Inglourious Basterds

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

16 April

Colditz liberated, 1945

On this day in 1945, the infamous Colditz Castle PoW camp was relieved by the US Army.

Dating back nearly a thousand years, though extensively rebuilt in the 19th century, the castle had been a workhouse, a mental asylum and a sanitarium for the well-to-do before being pressed into service as a prison for high security captives during the Second World War – often people who had broken out of other prisons.

Known as Oflag IV-C, it is the source of many myths and stirring stories about escape attempts during the Second World War. It was a camp for officers (the Of of Oflag stands for Offizier) but also became the home to what might be called celebrity prisoners – two nephews of the King of England, the son of WW1 notable Field Marshal Haig, the son of the viceroy of India etc etc.

Undoubtedly their presence helped protect the other inmates, who were treated strictly according to the Geneva Convention – attempts at escape (of which there were many) were punished with spells in solitary rather than summary execution.

Prisoners also received Red Cross parcels, which often meant they were eating better than their guards. Other notable inmates included David Stirling (founder of the SAS) and Desmond Llewellyn, who would later get James Bond out of awkward situations as Q.

Inglourious Basterds (2009, dir: Quentin Tarantino)

The opening sequence of Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s war movie, tells us a lot about what is to follow. Having led into it with some jokey Hogan’s Heroes-style intro credits – including “guest star” nods – Tarantino opens with a shot that immediately evokes The Sound of Music, all sun and alpine meadows, before moving into a long sequence in which Christoph Waltz’s extremely cultured, smart Nazi officer Hans Landa (aka “the Jew Hunter”) has an affable chat with a farmer.

Some time early on in the chat the language the two men are using switches from German to English, as often happens during these sort of films – who wants to watch acres of subtitling, after all? All appears to be normal in the Tarantino universe – pastiche is being delivered by a master of this sort of thing. But by the end of this sequence something else has happened. We’re not in the gentle knockabout of Hogan’s Heroes, the guitar-strumming nun is nowhere to be seen and the shift from German to English has been for a reason entirely to do with plot, not audience-pleasing.

The tension-ometer has gone from a gentle green to a steaming red, Waltz’s horrible true nature has been fully revealed. The farmer has been duped. And so has the audience.

It is a masterstroke, partly because Waltz is so good at delivering Tarantino’s beautifully modulated script (it’s so good, in fact, that QT essentially delivered the same opening, by the same actor, in Django Unchained), but mostly because Tarantino has reinforced our expectations of what he is about to deliver, and then confounded them.

The scene is set for a war movie that tries to have its cake and eat it throughout, giving us what you might call classic Tarantino, and then pulling back to suggest something more.

That something more is seriousness. And though Tarantino can’t help himself here and there with his playful cutaways (we learn how flammable nitrate film is, by god), there’s something about the Second World War that seems to bring out the earnest in the man.

Revenge is the theme, whether delivered by Mélanie Laurent (one of the Jews the dairy farmer was harbouring) or by Brad Pitt (with Clark Gable moustache and swagger as one of the vigilante Basterds) and Tarantino serves it over five clearly delineated, often spaghetti western-flavoured chapters, each one almost a movie in its own right, building towards two assassination attempts on the German high command. In a cinema, Tarantino’s theatre of operations.

Why Watch?

  • The cast includes Michael Fassbender and a revelatory Diane Kruger
  • A-list cinematographer Robert Richardson
  • Subtitles – lots of them
  • The soundtrack – Ennio Morricone to Lalo Schifrin and Ray Charles to David Bowie

Inglourious Basterds – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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