Oh my God, they killed Hanzel!”

(Written by my son, Andrew)

I feel like the Nazi party is sort of an overused gimmick in action movies. Yes, they were an unequivocally evil group and important to the unfolding of European and world history, but do movie writers really care about that? More often than not, Nazis are portrayed as generic bad guys with silly accents who could just as easily have been replaced with terrorists, space aliens, or particularly belligerent fast food employees with no detriment to the plot. James Bond did this, as did Indiana Jones, so forgive me if the trailer for Inglourious Basterds (misspelled to sound extra American and heroic, I’m sure) set off an invisible cynicism alarm in my head.

But Inglourious Basterds is a movie that requires a clear dichotomy of good and evil, all the better to turn it on its head. This gem of a film is brought to us by Quentin Tarantino of Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill fame, and if those movies are any reference, you could anticipate a non-linear plot, lengthy flowing dialogue, and a cast of characters who, on average, commit three murders before attempting the morning crossword (or Sudoku, those American swine). And you would be right. The plot of Basterds unfolds in five chapters, centering around an elite band of Nazi-killing Jews and the German officer who is trying to stop them. The setting hops around 1940’s France and Germany, so be prepared for plenty of subtitles.

            Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the titular Basterds. This is a man who approaches killing Nazis with the passion and creativity of an artist. He kills them with guns, kills them with bats, kills them with bombs, and watching him lean over a Nazi holding a Bowie knife looks eerily similar to the castration scene from Fight Club, making him resemble a scarier, more Southern Tyler Durden (who Pitt also portrayed, so perhaps Tarantino is throwing us an Easter egg). Don’t let the high body count make you believe this movie wants to be taken too seriously, though. A few characters are introduced with rock music and neon-yellow letters, fulfilling my dream of integrating Nazi war films with Pop-Up Video. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to a couple irrelevant narrations to heighten the VH1 feel, and historical accuracy is shown the door by the end of chapter five. The “did that just happen?” ending is a feat in itself; it forces us to admit that up to this point we had accepted these strange characters with their strange accents and their odd, breezy manner of speaking.

            And oh, does Christoph Waltz shine here. This actor’s portrayal of Hans Landa, a sinister, gentlemanly “Jew hunter” has already landed him an award at Cannes, and it won’t be long before he’s on the Oscar circuit. Here is a villain that doesn’t need a badge or weapons to come off as intimidating; he accomplishes this by being devilishly, menacingly polite. On three separate occasions, when interrogating people on the whereabouts of missing Jews or enemy soldiers, he never once has to raise his voice or use an accusatory tone. Because he knows. And they know he knows. And he knows they know he knows. He just sits, making curt insinuations while smoking a pipe or enjoying some strudel. These encounters were resolved before they even started, and all that’s left is to watch his opponents fold like cards. Waltz works in just enough irony and self-awareness to make this monster of a character very amusing and likeable. As likeable as a Nazi can be, anyway.

            If this movie doesn’t humanize Nazis, it brings everyone else down to their level. There is not one major character who doesn’t commit genocide. We’ll not bother counting all the treason, property damage, and improper restaurant etiquette (I was raised to tip my waitresses even after shooting them dead). And yet, watching a young German officer hit on the lovely French theatre owner is very cute. When Hitler himself complements a film director’s newest release, he is almost brought to tears. Is it wrong that I find this touching? We know who the Basterds are, the movie poster tells us as much. But who are the actual bastards? Claim, defend, and rebuttal all you want, because Tarantino knows what any of his characters would say: they’re the men in the other uniforms.

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