We’re nearing the end of this project folks, less than ten more of these to go, and it seems like here in the more recent chapter of the world of cinema I’m going to be given fairly easy problems to solve. There aren’t as many insane competitions, pitting masterpieces together for me to toss and turn over. Instead, we’re getting a lot of years that feature one truly standout film that I completely love, and then a handful of great movies that I like quite a bit, but which don’t really hold a candle to the movie I’m picking. Such as 2009, where I’m going to be picking probably the most obvious choice I could, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Weirdly, this is the first time I’m talking about a Tarantino film during this project, largely thanks to weird coincidences, despite the fact that he’s a director who makes some of my favorite movies. But, 2009 was not a year over-flowing with movies that really and truly hit me, so Basterds didn’t really have a whole lot of competition. There’s still some good stuff to be found, like one of the more quiet and devastating films the Coen Brothers have ever made, A Serious Man. Or, the almost impossible to describe Mary and Max, an animated film that really packs an emotional punch. But, other than that, there are just a lot of movies that are either pretty fun, or that I haven’t seen in almost a decade and really doubt hold up that well. You know, like the Hangover! I’m sure that one doesn’t look too good anymore. Or District 9, which I didn’t even like that much to begin with. I do really enjoy Up, but it’s hard to deny that the movie has some issues that the stellar first act doesn’t completely cover up. And, I’ll nip this in the bud right now, I hate Avatar, have from the beginning, and legitimately can’t understand the appeal that that movie has had, despite the fact that it has left absolutely no cultural impact aside from the fact that people marvel over what little impact it had. Honestly, the movie that maybe comes closest to reaching the top spot is maybe Coraline, a completely beautiful film that I would have been obsessed with if it had come out when I was a kid. But, I decided to go with my heart, and talk about a movie that hit me like a ton of bricks when I first saw it in theaters.
Basterds was a famously long-gestating project for Tarantino. he began work on the film quite a while before it actually came out, near the beginning of the millennium, but found himself getting too wrapped up by it. The script kept getting out of hand, growing longer and more unwieldy with each revision, and it eventually became clear that he needed to do some serious work with it. Especially because he couldn’t quite crack the ending in a way that he worked for him. So, he moved onto working on Kill Bill and eventually Death Proof as part of the Grindhouse project. But, after tinkering with the idea of making the project a mini-series instead (which he frequently considers for his movies) he finally got the project off the ground, and ended up going to his main production company…the Weinstein Company. Yeah, never fun to talk about Weinstein, but he considered the project to have real potential, and ended up setting up an accelerated schedule to get it ready to compete at Cannes, giving Tarantino quite a bit of leeway to make the film he wanted to make. Which, didn’t help with the fact that he had quite a bit of struggles getting the film cast. Several people ended up having scheduling conflicts, such as his initial desire to have Adam Sandler as Donny Donowitz and Simon Pegg as Archie Hicox, but his biggest problem seemed to be casting the role of Hans Landa, a role which required a very specific performance, and would essentially make or break the film. Luckily though, Tarantino found Christoph Waltz, an Austrian actor whose career was largely on the outs in his native country. And, with the film finally cast, and his production schedule accelerated, Tarantino was able to complete the project in time for Cannes, where it seems to have received a mixed reception, with quite a few critics not quite sure what to make of it. But, the public lapped it up, making it Tarantino’s most successful film at that time, and going on to be considered on of his finest films, if not his masterpiece. And it’s clear why, because this movie is terrific.
The film has a very sprawling narrative, with several different parallel plots told in chapters that all come together in the end. And it all begins in 1941, when SS Colonel Hans Landa arrives in Nazi occupied France to interrogate a kindly dairy farmer named Perrier LaPadite. After an initially charming conversation, Landa makes it clear that he knows full well LaPadite is harboring fugitive Jews, and ends up convincing the man to show him their location, leading to the family being executed under LaPadite’s floorboards. However, the eldest daughter Shoshanna is able to escape, fleeing into the woods and surviving. We then hop forward three years, and meet United State Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who has recruited a specifically Jewish-American group of soldiers, having been tasked with going to German and terrorizing the Nazis, enacting brutal killings and generally just serving as massive thorns in the SS’s side. Which, they do quite well. the Basterds, as they’re called, sneak through Germany, killing Nazis and leaving behind survivors with swastika’s carved in their foreheads to mark them forever, and horror stories to spread throughout the army. Which, they do quite well, personally infuriating Adolph Hitler several times, while becoming veritable boogeymen for the German army.
