2009. Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
The lady who handed me my ticket asked me, why do they call them “Inglourious Basterds”? I knew there was a 1970s movie with the same name, but I wasn’t completely sure whether this was one of those Tarantino homages — like how his film company is named A Band Apart, or how Sonny Chiba appears in Kill Bill as a past-his-prime samurai sword artisan. So I muttered, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the movie yet — maybe they’re like the Dirty Dozen?
I wasn’t too far off. The men who make up the Basterds don’t have chestfuls of medals, but their Jewish heritage for motivation. As their commander Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) informs them, they have one mission when it comes to Nat-zees: “They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed.” And Lt. Raine’s plays his own heritage — a Tennessee-born Apache — for shock value by demanding that his unit scalp the German soldiers, with the goal of inflicting fear throughout the German Army. Those who resist giving information meet “the Bear Jew” (director Eli Roth in a nasty role) who totes along a much-dented baseball bat. Those who are spared after giving up German positions are released, after a painful branding.
Pitt doesn’t have all that many lines as Lieutenant Raine, but he makes nearly every one of them memorable. As does his counterpart, Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, the one they have taken to calling the “Jew hunter.” Charged with rounding up the few remaining Jewish families in occupied France, Landa enjoys his life and his mission, toying with everyone in his path, always seeming to interrogate even when conducting a simple conversation. An opening scene portrays him at his best, already knowing the answers he tortuously cajoles from a farmer.
Tarantino again employs multiple story lines to draw us into the film’s conclusion set in, of all places, a theater. The owner with a mysterious past (Melanie Laurent, my new favorite actress) is ordered by German authorities to host the premiere of a propaganda film seen as high art by the Nazi brass, and begins to plan the welcome she has in mind for the sawed-off asshole with the familiar mustache.
Inglourious Basterds is bloody, talky and long, and filled with little moments that make you cringe and laugh — just like every other Tarantino movie I’ve seen. And like the Dirty Dozen, the Basterds — introduced with the spaghetti-western strings of Ennio Morricone — take their mission to heart.
There was a website I found years ago that posted ridiculous screenplay pitches (unfortunately, the site has passed on, I believe), half of which involved time travel specifically for the purpose of killing Hitler. As Charles Bronson fans know, there’s nothing so satisfying as a revenge fantasy, and the Nazis are a much-deserving enemy. As Lieutenant Raine points out, they sure are anxious to get out of those uniforms when the world turns against them. Inglourious Basterds is a good reminder of what to do if they pop their heads up again.