… “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” …
— INGLOuRIOUS BASTARDS
Three driven personalities and three suspenseful story lines, all in collision course toward a hellish and thrilling climax.
Out in the countryside during WWII, early in the German occupation of France, a Jewish girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) is the survivor of a targeted Nazi massacre that wipes out her entire family. Near the end of the war, she seizes the opportunity to carry out a vengeful plot.
Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt), under military orders, heads up a crew of Jewish soldiers organized to terrify Nazi’s with brutal vengeance murders. Raines is the right man for the job: we don’t know the source of his particularly passionate determination to kill Nazis but there are a couple of hints: an ear to ear scar on his neck — somebody taught him some brutal lessons with a knife — and his reference to being part American Indian.
The Nazi Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz in a performance of Academy Award caliber) matches Raines in his own compelling passion — to round up and murder Jews. We think we know him well from his first scene in which he directs the massacre of Shosanna’s family. Still, while the others run true to form, he surprises us. The anomalies, the things he does off-path are intriguing. Why, for instance, does he let Shosanna go free — twice? The subtle emergence of Landa’s personality, specifically of his perverse sexuality and sadism, is one of the features that brings the film to near greatness.
All three of these major characters perpetrate grizzly acts of violence but only one is evil — Colonel Landa. The exploration of the problem of pure evil, and of complicity in evil, is another of the film’s strengths.
Actions in this movie are not only dramatic and compelling but resonate symbolically. Shosanna up on a ladder, doing her job, dusts off one by one the letters on the marquee of her film theater — a purge is in sight.
A close-up focuses on a French pastry as Landa stabs and then, with a deliberate, circular motion, snuffs out his lit cigarette in the whipped cream. How x-rated! How perverse.
Or, in a new take on that age-old sexual symbols (think Cinderella), Landa slips a lost shoe onto the foot of a German actress who’s spying for the British and terrified of being found out; the shoe’s perfect, click into place fit incriminates her, whereupon Landa proceeds to — well, I have to leave out the next part but if you see the movie, you’ll see the relationship to the French pastry. Tarantino uses visual images and symbolic repetitions — and his camera — to great effect.
What, then, keeps Inglourious Basterds from reaching the realm of the great all-time movies? I think it’s too mythic for a film about such recent and well known history. People may be vague about some details of World War II but everybody knows Hitler died in a bunker — not as here. Nor would anybody believe that, with the Americans having invaded France and moving toward Paris, and the end of the war at hand, the entire German High Command would have handed themselves over to the trap this movie sets for them. It didn’t happen like that and it never could have and the movie, even for its own fictional space of time, just can’t overcome that knowledge.
Never mind — it’s the best movie I’ve seen in a long time. The way the war ends in Inglourious Basterds departs from history but grimly, perversely, humorously, it satisfies ones sense of justice restored, barely and at great cost. That’s real.