After a heavy dose of freewheeling, sleaze-cinema fun in “Death Proof,” Quentin Tarantino instantly delivers one of his most frightening, uncomfortable, ambitious interactions. “Inglourious Basterds,” his World War II epic, rewrites how the European Theater was won.
Let’s talk about that opening scene. The film opens with dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite chopping wood somewhere in occupied France, as a small SS convoy drives up the road, searching for Jews hiding in the area. Led by Col. Hans Landa, played incisively by Christoph Waltz, the group of Nazis stops at the farmer’s house to interrogate him.
Several rounds of cat-and-mouse psychological warfare follow as the cunning, wicked, multi-lingual Landa breaks LaPadite down, extracting information and then executing innocent people without feeling. In Landa’s mind, he’s a detective. To almost everyone else, he’s a monster.
It’s almost indescribable what Waltz brings to Landa. The character spends so much time toying with people, manipulating their emotions, never showing his hand until he has to. And Waltz has the presence needed to sell it — even when Landa appears to be polite, you can see the diabolical wheel spinning in his brain, processing how he’s going to achieve his checkmate. There’s a dazzling complexity to the character, and I’ve always been fond of how Waltz describes bringing Landa alive to Charlie Rose:
“To what aim and to what goals does a person employ the usage of language? What level does he communicate? Is it just verbalization of necessities, or is he actually using language to actually put ideas into other people’s minds? Is language something that creates a reality, or is language something that adapts to reality? I think, you know, Quentin being a poet uses language to create, so this character does the same thing.”
At the scene’s climax a young girl, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), escapes the Nazi slaughter, running to a nearby woods. Her story picks up four years later. She now owns and operates a theater in Paris. And when the Nazis want to host a premiere there, with all the high-ranking party members in attendance, she plots to burn down the theater, and the Germans with it.
Unbeknownst to her, the Allies also want in on that action, so they drop in the mad-dog, nazi-scalping guerilla fighters known as The Basterds, led by charismatic Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), along with baseball-bat wielding Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the wild-eyed Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). The Basterds go behind enemy lines to meet up with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) a German movie star turned American informant in order to sneak into the theater. On the night of the screening, the players converge, resulting in a mess of carnage and an alternative ending to the downfall of the Third Reich.
World War II is easily one of the most studied and fawned over conflicts in human history, and rewriting the ending is a dangerous game to play, but Tarantino does it with impact and grace, avoiding getting too informational or sentimental about it, and just using his alternative universe as a vehicle for revenge. For having somewhat bloated scenes, where the long-form dialogue builds tension, the plot never feels convoluted. And when the crescendo hits, it bleeds with chaos, payback and conviction.
After spending the “Kill Bill” and “Death Proof” eras indulging in his influences, Tarantino returned to arthouse form with “Inglourious Basterds,” a stunning gamble that paid off big time. It’s a daring film that’s not perfect, but it broadened the scope of a writer-director known for telling isolated tales of the criminal underbelly. It seems like a movie that could have gone wrong in all kinds of ways, but with a strong, careful plot, paired with magnificent, haunting acting, Inglourious Basterds gleams with left-field originality, relentless violence and the sort of tension that sticks with you.
And of course, Tarantino had a secret weapon: dropping Christoph Waltz on Hollywood.