The opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds is titled “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France” – and it’s a title you can read a lot into right from the outset. Just as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in America re-imagines America’s Wild West as a storybook fable of mythic grandeur, Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic extravaganza re-imagines World War II as a loving homage to spaghetti westerns, a delirious revenge fantasy, and a celebration of cinema’s power to rewrite history as an epic fever dream. In the fantastical alternate movie-verse of Tarantino’s oeuvre, World War II ends in 1944, with Jews exacting bloody revenge on Adolf Hitler in a hecatomb of terrorist atrocity. It’s probably the boldest, most irreverent and gleefully unrighteous take on World War II that’s ever been committed to film. And thank God for that. If I had to sit through another of the portentous odes to self sacrifice and salutin’ the flag that have cluttered up the war movie genre for the last couple of decades, I think I’d suffer a spontaneous attack of narcolepsy.
If there’s one thing that’s immediately clear about Inglourious Basterds, it’s just how damn good Quentin Tarantino is as a composer of cinematic imagery. Take the languorous, beautifully framed opening sequence, with French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) chopping wood while a sidecar carrying German soldiers approaches ominously from the distance, scored to Ennio Morricone’s haunting La Condanna. It’s a reworking of the opening sequence of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, only instead of Lee Van Cleef riding into town to conduct a chilling interrogation and execution, it’s a Nazi Colonel tasked with hunting down renegade Jews. If that strikes you as brilliant concept, then there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to love Inglourious Basterds. If you’re left scratching your head by such cinematic conceit, then you might find it all a bit heavy going.
Hmm… Quentin Tarantino lifting scenes from other movies again? Plagiarism you say? Tarantino has been plagued by such facile accusations for far too long now. Yeah, Tarantino steals from other directors. Hell, everybody in Hollywood steals from everybody else. But Tarantinois like cinema’s version of a mastermind hip hop producer. He takes choice samples from all kinds of different sources and then weaves them together through the filter of his own unique, cinematic vision. Accusations of plagiarism are redundant when you use the stolen material to craft something as thrillingly fresh and inventive as Inglourious Basterds. And if you are going to steal, then you might as well do it from the best. If anything, more directors should be looking at Sergio Leone as a wellspring of inspiration.
You’ve got to hand it to Tarantino, though – the guy sure knows how to cast his movies. He has the knack of finding precisely the right actors for the right roles, picking them up from God knows where: B-Movies, obscure television programs, eccentric European art house flicks. Relative unknown, Christoph Waltz, is revelatory as the Jew hunting Colonel Hans Landa. Waltz somehow manages to come across as urbane, witty, intelligent, sardonic and utterly menacing all at once. It’s the most lip smackingly delicious performance as a movie villain I’ve seen in years. Waltz and Menochet play off each other dexterously as the sumptuously realised opening sequence unfolds in a riveting game of cat and mouse. With a gradually building sense of impending doom, their exchange reveals that LaPadite is hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his house. Colonel Waltz is aware of this all along, but indulgently spins the scenario out for his own amusement. When the inevitable slaughter commences, however, a young girl manages to escape – Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) – to become a central character in the film’s later chapters.
Abruptly the movie shifts gears, and at last we get to the eponymous Basterds themselves. They are a motley looking crew of all Jewish special commandoes – rather like a Semitic version of The Dirty Dozen – tasked with infiltrating behind enemy lines in France to wreak havoc on the occupying Nazis with as much savagery as can possibly be mustered. As unit leader Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) memorably puts it: “Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y’all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis. Or you will die tryin’.”
When Pitt has a character role like this to play, he responds with relish. It’s only when he tries to get too serious, like in the ridiculously portentous Meet Joe Black, or the hammy melodrama of Interview With a Vampire, that he falters. But give Pitt a chance to flex his comic chops, and he can be one of the most entertaining actors around. Take his charismatic turn as the gleefully nihilistic Tyler Durden in Fight Club, or the wily, mush talking Gypsy bare knuckle fighter in Snatch. Here, Pitt plays Aldo Raine as an exaggerated take on the granite jawed, tough talking archetype of dozens of sixties World War II adventure films. Like a crazy, Tennessee Hillbilly version of Lee Marvin.
In a film that’s rife with great character parts, there’s only one casting decision that comes across as a misstep. Tarantino’s friend and director of Hostel, Eli Roth, plays the baseball bat swinging “Bear Jew” Donnie Donowitz, a man so vicious it’s whispered among Nazi soldiers that he’s really a “Golem”, summoned up by a vengeful Jewish Rabbi. Now by any definition, this is supposed to be a menacing character. But after a masterful piece of mise en scene, with the camera panning down over the Basterds in a desolate forest during the aftermath of a violent guerrilla strike, scored to the sublime dissolution of Ennio Morricone’s Il Mercenario, the lengthy build up and appearance of the character is rather anti-climatic. Roth comes across as manic and goofy, but not the incarnation of unholy Semitic vengeance he’s painted to be. C’mon, was Michael Madsen really unavailable to play this role as originally planned?
In a rather deft piece of sleight of hand, the Basterds themselves are not really the main focus of the movie. In fact, they only feature in events constituting less than a third of the overall running time. It’s these elements that cleave most closely to the “Men on a Mission” style World War II adventure movie format that Tarantino originally conceived of when scripting Inglourious Basterds. But in actual practise the film has became something rather more grand and operatic than that. We don’t even get to learn all that much about the Basterds, two or three key characters aside. But they’ve got the Nazis running scared with a brutal and audacious guerrilla campaign in which their victim’s heads are scalped, Apache style. And you better believe that we see that scalping – with the camera leering like a sadistic bystander – in all of its eye flinchingly violent glory.
