Inglourious Basterds is the latest film from Quentin Tarantino. On the surface, you would think that Tarantino’s filmmaking sensibilities wouldn’t fit with a period setting, but surprisingly they do. The movie has been advertised as a “men on a mission” movie, which it is, in part. But the trailers and commercials don’t reveal what the film is truly about, and that was probably intentional. Tarantino uses his usual bag of tricks to great effect; smart dialogue, long tense scenes, disjointed story and anachronistic music choices that work disturbingly well with the film’s Second World War setting.
Spoilers to follow.
The film is barely about the eponymous basterds; the secret American unit killing Nazis (and how!) in occupied France. Brad Pitt is really funny in the film, he plays a very effective mean Southern ‘basterd’. Eli Roth doesn’t act often, but his absolutely over the top role as “The Bear Jew” works beautifully. As for the rest of the basterds, they’re all great… they just aren’t in the movie that much. Michael Fassbender is German, but he plays a surprisingly convincing aristocratic basterd from England. Til Schweiger is awesome as Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz, a German soldier with a hatred of his superiors, particularly the Nazi ones. Schweiger and Fassbender are the only basterds who are given any kind of back story in the film. You’ll find yourself wanting to know more about the other basterds, but their mysterious reputation makes them all the more interesting to watch on screen. The basterds are to this film what Harry Lime was to The Third Man; the whole film is spent talking about them, when you finally do see them on screen they can’t help but deliver on their reputation.
The real stars of the movie are not any of the basterds. One is the young Parisian cinematheque owner played by French actress Mélanie Laurent, Every time she was on the screen I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Her motivations in the film are the purest, her actions the most justifiable. The other star of the movie is the Gestapo “Jew Hunter” played Austrian actor by Christoph Waltz. He turns in such a hilarious and disturbing performance that I found myself loving the character, despite the fact he was such a horrific human being.
One of the central scenes of the film is a tense standoff in a bar. Tarantino ratchets up the tension over the course of the 20 minute scene. You as the viewer, know that something really bad is going to happen in this scene. But every time it seems that the jig is up, Tarantino screws with the audience; extending their discomfort even longer. The carnage that follows ends up being a huge sigh of relief for the viewer.
The finale of the film pays no attention to what actually happened during the Second World War. Hitler, Goebbels, Goring… they all get their just desserts and go out in such an obscenely violent manner that the entire audience cheered! In some ways Inglourious Basterds is basically a “What if you could kill Hitler? movie”. Tarantino being Tarantino gives him a death that only he could deliver. The Fuhrer and his commanders die as a result of a highly flammable stack of 35mm reels, explosives and a hail of bullets. The film is not without a sense of irony. There is something very perverse about seeing a theatre full of people (Nazi or otherwise), being slaughtered and burned alive, when you yourself are sitting in a theatre.
I was so happy to see a Second World War film where every respective nationality spoke their own language. In fact the communication breakdown caused by the different languages plays an integral role in the film. Whenever German or French characters speak English in the film, there is a very clear cut reason that serves the story. Again, something not advertised is that most of the film is subtitled.
And how do Tarantino’s endless pop cultural references work in a period movie? Well, they’re all still there, but they’re contemporary to the time period. Referencing films, novels, actors, authors, directors, etc. from the 1920’s and 30’s. It was so interesting to see characters perform Tarantino’s trademark monologues referencing movies from the pre-war film industry in Germany. Unless you’re familiar with Pabst and other filmmakers of the time it won’t mean much to you, but it still fits in the context of the film.
Inglourious Basterds like Tarantino’s other films is a ridiculous pastiche of multiple genres. Spagetthi westerns, mission movies like The Dirty Dozen, exploitation movies and war time propaganda films; I would expect no less from him. Basterds is not only a good Tarantino movie, it’s also a pretty damn good movie period. Tarantino obviously agrees with me; the film’s audacious final line is “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”. The man has balls, there’s no discounting that.
Listen for funny cameos from Samuel L. Jackson and Harvey Keitel, but you’ll have to pay attention to catch Keitel.
The film is not long-winded like Death Proof, or too action packed like Kill Bill Vol. 1. Inglourious Basterds is easily Quentin Tarantino’s most balanced and entertaining film since Pulp Fiction.