'Inglourious Basterds': Rewriting WWII history in an absurd but exhilarating way
Quentin Tarantino's new film is an entertaining, oddball "revenge fantasy" against Hitler, set in World War II France and starring Brad Pitt.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Inglourious Basterds," with Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl, Diane Kruger. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. 152 minutes. Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality. In French, German, Italian and English, with English subtitles.
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"Once upon a time," Quentin Tarantino's new movie begins. He isn't kidding.
Any relationship to historical fact is quickly blown away as Tarantino feverishly imagines a plot to burn down a Parisian theater with a literally captive audience including Hitler and other key Nazis. The attempt to rewrite history is as absurd as it is oddly exhilarating.
Indeed, what Tarantino calls a "revenge fantasy" against Hitler offers a kind of mirror image to Tom Cruise's recent "Valkyrie." While both movies are "what if" tales, Cruise sticks to the facts about the attempts on Hitler's life, while Tarantino cares only about staging an attack on the Führer that will prematurely end World War II.
This extravagantly tall tale begins in 1941 in the French countryside, where a seemingly civilized Nazi colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), casually grills a stone-faced dairy farmer. Eventually he persuades the man to admit that he's been hiding a Jewish family in his cellar, and a massacre takes place.
But the colonel allows one young woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), to escape. Three years later they cross paths in Paris, where she owns and operates a movie theater — and she finds herself being courted by a Nazi war hero (Daniel Brühl) who won't accept an aggressive "no" from her.
Meanwhile, a German actress and undercover agent (Diane Kruger) joins an American lieutenant (Brad Pitt) in a plot to take down the Third Reich in the orphaned girl's theater. The story lines converge in a most theatrical manner, as the lieutenant leads a group of vengeful American-Jewish soldiers, and Shosanna prepares for an inferno fueled by explosive nitrate film.
Partly inspired by Enzo G. Castellari's 1978 movie, "The Inglorious Bastards," Tarantino's script is driven by dialogue-heavy scenes that are often expertly written and staged. The opening farmhouse scene is a tension-filled marvel, and so is the unexpected Paris meeting of Shosanna and her tormentor.
The introduction of Pitt's drawling lieutenant, who might as well have been born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, is a little jarring. He and his cohorts play most of their scenes as light relief, even a graphic murder with a baseball bat, but this epic-length movie would be almost unbearably somber without Pitt's confident comic timing.
The most interesting character is Landa, a brutal smarty who suspects the plot and dreams up a plan of his own. The Austrian-born Waltz plays him as a walking oxymoron — the cultivated Nazi — and the actor runs off with every scene he's in. Pitt, Kruger and Laurent are sometimes left to chew on the rare pieces of scenery he leaves behind.
Movie music plays a significant role on the soundtrack. The pretty, melancholy "Green Leaves of Summer" (from John Wayne's "The Alamo") plays under the opening credits and sets the tone, while David Bowie's "Putting Out Fire" (from the 1982 remake of "Cat People") finds a most appropriate slot much later.
Also essential is Robert Richardson's glorious widescreen cinematography, which gives the entire film a grandeur that raises it above the rather tawdry spectacle of the Castellari original.
Tarantino's wartime fantasies may leave history in the dust, but his movie is a surprisingly satisfying contribution to movies about the Holocaust.
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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