We are so used to seeing Jews portrayed as hapless victims in World War II movies, that there’s something rather audacious about Tarantino’s conception of Jews as murderous, avenging angels, perpetrating savagery upon the Nazis rather than the other way round. But the role reversal goes further. Most of the Nazis in this film are portrayed with a surprising level of humanity. Take the German soldier in the bar basement scene, for example, who just wants to escape from the Mexican standoff he’s somehow gotten caught up in to be with his newborn son. Or the dignity of the German sergeant who bravely suffers an ignoble death – beaten to death with a baseball bat at the hands of Donny Donowitz – rather than betray his comrades. Even when the character is obviously evil, like Colonel Hans Landa, he’s still smart, cultured and charming. He’s a predator, yes – but an eminently civilised one. By comparison, the American Jews that make up the crew of Basterds are boorish thugs.
Predictably, there’s already been a round of squeamish hand wringing on the part of some critical commentators over Tarantino’s gleeful inversion of archetypes: Jews as active perpetrators of murderous, avenging violence, and Nazis as urbane and dignified predators who suddenly find themselves on the wrong end of the stick. But there’s no real reason to attach any wider connotation to these depictions. Tarantino is not trying to make a comment on racial politics. He’s not trying to “revise” history. He’s not trying to connect Inglourious Basterds to any kind of external reality at all. He’s just using some of the events and characters from World War II as the basis for cinematic fantasy. He plays with the archetypes because it pulls the rug out from under the viewer’s feet. He’s using the unexpected as an enthralling cinematic device.
Look at it this way. The war was over 64 years ago. We’ve already had a mountain of films that explore this material from a pious perspective. What’s so invigorating about Inglourious Basterds is that it’s crackling with irreverent fury. Hey, it’s not exactly PC, but since when did movies become the guardian of moral responsibility?
It’s in the middle sequences of the film, largely devoid of action and the presence of the Basterds, that Tarantino is likely to lose some of his less patient viewers. The crux of the plot revolves around the character of Shosanna Dreyfus (the escaped girl from the opening sequence). It’s three years later and Shosanna – under an assumed name – has become the proprietor of a small Paris movie theatre in Nazi occupied France. A young German soldier, Frederik Zoller (Daniel Bruhl) has become a war hero due to his feat of killing 300 enemy soldiers single-handedly, and is set to become the star attraction of a Nazi propaganda film. Attracted to Shosanna, he persuades Joseph Goebbels to host the film’s premiere in her theatre. Knowing that the premiere will be attended by most of the top Nazi brass, Shosanna recognises that she has the opportunity to carry out her revenge in the most dramatic fashion possible, and plans to burn down the cinema and everybody in it with the use of her collection of highly flammable nitrate films. Paradoxically, the British military has also learned of the planned premiere, and dispatch an agent of their own, who is instructed to blow up the cinema with the assistance of the Basterds. Just how these two divergent plot strands come together and resolve themselves forms the basis of the rest of the film.
This story is developed via a series of long, conversational set pieces. Tarantino’s films have always been very talky, lingering over the minutia and the nuances of speech. If that’s bothered you before in a Tarantino movie, it’s not going to be any different this time around. But there’s some wonderful writing here, allowing the characters to really blossom into richly detailed personalities. Quite a few of the key sequences revolve around characters assuming false identities and engaging in verbal duels with hostile adversaries in a high stakes poker game for their lives. Tarantino draws such scenes out to an almost intolerable length, playing them and playing them until the tension has reduced the viewer to a state of frazzled nerves, before finally bringing the scene to a close with a quick, explosive burst of shocking violence. There’s no concession made here at all for the blink and you’ll miss it, overly hurried pace of so many modern Hollywood movies. Tarantino is content to let his scenes take their time and play themselves out, and for the viewer to savour the details and soak in the atmosphere. And Inglorious Basterds is a film that really does wallow in the evocation of atmosphere. The attention lavished on the costumes, sets, dialogue and music score makes for an exquisitely realised film that is gorgeous to look at and listen to.
And the penultimate scene of Inglourious Basterds delivers a payoff as brutally satisfying as anything witnessed in modern cinema. Film itself is the incendiary means – both literally and metaphorically – for the world to turn upside and go up in a rush of flames. History is rewritten in a crescendo of apocalyptic mayhem. It’s a purely cinematic expression of unapologetic, revenge fuelled violence, and it’s furiously exhilarating.
You’ve got to give Tarantino credit for refusing to make concessions to anything outside of his own fevered vision of what movies are supposed to be all about. I can think of no other director in the last couple of decades who possesses such a fertile cinematic imagination. For those who are willing to follow him all the way in and get off on the purely visceral thrill of movies as style, spectacle and atmosphere, Inglourious Basterds is a cinematic feast to be eagerly devoured. Inevitably, there are those detractors who will complain that it’s too long, too indulgent or overly cavalier with its treatment of history. But who cares? I’m just glad there’s still a director out there who will stick to his guns, playing by no rules other than where his own particularly idiosyncratic vision takes him. It will require time and repeat viewings to properly assess where Inglorious Basterds ranks in Quentin Tarantino’s overall filmography. But right now it feels like this movie has all the makings of an outright classic. For the first time in far too long, I actually walked out of the cinema thinking “I want to see that again”.