Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cinema 2009: Brad Pitt the Nazi Slayer

For a romp through Nazi-occupied France, albeit one subject to intermittent ultraviolence, check out Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" from 2009.

Brad Pitt plays American Army officer "Apache" Aldo, the leader of a band of bloodthirsty brothers — Jewish G.I.'s on a Nazi-killing mission behind enemy lines three years before D-Day. The movie's conceit is that a backwoodsman with a Bowie knife can derail the Nazi war machine.

"Inglourious Basterds" opens to the soundtrack of a spaghetti Western on steroids. Repeatedly throughout the movie Tarantino emphasizes the musical score by cranking up the volume or extending the music after a dramatic point has been made. It's a way of camping up a movie whose content — the Holocaust, a pair of G.I. suicide bombers — if taken too seriously by audiences might be expected to reduce box office.

Still movie violence here cannot be considered gratuitous, given the historical legacy of those jackbooted fascists. At the same time, Tarantino's film never takes itself too seriously, which allows some comic relief along the way, and plenty of just plain relief at the sight of dead or maimed Nazis.

Most of the main characters border on caricature, Aldo is a hilljack from Tennessee who is viscerally outraged by Nazis, although you have to wonder how big that demographic was in 1941. Christoph Waltz, an accomplished Austrian actor, won the Oscar for his portrayal of SS Col. Landa, sent to France by order of the Fuehrer to hunt Jews. Landa typifies the aristocratic sadist. Daniel Brühl plays young Zoller, the virginal Nazi hero. Zoller's wrongheaded enthusiasm is as pathetic as it is common throughout history.

In the film's most dramatic role, Mélanie Laurent plays Shosanna, a French Jew hiding in occupied Paris under an assumed name and operating a local movie house.

Worth of mention is Sylvester Groth's portrayal of Goebbels, Hitler's second-in-command, and a first-rate template for a piece of garbage. Groth captures the sycophantic/egotistical dynamic of the Nazi propaganda minister.

Tarantino includes brilliant cinematic flourishes to convey the evil of the Nazis. In one particularly evocative scene, Tarantino gives us close-ups of Landa's practiced hand movements as the SS officer refills a fountain pen before recording the names and ages of a Jewish family he is set to destroy. On the surface it is an image one would associate with enlightenment and education — here it highlights calculated barbarity. In one interrogation scene, laden with sexual subtext, Landa loses his cool and pounces on his female victim in a classic example of the impotent sadist's subconscious switch from sex to violence.

A similar scene occurs when Zoller's attention to Shosanna threatens to derail her plot to kill Nazi leaders. The young Nazi war hero drops sweet pretense and reveals his piggish character. Shosanna pretends to give in to his desires, but in the end Zoller — proclaimed as the pride of the Nazis — is just another limp meanie with nothing more than a Lueger in his trousers.

Tarantino also creates images in the expressionistic tradition. When Shosanna readies herself for the climactic showdown, she completes her ensemble by arranging the veil from a hat over her face, caught up as she is in a combined web of fate and will.

There is plenty of great dialog throughout the movie, including the Tarantino trademark of digressive discourse — at one point Aldo schools a German soldier on the real meaning of a Mexican standoff.

Much of the film is in German or French, spoken by native speakers instead of speech-coached American actors, which pleased this polyglot. German actress Diane Kruger, well known for starring opposite Nick Cage in the National Treasure movies, plays a German movie star and spy who supports the Allies. In one scene as Aldo's men scramble to come up with a Plan B, Kruger’s character asks them, "Can you Americans speak any other languages?" They reply with typical Yankee exaggeration, laying false claim to some Italian, which sets up one of the funniest scenes in the movie.

Finally, the story has more than enough plot to keep it interesting and you can count on Tarantino to make it all converge with "inglourious" symmetry.

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