Inglorious Basterds (Tarantino, 2009)

The power of cinema in the right hands...
The power of cinema in the right hands…

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I was going to love this movie. The trailers had me wondering if I really wanted to see a 2 hr 30 min movie of the Basterds scalping Nazis. I wasn’t one of those fanboys clamoring to see the team of Jewish American soldiers wreak righteous vengeance, giggling in mad anticipation as Brad Pitt’s Aldo Raine barks out his demand for “Nat-zi” scalps. And, in the end, they may be disappointed (and should possibly wait for Stallone’s upcoming The Expendables). You should know the resulting film is one where the titular Basterds are not the focus, where two-thirds of the film is subtitled French and German, and where nearly all the scant action scenes already appeared in the trailers. But misleading trailers aside, the resulting film left me stunned. This movie is going to make some people angry and shocked, but Tarantino succeeds in making the movie I never imagined, but maybe actually always wanted. It’s an audacious, dizzying, beautiful cinematic fever dream.

Since the late 90s Tarantino has talked up his ultimate World War II epic, and a decade later the danger for me was that the film couldn’t live up to the one that I had crafted in my head. Well, for one, this isn’t a WWII movie. It’s a movie punch-drunk on the love of movies – movies which often include Nazis and/or femme fatales, or are from the wartime era. Inglourious Basterds uses WWII the way Kill Bill trades on old kung fu movies and spaghetti westerns. It’s the device to tell the story. It is certainly not really about the real World War II any more than Kill Bill is about the real world of assassins and Shaolin monks, and this is where criticism of Tarantino’s moral imperative falls on my deaf ears. In the end this is a film about movies. It is about the conventions of genre that those in love with cinema have absorbed to their bones. Rather than a deconstructionist exercise, this film is a celebration of European cinema. And in the process, it bravely re-writes history with cinema as the savior.

The opening scene of the film, set “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-occupied France”, elegantly lays the groundwork for what follows, as the charming, brilliant Nazi officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), interrogates a French peasant suspected of harboring Jewish fugitives, among them a young girl named Shosanna. As Perdito’s theme from The Alamo plays, the soundtrack cues the audience that this won’t be a typical WWII thriller. It must be said that Waltz is a revelation in this film, making us uncomfortable yet in awe of his charm and cunning. Wherever Tarantino found Waltz, who fluently speaks English, French, German, and Italian in the film, this bit of casting speaks volumes of his ability to recognize a real talent. Landa is at turns frightening, efficient, and likable. Tarantino has the daring to let us have fun with, and even admire, this despicable Nazi.

As we jump ahead to 1944, we are introduced to the films key players. First the Basterds, as Raine’s team of soldiers is nicknamed, set about doing what they do infuriating the Führer. We are then re-introduced to Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), now going by Emmanuelle (Tarantino’s allusion to 70s French erotica or to a Jewish savior?) and whose cinema will set the stage for the film’s climactic sequence at a Nazi film premiere. Shosanna concocts a plot to burn down the cinema unaware of the Basterd’s parallel Operation Kino, which involves a dashing British film critic cum officer (Michael Fassbender) and a Dietrich-esque German double agent (Diane Kruger). The film then unfolds in an economic number of scenes that build the suspense to a fever pitch.

Aldo Raine
Aldo Raine

The characters and dialogue in the film are what we’ve come to expect from Tarantino – instantly memorable. German actor Daniel Brühl plays a Nazi war hero who, like the audience, falls in love with Shosanna in a lovely scene straight out of French New Wave. The characters slip back and forth between languages, some more easily than others (Brad Pitt’s hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raine gets some of the biggest laughs as his indeterminate southern accent tries to twist its tongue around Italian) and this plays right into one of the key themes of the film: how language, the language of cinema as well as words, shapes destinies. In that regard, the film is a triumph of linguistic play. A 30 min sequence set in a Paris basement bar may be the most pivotal in the film, not for it’s centrality to plot, but by how it underlines Tarantino’s key obsessions.

And this is a film about a fan’s obsessions, healthy and grotesque. In the end, Inglourious Basterds has more in common with Kill Bill than with Saving Private Ryan, something that becomes apparent as David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out the Fire)” plays as Shosanna prepares for war: her slinky red dress and makeup a form of war paint, much like a Jewish version of Kill Bill’s bride (Tarantino continues his interest in strong female characters here). This is radical historical revisionism, with real life used as playground for players in the films that Tarantino has always worshipped. Whether it works for you or not, he plays to his strengths: cinematic pastiche and language. He draws upon everything from Sergio Leone’s westerns and Godard’s New Wave cool, to a climactic scene recalling the German Expressionism of Fritz Lang. All this is executed with dramatic cinematography and careful framing, making it as beautiful and visually rich as any of Tarantino’s films to date.

Perhaps the film won’t work for everyone. It’s definitely an acquired taste, but one that anyone following nearly two decades of Tarantino’s work should enjoy. The violence and questions of Jewish vengeance may be difficult to deal with for some audience members, but surely these themes deserve more wrestling with than casual, moralizing dismissals. And historicists are likely to bristle at Tarantino’s dramatic, incendiary departure from historical fidelity. In the end, Inglourious Basterds left me feeling a little bit dizzy, a little stunned, but mostly sure that I was in love with the power that cinema can have in the right hands.

–Anders Bergstrom

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