When Jews Attack: Inglourious Basterds Review

basterds

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”.

Inglourious Basterds – 9/10

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9 Responses to When Jews Attack: Inglourious Basterds Review

  1. Madsen totally should have played the Bear Jew. Roth is terrible, and even Hitler agrees:

    http://thejamminjabber.com/2009/09/01/hitler-hates-eli-roth-as-much-as-i-do/

  2. pump says:

    I came to this site from the link in imdb, and after reading your review, I’d like you to read mine.

    http://pumpv.blogspot.com/2009/09/quentin-tarantinos-inglourious-basterds.html

  3. gajes says:

    I agree with every word you’ve written, and also with your rating.

  4. tezby says:

    The problem with IB is that it’s ultimately pointless. The fantasy aspect of it is problematic, to say the least, and although its Jewish revenge theme is a point of interest next to the dreary seriousness of “Defiance”, the latter film has one strong advantage over IB – it all actually happened. No matter what IB’s alt history storyline may say about our time [and could be easily construed as an argument for Zionism] it is still a fact that WW2 didn’t end that way, and millions of people were still killed in the camps.

    You also make a dubious claim that IG is “probably the boldest, most irreverent and gleefully unrighteous take on World War II that’s ever been committed to film”. Films like “Kelly’s Heroes” and “The Dirty Dozen” – which IB mines unapologetically – were far more subversive than IB could ever hope to be. “Kelly’s Heroes” was released right in the middle of the Viet Nam war era and painted the troops – both American and Germans – as opportunistic capitalists with no morals or scruples. It was all about treasure. “The Dirty Dozen” was as much a “fever dream” as IB but had some very pointed things to say about heroism and murder in war – and was still a rip roaring adventure yarn.

    IB could have been a much better film if it had something meaningful – and coherent – to say. But it’s Tarantino after all.

  5. robertod says:

    By now I’ve read a few reviews dismissing “Inglourious Basterds” as a “pointless” movie, and I must confess, I’m having a difficult time understanding what is meant by this criticism.

    Surely Tarantino’s aim with “Inglourious Basterds” was to make a film that was bold, compelling, visually interesting and entertaining. Which, in my view, it was. Hence, the film could hardly be deemed “pointless”. It delivered on what was promised.

    Unless what you mean by “pointless” is that the film did not carry an important “message”. That Tarantino did not have some ulterior motive in making the film, presenting us with some sort of “comment” on Nazism, on the nature of war, or on contemporary Zionist politics, perhaps. Select the issue of your choice. We could then evaluate the film entirely on its ideological perspective, and safely acclaim or dismiss it based on whether it was in agreement with our own views.

    I don’t think Tarantino is that kind of director. Thankfully. There’s a time and place for “message” movies. But not every cinematic experience must entail a serious exploration of “issues”.

    Tarantino is a smart man and his movies are cleverly constructed. But he’s not dealing with especially intellectual thematic content. He’s working on more of a visceral level. And that’s fine. Some of my favourite directors, Sergio Leone or Sam Peckinpah for example, are in a similar vein.

    So my enthusiastic appraisal of “Inglourious Basterds” is based on its well written and colourful characters, its compelling, multi-threaded story, its gorgeous, virtuoso visuals and on the fantastical imagination that went into its conception. Not because I hoped Tarantino would make an over-arching statement about World War II or some such.

    You state that: “it is still a fact that WW2 didn’t end that way, and millions of people were still killed in the camps.” Yes of course. I don’t see how “Inglourious Basterds” violates actual history in any way. Quite obviously, it’s a fictional story. A cinematic fantasy that uses the backdrop of World War II as its basis. I don’t believe that this film carries the power to alter our perception of the actual history of WW2. Nor do I need Tarantino to regurgitate that history for me in his movie. I already know the history, and if I want to refresh my knowledge, I’ll read an authoritive book.

    One thing I would never do, is look for an accurate depiction of history in Hollywood. Every movie is essentially a work of fiction, whether it’s based on “true events” or not. It’s routine for film makers to mess with facts in order to create heightened drama, a more compelling story, or simply because it suits their purposes to do so. Perhaps not all of them would go as far as Tarantino has done here, but it’s still very much the same principle.

    Tarantino pretty much tells us that we are going to watch a fantasy from the outset. “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France”. IE – it’s story book time. We are going to watch a cinematic fable. Dismissing “Inglourious Basterds” on the basis that its not “historically accurate” strikes me as totally irrelevant, since it’s blatantly obvious that this was never the movie’s intention.

    As far as construing “Inglourious Basterds” as an “argument for Zionism” – I think that’s a very awkward reading of the movie. Inevitably, some misguided souls will want to try and interpret the movie in this fashion. But as the “Basterds” are portrayed as cruel and savage killers, rather than heroes, we might just as well interpret the movie as an “argument against Zionism”.

