Tarantino Goes to War, with Rousing Results, in 'Inglourious Basterds'
For almost any other filmmaker, Inglourious Basterds – yes, it’s really spelled that way – would represent a career-defining achievement, an audacious spaghetti western-style World War II fantasy that dares to rewrite history and give the Nazis their due. For Quentin Tarantino, it’s just par for an elevated course.
A flair for cinematic brilliance seems to have come naturally to the onetime video-store clerk, whose razor-sharp dialogue, fully realized characters and painstaking attention to detail have served him well since he catapulted to indie stardom with 1992’s Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino has since made films that reached larger audiences – among them, Pulp Fiction (1994) and his two-part Kill Bill saga – but never has he compromised his vision. Moviegoers conform to his tastes, not the other way around.
Whether they will embrace Inglourious Basterds, in which a renegade crew of Jewish-American soldiers under the command of Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt, leathery and enjoyably droll) terrorizes Hitler’s minions in Nazi-occupied France, is anyone’s guess. For my money, it’s the best film I’ve seen this year, proof that Tarantino can play his audience as skillfully as any of his most gifted contemporaries.
If, as Roger Ebert put it, Kill Bill recalled a virtuoso tearing through “Flight of the Bumblebee,” Basterds is more like a sublime rendition of Pachelbel’s “Canon”: unhurried but never labored, steadily building toward a powerful climax. If it’s not quite as pretty, well, killing Nazis is a dirty business.
That becomes clear upon meeting the Basterds, who scalp their prisoners when Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Hostel director Eli Roth) isn’t using their brains for batting practice. It’s a job they attack with exuberance: Aldo, in his thick, sometimes comical Tennessean drawl, encourages his charges (including B.J. Novak, of NBC’s The Office) to treat Nazis like animals, and they’re all too eager to comply. Like the mercenaries from 1967’s The Dirty Dozen, which Tarantino has cited as an inspiration, these are men on mission to kill or be killed, rabid dogs let off the leash.
Will they succeed in pulling off the ultimate coup – killing the Führer himself? That’s one of the tantalizing possibilities Tarantino toys with in Basterds, a fantastical slice of wish fulfillment divided into five chapters, the second of which introduces Aldo’s killing brigade. In the first – aptly titled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” as if to suggest the embellishments to come – we meet Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the infamous “Jew Hunter” who embodies the savagery of the Third Reich.
As Landa, a brilliant sociopath who preys relentlessly on enemies of the state, the Austrian-born Waltz is a revelation. To say his presence lights up the screen might be misleading – Landa is a reptilian figure, a harbinger of doom whose eyes sparkle when he senses vulnerability. He can be charming and polite to a fault, yet his good manners are sickeningly transparent, and he knows it. A shrewd interrogator whose high-pitched delivery seems almost musical, he patiently waits for his victims to dig themselves a grave, then gives them a push.
It comes as no small praise – or, I suspect, much of an exaggeration – that Tarantino has credited Waltz, a multilingual veteran of the German stage, with making Basterds possible. More than Hitler, played by Martin Wuttke as a blustery buffoon, Landa is the black, bloodless heart of the Nazi juggernaut. You can’t help but admire his cunning – he’s as sly as Aldo is merciless – and Waltz, richly deserving of an Oscar, makes his presence indispensable.
If Landa is presented as the consummate Nazi sadist, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), the lone survivor of one of his raids, is the face of the Jewish Resistance. Living under an assumed identity in Paris, where she runs a movie theater, Shosanna – pretty, blonde and blue-eyed – catches the eye of a daredevil S.S. officer (Daniel Brühl) so renowned for his courage under fire that he becomes the subject of a film by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). When her theater is chosen as the site for its star-studded premiere – even the Führer is rumored to be attending – she plots her revenge.
What follows, as the Basterds and Nazis descend on Shosanna’s death trap, is vintage Tarantino: an explosive showdown that ties all five chapters together and delivers generously on their promise of payback. It is a visually breathtaking sequence, as electrifying as anything the director has committed to film (including the masterfully executed anime from Kill Bill) and a rousing, pulp fictionish reimagining of the ultimate Jewish Resistance. Some have decried the passage as slick barbarism; I think of it as the only proper ending, however divorced from reality, to an epic feat of the imagination.
Is this Tarantino’s masterpiece, as the movie’s final shot not so subtly seems to suggest? Having seen it three times – his are among the rare films that demand (and reward) repeat viewings – I believe it’s one of them, though there are others, namely Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown and Kill Bill: Vol. 2. In the end, we’re left with superior storytelling from one of cinema’s most talented practitioners.