duster masquerading as a World War II epic. The violence is justifiably intense but thankfully not as graphic as it was in the disappointing Kill Bill Vol. 1. At times, it’s also very funny, with the humour rightfully kept to a necessary minimum. All in all, it is quite gripping.
There aren’t enough superlatives in the English language to satisfactorily praise Christoph Waltz in what must be the most challenging performance of his entire career. Consider what he achieves as the despicable, conniving Col. Landa. He confidently walks a fine line between mastering the art of social graces in both calm and tense situations, almost always being two steps ahead of everybody else he encounters, and ordering or personally unleashing sudden jolts of calculated violence. He has to seamlessly shift from speaking German to French to English and back again, not to mention demonstrating a smattering of Italian as well, without it ever looking like he’s struggling and without it ever becoming a noticeable distraction. And, when the script calls for it, he has impeccable comic timing, too. Has there ever been a more hardworking Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner?
Brad Pitt chews up big chunks of the French scenery with his exaggerated Tennessee accent but considering the type of story Tarantino wants to tell here it’s oddly appropriate. His best moment is his first when he delivers a terrific speech to rally his fellow Basterds into Nazi-scalpin’ mode. I don’t think anyone else could’ve pulled this off as convincingly.
Of all the other wonderful performers I could single out for praise here the great Michael Fassbender is one who cannot go unmentioned. The Teutonic actor is brilliant as a British officer who speaks flawless German but like George Costanza with the Van Buren Boys, he needs to be more cautious with his gang signs.
Yes, maybe it’s a bit of a stretch that the Nazis would put themselves in such a vulnerable position by having a private screening in a theatre run by a mixed-race couple that hasn’t really been properly vetted. But in a way, it also makes sense. The Nazis in this film have egos so inflated not only do they not expect the occupied French to ever mount any kind of a resistance against them, they also don’t expect the allied forces to ever successfully infiltrate their ranks, either. (On the rare occasion where it does happen, Col. Landa is their trump card. But he’s not perfect. Or, as it turns out, entirely trustworthy.) And what better way to celebrate their untouchable “superiority” than to live vicariously through a recreation of Private Zollo’s most famous moment on the battlefield?
But, as with all empires built on the dead bodies of the innocent, the Nazis’ undying faith in their own military supremacy permanently blinds them to the unmentionable possibility that unchecked arrogance is their ultimate Achilles’ heel.
(Special thanks to Dave Scacchi.)
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, December 20, 2013