With that, the revenge fantasy known as Inglourious Basterds begins its rollicking romp across the silver screen. A wildly re-imagined take on World War II, with a healthy dose of being a Dirty Dozen throwback, the movie builds to a tale of how the movies help end the war. Quentin Tarantino (Grindhouse) plays once more in his familiar palette of a deep knowledge of genre movies and a love of pop culture. From the previews, we know that eight Jewish-American soldiers, led by Brad Pitt’s Tennessee-twanging Lt. Aldo Raine, are off to kill some Nazis. Yet that doesn’t do service to the sprawling storyline of the movie.
“Let’s discuss the prospect of ending the war tonight.” –Landa
Inglourious Basterds is divided into five “chapters” and has a Sergio Leone, spaghetti western vibe to it. From the opening sequence, the notorious Nazi “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who even in asking for a glass of milk manages to both charm and terrorize, sets the precedent of wrestling this movie from Brad Pitt. When either is on the screen, the movie takes on an entirely lively bounce.
In the less compelling, but thematically important, storyline, a member of a Jewish family, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), survives one of Landa’s massacres and comes to own a cinema. She endures the unwelcome advances of Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who is in Paris for the red carpet roll out of the biopic of his wartime exploits, “Nation’s Pride” (in which he also stars). She then has to suffer the company of the infamous Nazi propagandist, Dr. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) as her cinema becomes the site of the film screening and host to the Nazi Party top leadership. A party Pitt and company also plan on crashing. Mayhem ensues.
“What shall the history books read?” –Landa
Inglourious Basterds revolves around the power of story, especially cinematic story, to twist or write new stories. Such propaganda, of which Goebbels was a master, succeeded in turning one’s enemies into something less than human, thus making it easy to be inhumane to them. War becomes about the loss of humanity rather than being what we were created to be.
Every person has a story to tell and is the sum of their stories. People groups, be they Jew or Nazi, can be defined by their shared story, a story that defines and continues to form them. When stories are reduced to caricature, dogma, or animal imagery, their vitality is drained. When people no longer tell or listen to others’ stories, they become locked in their provincial mindset, cultural ghettos of their own making. And when people become so removed from another’s story, they may become compelled to destroy those (other’s) stories for those other stories become a threat.
“I think this might just be my masterpiece.” –Aldo
One might walk into Inglourious Basterds expecting a Nazi kill fest, but this is a much quieter film than advertised. That said, Tarantino wields violence like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon, with violence so brutal, shocking, and disturbing that the audience winced. The highlight of the movie was easily the basement tavern scene, featuring crisp Tarantino dialogue, tension, and a brutally bloody climax. No doubt, more of this kind of sequence was what the bulk of the audience came to see.
Then again, the kind of continual violence one might have expected to see was screened by the Germans (or rather, satirized by Tarantino) in “Nation’s Pride”. The movie-within-a-movie revolves simply around the killing of three hundred men (300!) and serves as a commentary on both our movies and our culture of violence, including the audience cheering every ridiculous kill shot.
There are long stretches of quiet in Tarantino films which can be taken as one of two ways: it allows for a more thoughtful meditation on war; or the movie becomes bogged down in its mild indulgences, caught up in the cool of being a Tarantino film, as he gives into his love of the sound of his own dialogue. The audience is expected to forgive the sometimes protracted, overly drawn out dialogue scenes as they almost inevitably lead up to lethal moments. The best scenes build on escalating tension, with the palpable tension present like an unbilled character, because when it explodes, there is a blood rain all over again.
Inglourious Basterds isn’t Tarantino’s best work, falling just behind Kill Bill, Pulp Fiction, and Reservoir Dogs. Like with Jackie Brown, this movie could have been trimmed down by nearly a half hour and make for a better, tauter film.