Meanwhile, Shoshanna has found a new life under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux, living in France and operating a small movie theater. Which is how she meets a German soldier named Fredrick Zoller, who becomes instantly obsessed with her, following her around town. Shoshanna attempts to put Zoller off, and in the process learns that he’s a war hero for the Germans, having killed 250 soldiers in a single battle, resulting in him being cast in a propoganda film about his exploits. And, in order to get Shoshanna’s attention, Zoller ends up convincing his director, Joseph Goebbels, to move the films premiere from Berlin to Shoshanna’s theater. Which, puts Shoshanna in close quarters with Goebbels, and more terrifyingly, Hans Landa. Landa doesn’t appear to recognize her though, and he decides to accept the offer to host the premiere. But, not because she’s accepted the Nazis, but to have them in one place so that he can burn the theater down, killing them all in the process. And, as luck would have it, Shoshanna isn’t the only person with that idea. Because, when the British military learns about this premiere the come up with a plan where Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a film critic with an extensive knowledge of German cinema, is to pair up with the Basterds, get to the premiere, and blow the theater up, all thanks to their double agent, a German actress named Bridget von Hammersmark.
Unfortunately, when they get to the agreed upon meeting place, a bar in a cellar, they find things have taken a complicated turn. Because a large group of drunken Nazi soldiers are currently celebrating inside. So, Hicox and two German-born Basterds, Wicki and Stiglitz, are forced to make conversation in the bar. Which is when Hicox’s strange accept draws the attention of a Gestapo agent named Dieter Hellstrom, who begin casually interrogating the group. And, in the process, Hicox ends up unwittingly revealing himself to be a British citizen thanks to a social faux pas, and it results in a gun-fight that kill everyone inside, except for von Hammersmark, who is merely wounded. The Basterds recuse her, and learn that thing have gotten even more intense, because now Hitler and the rest of German high command will be attending. So, they concoct a half-baked excuse that von Hammersmark broke her leg mountain climbing, and head to the premiere. Unfortunately, Hans Landa is quickly able to suss out what’s actually going on, and kills von Hammersmark, while allowing two of the Basterds to take their places in the theater, with their explosives and weapons. However, Aldo is captured and taken away from the theater, brought to a secret location of Landa’s. And, when there, he gives them a compromise. He’s willing to let them pull of their plan and end the war, in exchange for immunity and quite a bit of rewards. Which, the American military agrees to. So, back at the theater, Soshanna is able to pull of her plan, at the same time that the Basterds to. Shoshanna does end up being killed by the scorned and psychotic Zoller, who also dies in the fight, but Shoshanna’s explosion is able to go off at the same time as the Basterds, killing everyone inside, and ending the Third Reich. But, before letting Landa get all the reward, Aldo does what he does best, and carves a swastika into Landa’s forehead so no one will ever forget his deeds.
Inglourious Basterds is one of those movies where I kind of can’t understand why a person wouldn’t find something to like about it. Unless you’re a Nazi I guess, but if that’s the case I don’t give a fuck what you think. Tarantino cockily calls his shot at the end of this film, pondering if it’ll be his masterpiece, and I kind of think it will be remembered as it. It’s a distillation of his entire film-making ethos, boiling down to one of the most insane World War II movies ever made. I generally love everything that Tarantino has ever made, but there’s just something so wonderful about this film, delivering a rollicking action flick, a masterclass in acting both subtle and outrageous, and a great examination of Tarantino’s thoughts on the power of cinema. Yeah, there are some things that you can occasionally wonder about, like what things would have been like if Adam Sandler had taken over the role of Donny, letting that character actually be portrayed by an actor, but it’s hard to imagine the film working any better than it does. It’s a movie that hit me incredibly hard when it came out, just being blown away by essentially every aspect of it. Tarantino is one of those directors that really gets you to appreciate just how many art forms that film-making combines, giving you gorgeous photography, inspired music choices, terrific acting, and acidic dialogue, all coming together in a way that seems effortless to tell a story that’s unforgettable.
Which, you would think would be pretty damned hard. There have been a lot of movies, and stories, about World War II. Hell, we’ve talked about several over the months I’ve been doing this project. So, to come up with a movie set in World War II that does something different seems like a pretty tall order. And, Tarantino accomplished that by throwing history out of the window, and becoming a case of pure escapism and history revisionism. They kill Hitler in this film, literally with the power of story. Yeah, it’s the explosive nature of nitrate film, but it seems very fitting that Tarantino crafted a story where all of these disparate characters come together in a movie theater, and history is changed forever. Tarantino has never been one of those guys that seem obsessed with the idea of storytelling, a Neil Gaiman style creator, but that ends up being my main takeaway from this film. Movies changed history, both in the film and literally. We got to see a Jewish hero laugh triumphantly while a room full of hateful monsters are burned to death, all because she changed the narrative and brought bloody vengeance to them. She took control of the story. And yet, based on the characters who have lived, she will probably be forgotten, her role washed away by those left to tell the story, who had no idea she even existed. Because story is a powerful thing, both positively and negatively.
Inglourious Basterds was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and released by the Weinstein Company, 2009.
Categories: Cinematic Century
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