It’s a real quandary – how do you reinvent the war film, especially one that centers around Hitler, the Nazis, and the so-called “greatest generation”? For the most part, we all know the most intimate details of what happened. Indeed, when the History Channel and various other Discovery subsidiaries make their entire reputation out of giving you every nook, cranny, and complaint about the Allies, the Axis, and the various and sundry players in between, it’s hard not to. Hollywood spent the better part of the ‘50s and ‘60s reinterpreting the events at Normandy, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the last gasp unholy Hail Mary of the atomic bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In between, the Swastika has become a shortcut for all encompassing evil, as well as a mark for easy enemy recognition and narrative villainy.
So the question comes again – how do you bring something new to World War II when everything is more or less known and knotted over? Well, if you’re Quentin Tarantino, the post-post modern mastermind of such brilliant cinematic deconstructions as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, you simply ignore history. Instead, you take the reality of the European theater in 1943, add in several conspiracies regarding the Fuhrer, film itself, and a fiery band of ass-kicking Jewish soldiers, and turn it into the ultimate expression of warcraft wish fulfillment. No one will ever argue that Inglourious Basterds is factually accurate. Heck, it’s not even reverent to the source title it’s stealing from (an entertaining Italian effort from the mid ‘70s). Instead, Tarantino is rewriting the rulebook in every regard – spiritually, situationally, and most importantly, symbolically.
As the recently released Blu-ray reveals, Inglourious Basterds is, in actuality, an elaborate hoax, a farce founded on the notion that one well crafted cabal – and a glib Gestapo officer willing to sell out to secure his place in the post-war world – can lead to a fantasy finale with the leader of the Third Reich ripe for assassination. All throughout the bonus material, Tarantino suggests that he was making the movie he wanted to see as a kid, with the Allies as anti-fascist superheroes, fierce fighting marauders righting the moral compass with fists, knives, and rapid fire automatic weaponry. Sure, it may all seem like a lark, the high spirits of a creative infant with too much time, money, chutzpah, and reputation to do anything small or simple. Indeed, if you look beyond the surface and remove all the inaccuracies, you’ll see something as true to the varying policies and philosophies involved as any WWII documentary.
There are at least five separate storylines at play here, each one seemingly unrelated but actually set up to smash into each other with cataclysmic precision. One revolves around famed “Jew Hunter” Capt. Han Landa and his attempt to clean Occupied France of its ‘Juden’ problem once and for all. Another has one of the few to evade him, Shosanna Dreyfus, hiding out in a Paris movie theater. With the help of her assistant/lover, she intends to hijack a screening of a famous propaganda film, using the occasion to kill hundreds of Nazis with a well-placed bomb. Then we have American Aldo Raine and his band of Jewish soldiers. Like Landa, they scour the countryside, terrorizing their targets – in this case, German soldiers. Finally, England decides to send one of their newest spies – a former actor – into the fray, hoping to hook-up with a turncoat Berlin actress who is sympathetic to the Allies cause. With her help, they plan on getting as close to the Fuhrer as possible, and end his redolent reign of terror once and for all.
As one of 2009’s best films, Inglourious Basterds remains a singular vision of mind-bogglingly delicious design. If Tarantino’s motives were to inspire the long dormant bloodlust of a nation that didn’t get the chance to nab “the bad guys’ before Nuremburg and a Lugar’s bullet rendered its own inert justice, he’s succeeded in unexpected spades. It’s the kind of film that gets your heart rate up, that pumps your adrenalin as it stokes your already hefty genre reference points. As he did with his Hong Kong homage Kill Bill (Vol.1 & 2), the filmmaker finds a way to make the vast catalog of modern moviemaking work for him. The materials with Shosanna and the Parisian cinema is all natty ’50s New Wave and intellectualized form deconstruction. Raine and his band of Hebrew brothers reminds one of every John Wayne workout made by an apologist studio system. The UK scenarios sizzle with a kind of celebrated ‘60s swing, while the sequences with Landa are direct reminders of the unfathomable hideousness that one human being can inflict (or imply to inflict) on each other.
By combining so many different facets, Tarantino does more than tell a tale. He manufactures myth. He creates a whole new reality, revitalizing the genre and the genre types in the process. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is so universally amazing, especially when it come to the two main male leads. Christoph Waltz, as Jew Hunter Landa, is so spellbinding, so slyly wicked and worrisome, that when he thwarts expectations in the third act, you kick yourself for not seeing his subterfuge earlier. Indeed, what Waltz does is so defining, so undeniably engaging and entertaining, that you find yourself rooting for the bad guy – in this case, a very, very bad guy. He’s not the villain you love to hate – he’s the rogue whose so malfeasant he’s magnificent!
Brad Pitt also sparkles as Raine, a remote Southern dandy (from Tennessee) who allows his gentlemanly accent to cover-up an equally vicious streak. He and the other ‘Basterds’ are not so much a force to be reckoned with as a means of addressing the Holocaust without showing mass graves or billowing smockstacks. As he reads his victims the riot act, explaining to them the rationale behind his men’s sadistic means of revenge, we feel the anger. We recognize the mean-spirited mischief, especially when Pitt stares directly at the camera and give a sinister little smirk. As the yin to Landa’s far more determinative yang, both represent the extremes of war – the inability to uncover the enemy even in the face of their colors. It’s these contrasts, and the various clockwork mechanics within the actual plotting, that make Inglourious Basterds so special.
With its behind the scenes significance, the bevy of material meant to contextualize Tarantino’s approach, the Inglourious Blu-ray is excellent – with one small exception…there’s no commentary. That’s right, the man more than happy to riff on Edgar Wright’s Spaced series, or Eli Roth’s Hostel films, but apparently felt his wicked war romp needed no discussion – at least, not now. And that’s a shame. When a movie is as ambitious and audacious as this, when it practically dare you to defy its brilliance, it more or less mandates a few words from the artist. The home video format may simply be a substitute for sitting in a theater full of cretins, but it’s also a medium for preservation. Perhaps after the necessary Oscar run (Waltz especially), a revamped “Ultimate Edition” will find the filmmaker talking. When faced with the daunting task of addressing antiquity head on, Quentin Tarantino found a fresh way of converting the legitimate into legend. Inglourious Basterds is a masterstroke of mischief.