Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, B.J. Novak
MPAA Rating: (for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality)
Running Time: 2:33
Release Date: 8/21/09
Review by Mark Dujsik
The best way to describe what Quentin Tarantino accomplishes with Inglourious Basterds is to make the musical metaphor to a conductor (and technically composer, as he wrote the script, but we'll deal with that later). Every measure, every beat, every shift in intensity is so perfectly conducted as to feel that not a single frame is wasted.
It's very easy to focus on the script elements of a Tarantino film, as he savors dialogue—how people talk, what they talk about, why that's important to his characters—and plays around with narrative structure. As such, it's also very easy to overlook his skill as a director. I'm thinking specifically of Kill Bill (especially Volume 1) and his half of the Grindhouse double feature Death Proof.
In Kill Bill, his directorial proficiency is always on hand, and there's really no reason to go over it yet again. Death Proof, on the other hand, needs some explanation. The script is terrible—the dialogue unnatural—but, in spite of it, that chase at the end is all-out tension from start to finish. How he pulled that off despite an inherent lack of involvement in the material and characters so late in the game is proof enough for me of his strength behind the camera.
Inglourious Basterds (The misspelling is intentional), on the other hand, is engrossing from the start. The beginning chapter (with the deceptively charming title "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France") features an incredibly tense scene between a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) and an SS colonel named Landa (Christoph Waltz), who has arrived in France in 1941 already with the nickname "the Jew Hunter."
There's a definite feel of a Western in the film's opening moments. As the farmer chops wood and one of his daughters hangs laundry out to dry, a small convoy of German soldiers appearing in the distance.
Tarantino builds the scene between the two men with sickening momentum. It starts a pleasant conversation with the undertone of an unfinished technicality (with a funny momentary break in which Landa suggests they begin speaking in English, as his French is a bit weak and, an obvious but unstated hyper-fourth-wall in-joke, as the American audience will be more comfortable with it) and slowly turns into an unsettling moral dilemma of unfinished business. There's a brilliant reveal, both in style and timing, which changes the tone for the audience.
The climax of the scene sets up one of the film's two central revenge plots: Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman with no living family, who runs a movie theater.
The second revenge plot is established in the second chapter, as we meet Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who has assembled a group of eight Jewish-American soldiers. In an extended monologue, Raine tells them their primary mission: Enter France and kill as many Nazis as possible. He also puts a quota on literal Nazi scalps.
Yes, that is a quintessential revenge fantasy for the World War II era.
The two strands come together independently, as Shosanna is wooed by a heroic German sniper (Daniel Brühl) who killed an entire battalion of American soldiers. Goebbels has made a movie of his success to raise morale, and Shosanna sees the premiere as the perfect opportunity to earn her revenge. Meanwhile, Raine's soldiers become involved in the British-mounted Operation Kino (the Brits recruit a film critic for this mission, primarily, for his expertise on German cinema), which has a similar end to Shosanna's but with a means that constitutes considerably less property destruction.
All the while, Tarantino's script weaves history and historical fantasy, with major players of the era making appearances (e.g., Goebbels, a frothing Hitler, and a shadowy Churchill) or appearing in references (Lillian Harvey (Goebbels hates even the sound of her name), Pabst, Riefenstahl). There's a simply hilarious bit in which a German officer inadvertently points out the obvious political metaphor of King Kong while playing a game at a bar.
That bar scene, by the way, is another standout sequence. Operation Kino is dependant upon Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a famous German film star and double agent, who sets up a meeting with the Allied soldiers involved in a basement bar, which should be deserted.
Of course, it's not, and what should be a private conference is instead a slow-burning game of cat-and-mouse with a group of drunken German soldiers, celebrating the birth of a baby, and an officer, who is unconvinced by their dialects. The dynamics of the scene are best left unstated, but Tarantino's control of the tempo is particularly masterful here. The sudden silence, the drawn out pause, the respite of humor, and the final, morally ambiguous act are precise on multiple levels.
The characters are purely archetypal (if fictional) or caricature (if real), and, apart from the revenge theme so prevalent in the story, the thematic juice of the film comes in the way these models clash against each other. Later in the film, they begin to subtly break down or expand into a more human appearance. The drunken German soldier who has just received news that he is a father is one example, and the sniper hero with a schoolboy crush is another.
The biggest example comes in the form of Landa, who starts out as a cold, calculating, heartless man and ends up a unfeeling, manipulating, pitiless man on levels we cannot venture to guess until his plans begin to unfold. The ensemble cast is terrific all around, but Waltz is a standout here. There are unsettling flashes of humanity in his performance that heighten his stereotypically wicked role.
There are no pure heroes or villains in Tarantino's vision of WWII, just varying degrees of the dredges of humanity in a time and place where the shadows have free reign. Characters may work for the greater good, but their motivations are entirely selfish.
As they do their dirty work, the film turns into an exhilaratingly outlandish piece of exploitative propaganda during the climactic final mission. History is completely discarded (Perhaps the reason for the discarding of proper spelling in the title? Something is definitely amiss). Even so, the way things turn out feels just right.
With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has crafted a wholly unique view of people in wartime. It is startling to remember that this is only Tarantino's sixth feature film (Seventh if you count the two Kill Bills as separate entities; I don't), but it's even harder to imagine contemporary cinema without his voice.
Copyright © 2009 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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