It’s been 65 years since World War II ended. We seem to be more obsessed with it than ever. There are two big reasons for this. First, WWII is the last war we unequivocally won and which had a clear, morally reprehensible enemy. Korea was a tie, Vietnam was a loss, and our only other official war (not currently being fought) — Gulf War I didn’t get rid of the tyrant. It was the last war (not currently being fought) that wasn’t a war of choice. Korea and Vietnam didn’t attack us; we just had to protect the world from communism. Gulf War I was about protecting our allies and sources of oil, no one attacked us. Second, *because* it’s been 65 years, most of the veterans are in their 80s and 90s.
Point one is important because you know everyone will love playing your video game or watching your movies. Who doesn’t want to kick some Nazi butt? It’s always easy to root against evil. But not everyone believes in the reasons for fighting in Vietnam or wants to relive our loss or our atrocities. And point two is important because those who actually participated are likely to be too old to experience your game or movie. A history professor once told me that the real history is written after those who were a part of it are dead. That way they can’t dispute the conclusions of the historian. That may have been a bit of a tongue-in-cheek statement, but there’s a bit of truth to it. It’s part of the reason why the more controversial movies about a war can come out many decades later. People are far enough removed to see shades of grey instead of black and white.
And, so it is, that we’re now able to portray the German side with some positive qualities. Before this would seem unpatriotic or perhaps even get the creator accused of sympathizing with Nazis. But to get to the truth of what happened, it’s necessary to have realistic humans on both sides and that means recognizing intelligent Nazis who were not motivated by evil. They simply had talent and patriotism and wished to serve their country. So we end up with characters like Hans Landa, played wonderfully by Christoph Waltz in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds.
Hans Landa is an SS Col whose job is to locate Jews being hidden by Christians from the Nazis. One gets the sense that Col Landa truly believes that he is, as he tells various people in the movie, not so much a hunter of Jews, but a brilliant detective. And he does indeed succeed in all his on-screen endeavors. His character is clever, witty, and so much fun to watch. He is fluent in German, English, and French and my favorite scene in the movie involves him interacting with another character in French in a cafe in Nazi-occupied France. In fact, in some parts of the movie you even find yourself rooting for him for a second before you realize that everything he represents is abhorrent. In one scene late in the movie, he is confronted by an attempted deception that is pulled off so badly, his character can barely contain himself with how much fun he’s having pretending to be taken in by the ruse. It is my second favorite scene, but it spoils too much to describe it further. But it’s really the sense you get for Col Landa. He is surrounded by idiots who expect him to be taken in by their lame attempts at confusion. He has the playfulness of a cat toying with a mouse, knowing full well that the mouse will end up in his belly when he is done playing.
As I told my brother a few days ago, when I first finished the movie my first thought was “this movie was very unfocused and not about anyone.” The chapters seemed way too disjointed and chaotic for a Quentin Tarantino movie. My second thought was that the movie shouldn’t even have been called Inglourious Basterds because it wasn’t even about The Basterds, a group mostly consisting of Jewish-American soldiers committing what we’d call today acts of terrorism from behind enemy lines. In fact, they state that their main mission is to instill fear into the Nazi ranks in hopes of scaring them into giving up. Secondary to this is their mission to kill people as highly ranked as possible. This is at once both annoyingly deceitful and a brilliant masterstroke. Without the title and the ads focusing on the Basterds, I’m certain that far fewer people would have gone to see the movie. And, once you’re watching the movie, the actual story is so well done that you forget about the deception until after it’s over. I soon realized that Inglourious Basterds is about Shoshana in the way that Star Wars is about Vader.
You see, Inglourious Basterds does not use Tarantino’s crazy chronology to create an interesting story, instead he takes a page from Guy Ritchie or Neal Stephenson and weaves together two separate plots that leave you wondering how in the world they’re going to end up having anything to do with each other until the climax. The thread that ties the story together is Shoshana, a Jewish girl that slips away from Col Handa at the beginning of the movie.
She is living in Paris and running a movie theatre. There, a Nazi war hero is smitten with her. This brings Col Landa back into her life. It also causes a movie to be shown in her theatre which the top Nazis will come to see. This brings the Basterds to her movie theatre. And the movie climaxes and ends.
The movie is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. Nor is it my favorite Tarantino movie. It’s neither as witty as Pulp Fiction nor is the action as fun to watch as Kill Bill. But it is a great movie. All the actors are in their peak in this movie. Brad Pitt is in top form as the leader of the Basterds. It’s my favorite roll for Brad Pitt since Snatch. I already mentioned Christoph Waltz above. Melanie Laurent is does a good job portraying the conflict Shoshana has to deal with, living in occupied France as a secret Jew. Even Mike Meyers does a great job in his cameo role as a British Officer.
I would say this movie is a must-rent if you like any of the following in your movies: action, World War II, or Tarantino. I would strongly consider buying it as it might benefit from a second viewing, but I wouldn’t say it’s a must buy unless you have to own everything Tarantino creates.