Inglourious Basterds builds cinematic glory out of historical revisionism, ultra violence
Issue date: 9/4/09 Section: Focus
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The film depicts the eponymous group of soldiers known as 'The Basterds' in their attempt to kill as many Nazis as possible. Starring Brad Pitt as mastermind Sgt. Aldo Raine, they ambush Nazi soldiers and cut their way through enemy territory until they stumble upon the opportunity to "catch all their rotten eggs in one basket," a large collection of the German high command. Simultaneously it follows the life of an escaped Jew hiding under a pseudonym in occupied France, who is also caught up in a plot to disrupt the Nazi's military power. These two storylines slowly approach each other until they meet in a climactic finale.
The history itself quickly becomes nothing more than a backdrop for the story, which then itself becomes a backdrop for the atmosphere Tarantino creates. Such an atmosphere is one where suspicion runs deep, and fear even deeper, which perfectly captures the atmosphere of living in Vichy France. The movie immediately puts the audience on edge, graphically portraying the world of constant fear that only a Nazi occupation can manufacture. From there, it doesn't let go, taking three hours to let viewers feel the knots tighten in their stomachs. There are some brief respites when the story gets too involved, but throughout the entire film the attention to detail is immense and the suspense even more so.
The film almost feels like a spaghetti western in the same vein as Sergio Leone's masterwork, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but instead of embracing the vast openness of the wild west it takes a different route and gives viewers a taste of the oppression of war mixed with the claustrophobia living in hiding during the Holocaust. The film's highlight is a stunning performance by Christoph Waltz, who play Colonel Hans Landa. When Inglourious Basterds premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, not only did Waltz garner the award for Best Leading Actor, the only award the movie received, but he made waves as the only American actor to win an award at the festival. His character seems to always be one step ahead, and his cool and unnerving demeanor, apparent from the film's start, is the reason the movie is so harrowing and terrifying.
Even with delightfully subtle acting, Tarantino's brutal overtones aren't left unnoticed, and to an extent, it is upsetting that he has changed history so much that we see the Jewish 'Basterds' performing violence on a level that one usually associates with Nazi death squads, not American soldiers. At the same time, it's hard to be sympathetic to any of the characters in this, let alone any, Tarantino film. This too seems fitting, as there are hardly ever true heroes in war where any praise garnered is usually at the cost of another's life. All in all, the film does not disappoint and leaves audiences cringing for more.