I don’t typically disclaimer myself, but I feel like it’s necessary for me to state a couple of things for the record before setting out on this particular write-up:
1) I was not a Quentin Tarantino fan going into “Inglourious Basterds”–in fact, I was more than a little pissy at his having co-opted the title of Enzo G. Castellari’s WWII actioner starring Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson.
2) This discussion is going to be spoileriffic. If you want to go into the movie fresh, please stop reading here. Don’t worry–I’ll be here when you’re done watching. I’ll even save you a seat at the cool kids’ table!
Several people I know have expressed the fact that they don’t intend to see “Inglourious Basterds” because it’s a war movie. I have good news for those friends: this is not a war movie. There’s not a single line of dialogue shouted from behind the walls of a foxhole; there are no shots of smoke-shrouded battlefields; nary a tank is to be scene in the entire two-and-a-half-hour run time. Tarantino takes the espionage, soldiers, politicians and gunplay trappings of a war movie and creates a slick and subversive film that’s ultimately about film–namely, the genre film and the way it shapes our perceptions of history.
There’s a thin line between homage and hipsterism, and Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker that I perceived as having his feet planted firmly on the latter side of that line. While my strong initial dislike of “Pulp Fiction” has mellowed with time, and I even dug “Deathproof” (thank you, Mr. Tarantino, for writing female characters who talk like people I actually know), I find his scripts to be far too thick with smirkingly self-conscious references to fast food, AM radio hits and vintage television. To me, they stagnate under the weight of their own perceived coolness.
By placing the events of “Inglourious Basterds” in an era before “The Brady Bunch” aired and a decade prior to the opening of the first Burger King, Tarantino has put himself in waters previously uncharted in his career. Initially, I thought this would be a remake/”reboot” of the Castellari film–wouldn’t it be IRONIC and CLEVER if a really famous director re-made a little-known grindhouse film, employing a huge budget and an A-list cast? Much to my initial relief and ultimate delight, that’s absolutely not the case here (except for the budget and cast stuff)–“Inglourious Basterds” is a work of visionary uniqueness.
Y’all probably know what “Basterds” is about at this point–at least from a plot perspective, but I’ll recap: A band of Allied soldiers composed primarily of Jewish-Americans has been put behind enemy lines in France, conducting a bloody terror campaign to demoralize the Nazi command. Simultaneously, Shoshanna Dreyfuss, the sole survivor of her family’s massacre at the hands of infamous “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa, is plotting the assassination of key members of the Nazi Party (including Hitler and Goebbels) during a film premier at her Paris theatre. The success of “Basterds” lies in its texture–the threads of the plot are kept distinct enough that at the places where they intersect, there’s a tension that’s created, leading to the literally explosive and laudably cathartic finale when all of the elements of the film are brought together.
Let’s talk about that tension, shall we? Many viewers have pointed to the talkiness of “Basterds”–this is an accurate observation. There are words and words and words, but the overall effect of all this is to create suspense that’s fueled almost entirely by people talking about things that have happened or are going to happen, punctuated by outbursts of graphic, kinetic violence. Knowing that Tarantino is heavily influenced by genre films of the 1970s, which are often characterized as dialogue-heavy frames to support far-out setpieces, this cinematic structure is a clever one. Through skillful handling of his actors, Tarantino manages to make the downfall of many a Eurotrasher (admit it–you’ve yelled “stop your infinite TALKING and MURDER someone, already!” at some point in your film-watching life) and turn it into an asset. THAT, lieblings and liebchens, is no mean feat.
There are several in-film acknowledgements of Tarantino’s pulp film inspirations that make “Basterds” into a period piece within a period piece within a postmodern commentary on cinema. The costumes and uniforms are painstakingly 1944, but the soundtrack (taken directly from war films, Spaghetti Westerns, and thrillers of a 25-year-plus vintage) alludes to the cinematic representations of World War II that form the backbone of the Me Generation’s and Gen-X-Plus-ers’ increasingly mythical concept of the Greatest Generation’s conflict. The use of intertitles announcing “chapters” of the film along with strategic typeset call-outs underscore that this is a fictional film of history, several steps removed from the true events.
Tarantino does more than just portray a fictionalized version of events–he compresses and re-writes the end of World War II as a crowd-pleasing finale of roaring flame and raining bullets. The decision to reorganize history so that the Führer meets his death at the close-range hand of a Jewish assassin (played by Eli Roth, whose eyeliner has *never* looked better) is a bold one, and it’s a testament to Tarantino’s confidence in the strength of the universe he’s created. If history was a suspense film, we’d demand a clean ending to the unimaginable horrors of WWII, closing out that painful chapter in history in a single night.
Let’s rewind a moment and go back to all that dialogue. The characters in “Basterds”
range from cartoonish to complicated to unnervingly sympathetic. It’s amazing that, in a movie as full of people
as this one is, there’s not a bad performance in the lot (with the possible exception of Mike Meyers reprising his Austin Powers accent as British General Ed Fenech [hee]). Christoph Waltz’ depiction of Hans Landa is wickedly smart, balancing charm with a significant creep factor. It’s a performance that distills the screen Nazi to his primary elements, drawing less from history than from the histrionics of film villains like Helmut Berger’s SS Officer Wallenberg in “Salon Kitty.”
In this version of the Nazi regime, it’s the SS that wields the power. They’re a deeply sinister brotherhood of slick, super-intelligent schemers. It’s interesting to note that High Command members Hitler and Goebbels are played for laughs–despicable men doing despicable things in the name of ego and self-aggrandizement while ultimately failing. That’s not to say that all
of Tarantino’s Nazis are comic book villains–far from it. At several key moments, Nazi soldiers in the field of battle display humanity and even courage. They’re men in service to a terrible leader, but they’re not monsters. It’s an interesting story element that adds yet more texture to the tapestry that Tarantino is weaving.
Tarantino is making a cunning central statement with “Inglourious Basterds”–film shapes our concepts of historical events. It’s not an accident that the vehicle of Shoshanna’s revenge is a pile of flammable film stock, or that the spy working with the Basterds is a German actress, or that Propaganda Minister Goebbels plays a central role in the story. More ambitious still–Tarantino couches his message inside what is intended to be an entertaining film. Judging by the crowd reaction at the screening I attended, he’s succeeded.
“Inglourious Basterds” is a movie that makes me excited about film. It’s ambitious, over-the-top, beautifully crafted, funny, and dense-dense-DENSE with significance. Not only is this Tarantino’s best film, this is one of the best expressions of the power of genre films that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing.