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Inglourious Basterds

dir: Quentin Tarantino
[img_assist|nid=729|title=Let me just have a few moments to redecorate that forehead of yours|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=300]

Look, it’s a Tarantino film. If you don’t know by now what that means, then you should probably skip this review, and this film.

Otherwise, be prepared to wallow in the geek hipsterism and pedantic cinephilia of a man-child who made the jump from obsessive fan to filmmaker to our collective eternal delight / regret. Tarantino has only ever made films about films, and this is no different.

Inglourious Basterds is not a remake of the shoddy Italian flick of similar name, nor is it the Dirty Dozen rip-off I’d heard so much about. In fact, you’d think from the trailers and promos that this was a rip-roaring action flick about a team of Jewish American soldiers striking fear into the hearts and scalps of the Nazis during World War II.

It’s nothing like that. The Basterds and their exploits take up a miniscule amount of screen time in a film that is certainly not a war film. This flick is far more about the thrill of revenge and the power of cinema.

It’s no coincidence that Leni Reifenstahl is namedropped so many times, nor the exodus of Jewish-German directors from the Fatherland over to Hollywood prior to the war, or the fact that a cinema plays such a key role in the story, or that Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister for Propaganda, gets so much screen time. Nor is it coincidental that silver nitrate film stock burns 3 times faster than paper, and that it is mentioned early in the film. Foreshadowing, or geeky displays of trivial pursuit? Which do you think, knowledgeable patron of the cinematic arts?

It’s a flick without a main character, and without a clear through-line connecting the narratives, but it certainly has a destination in mind. A destination that stretches the definitions of historical revisionism to new levels. It probably doesn’t even fit the definition of revisionism, perhaps alternate history would be closer to the deutsche mark.

In other words, it’s not what happened, it’s what should/could have happened if only the movies of the era could have been allowed to be more powerful.

Don’t confuse this for something akin to a Tarantino-esque hyper-stylised take on the Operation Valkyrie plan to take out Hitler and save Germany from people with cool uniforms and defeat at the hands of the Soviets. There really is no intersection between Earth history and what’s going on here. Tarantino is, after all, far more interested in delivering a cool visual and aural experience over anything else of any substance, even though I can’t help but feel there is plenty of substance here.

There are long, almost agonizingly long conversations between characters in this flick, but they never felt, for me, pointless in the way that the conversations in his most recent flick Death Proof felt pointless. Apart from generating multiple metric tonnes of tension, there is plenty going on, and plenty more being revealed about the characters who quaintly ramble on.

So, consider yourself warned. This is definitely a talky.

The film exists in five chapters, all of which transpire in Nazi-occupied France between 1941 and 1944, the first of which introduces us to the charming, agreeable, amenable SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), nicknamed The Jew Hunter. He so calmly and cheerfully goes about his Nazi business that you get the impression that not only does he live for his work, but he’s also really very good at it. He also loves the sound of his own voice above all else, yet also manages to cultivate the appearance of truly cosmopolitan civility. What a fucking Renaissance man, indeed.

In his opening scene, which unfolds so painstakingly, so agonisingly, we are introduced fleetingly to another character, being Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), who is given a tremendous motivation to hate Colonel Landa personally, and the Reich in general as if she didn’t already have enough justification. Her plan for revenge will take the rest of the flick to come to fruition.

The second chapter relates to the Basterds, led as they are by the gruff and loquacious Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Channelling as he does equal parts Patton, John Wayne and Lee Marvin, Pitt is fantastic in this admittedly outlandish role. As the cartoonish leader of the Basterds, it is his mission and his delight to be able to lead a team of mostly Jewish-American soldiers behind enemy lines with the intention of striking fear into the hearts and lederhosen of the Nazis.

So good are they, in fact, that the Fuhrer himself gets to hear about them, and their ambushing, torturing, scalping ways. The Fuhrer, sweaty and uncomfortable, shouts orders about how the nicknames of certain members of the Basterds, such as the Bear Jew (Eli Roth), are not to be repeated, since they’re scaring the shit out of the Wehrmacht. He interviews a regular soldier who seems to have survived their tender mercies, only to find out why this soldier was allowed to live, complete with a newly redecorated forehead. Art is sacrifice, after all.

Pitt is far and away the best thing about this chapter, seeing as he gets the lion’s share of the delicious dialogue, and gets to confront the Nazi menace hands-on. Seeing the Fuhrer losing his nut is something of a pop cultural meme at the moment, or has been at least for the last sixty years, but this chapter certainly ends up being the most ‘fun’ part of the flick.

As funny as this section is, however, I found it very discomforting. The notion of characters taking revenge on whoever is hardly rare in the filmic universe, but the image of American soldiers torturing Nazis is still difficult to rationalise away. It’s a form of historical pornography that I find troubling. It doesn’t wreck the film by any stretch, but it sits ill with me. The way it’s all put together is fine, I have no problem with that. It’s all set up perfectly, and the tensions and timings, the beats and the rhythms of every scene are perfect in the way that only Tarantino, the cinematic maven and magpie that he is, can accomplish. But something still bugs me about it, because we’re supposed to be cheering the Basterds on. The thing is, I find it hard to cheer for anyone, no matter how ‘justifiable’, when they’re torturing and mutilating anyone, even German soldiers.