    Ultimately, of course, either reading would entail the imposition of a message on the film that it does not carry. This is not a matter that the movie is concerned with.

    As far as “subversive” cinema goes, I am struggling to grasp how “The Dirty Dozen” might be perceived as subversive. Essentially, it’s a comic book adventure take on WW2, with an injection of the rough, anti-hero archetype that was then coming back into vogue. Nor would I describe it as a “fever dream”. Not in the sense I intend here. “Inglourious Basterds” possesses a fantastical, almost hallucinatory quality. Not so, “The Dirty Dozen.”

    “Kelly’s Heroes” might be considered politically subersive, yes. It has been interpreted as a satire of the Vietnam War. Well, I think it’s open to that kind of reading, but it’s not necessarily the foundation the movie is built upon. Whatever the case, that’s not the direction Tarantino went in with his film.

    You appear to want “Inglourious Basterds” to carry some sort of definitive comment – on what issue, I’m not entirely sure. On this basis, you would understandably be frustrated with the film. For my part, it was enough that “Inglourious Basterds” was interesting and entertaining in and of itself, without having to justify its existence by fitting into some sort of ideological framework.

  6. tezby says:

    I actually enjoyed IB as I watched it, but I would still argue that it’s pointless, in exactly the same way that GI Joe, Transformers or countless other contemporary popcorn movies are – and in fact, since it operates as pure entertainment with no moral or coherent “point” – it is by definition “pointless”. I think we agree.

    I don’t require a thematic to agree with either, I like provocation, I like a lot of films with which I would disagree with their points of view. The problem I have with Tarantino films since Kill Bill 1 & 2 is that he is obviously a very smart guy, with an amazing ability to direct a scene, create characters and great dialogue – but it just doesn’t add up to anything.

    Oh – and when I said “fever dream” I was just ironically quoting your fabulous movie crit speak. 😉

  7. robertod says:

    Well, I can’t really agree that “Inglourious Basterds” belongs to the same category of mindless “popcorn” entertainment occupied by “GI Joe” and “Transformers.”

    For one thing, it’s a bit simplistic to divide films into two broad categories – “art” and “entertainment” – since many films blur the distinction between these categories to varying degrees. “Inglourious Basterds” would be one of those films.

    Furthermore, not every “art” film has genuine artistic merit. Likewise, not every “popcorn” flick is actually entertaining.

    But I don’t think a film necessarily needs to draw “moral conclusions” or make “statements” in order to possess artistic value. There is also the craft of cinema in and of itself – what the film looks and sounds like and how it has been composed. On this level, “Inglourious Basterds” is a triumph. For sheer technique, Tarantino is scarcely matched by any director still working. He just has a flair for striking and memorable cinematic images that is beyond the aesthetic sensibility of somebody like Michael Bay.

    To some degree, a painter is judged more on the technique and execution of his images than what the images represent themselves. The same holds true for the cinema.

    And there is “content” in “Inglourious Basterds” – if not necessarily a grand, overall “message”. Tarantino is an excellent writer. His characters are larger than life, but have a lot more depth and colour than the usual Hollywood cardboard cutouts. Likewise, his dialogue is usually very interesting. So along with his impeccable technique and visual imagination, he has strong characters, dialogue and story.

    This is at a level beyond such fare as “Transformers”, which for me was simply boring. I would say it was an inept movie on a lot of levels. What story actually existed was pretty much nonsensical. The characters were caricatures. There was no craft or imagination in the sound and visuals – everything was just amped up as loudly and obnoxiously as possible. Even the action scenes were confusing and pedestrian.

    But then, Michael Bay admits himself that he’s aiming his films at the sensibility of teenage boys, so there’s not a lot to be said about it.

    Again, I would raise parallels with Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. Neither of these guys made films with an especially “intellectual” content, or were overly concerned with making grand statements. But they both pushed the envelope – like Tarantino has done – with regards to the cinematic form. Sergio Leone is just about one the most visually inventive directors that ever lived. For me, anyway. This alone elevates him to a status of considerable artistic merit, even if his movies are not as “profound” as those of say, Ingmar Bergman.

    These days, Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah are generally ranked up there with the greats. And rightfully so. “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” and “The Wild Bunch” are not especially profound movies, but they are superbly entertaining, brilliantly executed, beautiful to look at and endlessly fascinating.

    I think Tarantino will eventually be ranked favourably in the same sort of company, and “Inglourious Basterds” will be remembered as one of his best films.

    But hey, maybe it’s just me. Regardless, thanks for an interesting discussion.

  8. J says:

    Great review, personally thought it was the best film of the year. Tarantino is a master when it comes to writing characters, surely “The Jew Hunter” is one of the greatest characters/portrayals of all time?

    10/10 for me.

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