- Inglourious Basterds
Directed and written by Quentin Tarantino
Lt. Aldo Raine – Brad Pitt
Shosanna Dreyfus – Mélanie Laurent
Col. Hans Landa – Christoph Waltz
Sgt. Donny Donowitz – Eli Roth
Lt. Archie Hicox – Michael Fassbender
- CLR Rating: 3/5 stars
Tarantino’s World War II Redux
Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is not really about the Holocaust, as some critics have said. Rather, it’s a Tarantino caper film with the backdrop of Nazi-occupied France. The film is set in a kind of alternate reality, in which a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers calling themselves the Basterds seek out, kill, and scalp Nazis (pronounced, in Brad Pitt’s affected Tennessee drawl, NAT-zys). While the Basterds perform their grisly duties for the U.S., a young French Jew plots to take out the major Nazi players (Hitler, Goebbels, etc) at a film premiere. The story is told in four chapters, and Tarantino’s penchant for breaking the fourth wall is evident throughout. Instead of conforming to the standards of a narrative picture, the film plays like a brutal, gruesome fable.
Smart though Tarantino may be, his self-aggrandizing filmic techniques grow old. Placing arrows and title cards in the frame doesn’t make it more entertaining. By continuously removing the audience from the narrative, Tarantino seemed to say “LOOK! This is a MOVIE! This is MY movie!” This may indeed have been his intent—it is his reimagining of how WWII could have ended. After all, the world would be an entirely different place if the Basterds had succeeded in assassinating the highest ranking Nazi officers.
Tarantino’s name draws major players from all ends of the cinematic spectrum. Brad Pitt, Til Schweiger, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, and a number of other big names grace the screen in Inglourious Basterds, and each is given his or her due as a caricature. The film is populated entirely by cartoonish representations, from the Southern-bootlegger-turned-vicious-criminal (Pitt as Aldo Raine) to the S.S. officer-cum-Nazi-executioner (Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz). Pitt’s Lieutenant Raine appears constipated throughout the film, to comedic effect—evident cocaine habit notwithstanding. The actor’s charisma flows from his every pore as he lectures his Basterds that they are each to give him 100 Nazi scalps. Schweiger (whose performance as a freaked-out, weirdo drug dealer in the underrated SLC Punk probably got him this role) plays a possibly insane, murderous German Secret Service officer who turned to the other side and apparently just enjoys killing Nazis. Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress whose charm and looks allow her to work men on either side of the war. Eli Roth, whose directorial efforts include B-horror movies Cabin Fever and Hostel (in both of which he had cameos, Hitchcock-style), does his damndest to overplay an East Coast Jew whose love of baseball leads to an affinity for bashing Nazi heads. Mike Myers has a small cameo as a British officer reminiscent of Dr. Evil. Martin Wuttke plays Hitler, a notoriously difficult role—most play him either as a shrieking lunatic or as a frighteningly charismatic leader—with gusto, making him just another human being, albeit one whose bloodcurdling philosophies changed the world forever.
Chirstoph Waltz steals scenes as Colonel Hans Landa, a Nazi detective whose interests are solely his own. He’s alternately horrifying and utterly ridiculous—the cogs in Waltz’s brain appear to be turning at each and every moment he occupies the frame. Whether charming a French farmer into revealing his Jewish hideaways or coercing Raine’s Sergeant into allowing him full immunity from Landa’s crimes as the Jew-hunter, he’s calculating, egotistical and downright terrible. In the first chapter of the film, Landa gulps a glass of fresh milk, a scene in which audiences will cringe—does he know about the Jewish family hiding beneath the floorboards? During a later scene, Landa guzzles strudel with cream, then violently extinguishes his cigarette in the dessert—does he understand he’s sitting across from “the one who got away?” The emphasis on his eating habits seems purposeful. The character’s most concerned with his own wellbeing and doesn’t care who or what he has to “eat” to reach his destination.
Tarantino knows his movies. Inglourious Basterds reaches its culmination with the attempted annihilation of the world’s most despised war criminals using film—in more ways than one. It’s a basic, ingenious method of doing away with the key people responsible for the twentieth century’s greatest atrocity. Tarantino’s knowledge of old film, both metaphorically (Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda has a bit part) and physically (original 35mm film was exceptionally combustible), allows him to play with each level of meaning in Inglourious Basterds.
While Tarantino fans will undoubtedly enjoy Inglourious Basterds, the film leaves the audience wanting. Overdramatic Holocaust films may win Oscars, but Inglourious Basterds seems to crave none of that: it feels like a dual effort between Tarantino and Pitt to have a good time. The action sequences are well done, the performances are cartoonish, and the film is overly long. It’s the last hurrah of 2009’s summer blockbusters, a fun movie made by a director whose notoriety nearly outweighs his talent.