I never thought I’d find myself writing such a thing, because it’s strange to be put in the position where you feel the need to say it. Maybe it’s deliberate on the part of Tarantino, maybe he sought that level of ambiguity, but part of me doubts it profoundly.

Also, it doesn’t help as well, that the ‘Bear Jew’, Donnie Donowitz is so amateurishly played by horror flick director Eli Roth, who sure can’t act for shit. Sure, I didn’t mind the Hostel flicks, but, I’m asking nicely, stay away from the front of the cameras, Eli.

As stated earlier, the idea that the Basterds’s exploits constitute a significant portion of the hefty running time (two and a half hours of this shit!) or that it plays like a war film is a misnomer, because far more time is spent elsewhere rather than watching people scalp soldiers or beat them to death with baseball bats. Theirs might be the film’s title, but they are but ghostly presences in their own film. Probably a good idea, since overexposure would probably have screwed things up further.

The third chapter focuses on Shoshanna, the young undercover Jewish woman survivor from the first reel running a cinema in Paris. She comes to the attentions of a young war hero (Daniel Bruhl), whom Goebbels himself has made a film about celebrating his heroic snipering of hundreds of American soldiers. As a way of getting into Shoshanna’s pants, the war hero diligently wheedles and pleads until the film, Nation’s Pride, gets to be debuted at her cinema. The entirety of the Nazi High Command are to be in attendance. As unwanted as the attentions of the Germans are to her, this does allow her to plan for the ultimate revenge.

Of course the security for the event will be handled by the handy Colonel Landa, who gets to interview expansively. What a predicament for the plotters!

It seems some other plucky resourceful chaps have a similar idea, because the next chapter improbably has a spymaster general (Mike Myers) and Churchill (Rod Taylor) briefing Archie, a former film critic, with the plan to drop him into Paris so his exhaustive film knowledge and ability to speak German will let him hook up with the Basterds and a double agent (Diane Kruger) in order to also have a crack at taking out the High Command at the premiere.

The meeting between the spy, Bridget Von Hammersmarck, two Basterds and Archie (Michael Fassbender), ill-fatedly, is set in an underground bar with one access point. Lt Raine doesn’t like it, doesn’t like it one bit as he tells us in his strong Tennessean drawl, so we already know it’s a bad idea. It doesn’t help that there are a bunch of German soldiers there celebrating the Fatherland or fatherhood or some such thing.

What follows is pure tension, building and building as it does to a peak which, in Tarantino’s world, can only end in extreme violence and multiple deaths.

The last section deals with the premiere itself, and the less said about the ending, the better, not because I didn’t like it, but because it’s complicated and breathtaking, in a way, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. Let’s just say that I don’t know why Tarantino goes the way he goes, but he certainly carries it through to its insane end. You can’t begin to appreciate what happens until you see it for yourself.

That Tarantino has the juice to make the flicks he wants despite never having really made the gargantuan box office that would otherwise justify such power is possibly a good thing. I guess it’s a good thing if you like his films. There’s no truer representation of the auteur theory of cinema (in that, a flick possesses the singular vision and bears the ‘authorship’ of the director despite being the work of a multitude of people) than in something like Inglourious Basterds, because whatever you might think of Tarantino personally and his films in general, they are recognisable his films. Every single frame, every word of dialogue, every note of the try-hard hipster soundtrack of any moment of any of his films is unforgivably his.

I enjoyed the heck out of this flick, though I cannot for the life of me decide if it’s a good flick or not. I was expecting a war film, perhaps wordier than most, but the flick works completely contrary to expectation. I very much enjoyed the performances, part of the intent, and I really have to tip my hat at the way Tarantino structures his scenes, and builds tension upon tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Critics point out that he seems to do it again and again, even multiple times within the same film, so that it ends up feeling rote and formulaic (albeit his own formula).

That kind of thinking bugs me, because the truest assessment you can make about plenty of other directors working today is that they have no idea how to do something similar, to the extent where most of the hacks working today are happy for the editor to butcher the heck out of scenes in order to generate a tension they have no idea how to generate otherwise.

Music is another particular Tarantino forte, and this flick is no different. Sure, deliberately hip, deliberately obscure and eclectic, but it works pretty damn well. The music of spaghetti westerns overlayed over the production of a World War II revenge flick works better than you’d think.

It’s still too soon for me to judge how this will all hang together over time, because my opinions of some of his films have improved with subsequent viewings (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill II, Jackie Brown), and diminished with others (Reservoir Dogs, Death Proof). There’s something undeniably powerful about the set up and the denouement, and the idea that a vital German cinema could have destroyed the Third Reich if it’d only been given a chance. And it’s hard not to smile at the very last scene of the film, seeing as it allows Brad Pitt’s Lt Raine get the last word, and what a doozy that last word is.

At the very least, it was an interesting film-loving way to spend two and a half hours of my life in an alternate reality.

8 ways in which Colonel Landa’s request for the Congressional Medal of Honor made me laugh the hardest out of 10

“Say "auf Wiedersehen" to your Nazi balls!” – Inglourious Basterds.