Inglourious Basterds | Movie review
Detractors have always pegged Tarantino as a precocious fanboy who sees everything through the scrim of his video-store fantasies. Certainly, anyone who subscribes to that view is smacking his or her lips over the idea of Inglourious Basterds, in which QT has the temerity to apply his pastiche style to a serious subject.
But Inglourious Basterds is less about World War II than about World War II movies—or more broadly, how movies can be used to rewrite history. Right from its misspelled title—taken, with little else, from the 1978 Dirty Dozen knockoff The Inglorious Bastards—it’s clear Tarantino’s story unfolds in an alternate reality.
The first chapter of Inglourious Basterds begins “once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France,” situating us in Sergio Leone territory (with a few of Pearl Harbor’s billowing-laundry shots thrown in). The multilingual Col. Hans Landa (instant star Waltz) visits a French farmer and, in the first of the movie’s many language-based deceptions, tricks him into revealing the location of the Jews hiding underneath his floorboards. Words matter, and Landa turns out to be particularly concerned with how history will record his actions.
The family’s lone survivor, Shoshanna (Laurent), hides in Paris, running a movie theater that amusingly programs Henri-Georges Clouzot’s anti-collaborationist allegory Le Corbeau alongside G.W. Pabst and Arnold Fanck’s Nazi-appropriated mountain drama The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Shoshanna is forced to host the premiere of a new Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, and plans a revenge that involves igniting a stash of nitrate film. Indeed, Basterds extends the metaphor to posit moviemaking as an explosive act.
Meanwhile, a parallel sabotage plot unites British military intelligence with a team of ragtag Jewish American soldiers led by Pitt’s uproariously twangy Lt. Aldo Raine; in the film’s most outlandish conceit, his platoon travels the countryside scalping Nazis in a self-proclaimed “Apache resistance.” (The group is also likened to the insurgency in The Battle of Algiers.) Basterds proceeds methodically from genre to genre—Western, war drama, spy film, propaganda—to show us how movies have interpreted the past.
Tarantino is, of course, perfectly conscious of the fact that his film plays like a revenge fantasy; in a pointed line, a character says Goebbels thinks Nation’s Pride will be his masterpiece, just as Tarantino signals Basterds will be his own. But Inglourious Basterds is hardly, like Paul Verhoeven’s equally invigorating Black Book, an exercise in relativism; rather, it’s a celebration of cinema’s cathartic, at times dangerously influential power. It’s also a hugely enjoyable homage to the way Hollywood spun the war even as it happened.
For all its originality, this hall of mirrors is the closest Tarantino has come to making a film with old-fashioned, movie-movie appeal. There won’t be a scene this year as tense as Basterds’s extraordinary 20-minute centerpiece, in which double agent/movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger) and disguised film critic Archie Hicox (Hunger’s Fassbender, doing a dead-on Trevor Howard) try to convince a tavern full of Nazis of their allegiances. (The sequence now begins less smoothly than it did at Cannes, thanks to the addition of an expositional scene before it.)
This is the type of suspense one finds in Hitchcock’s Notorious, while Landa’s dialogue about his nickname (“the Jew Hunter”) seems a direct nod to “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” in To Be or Not To Be. Although some have dismissed Basterds as talky, boring, or worse, mismarketed—charges once leveled at Jackie Brown—it’s only digressive in a way we’ve come to expect from Tarantino, who deftly interweaves comedy and danger.
Kill Bill circled back to complicate our feelings on revenge; the more elegantly interwoven Basterds goes deeper, functioning both as glossy epic and filmed film criticism. It offers ample proof of Tarantino’s capacity to grow as an artist, even if it’s not growth in a direction that everyone will like. Inglourious basterd, indeed.