Inglourious Basterds Review
Quentin Tarantino’s latest advertises itself as a homage to those knockabout wartime thrillers where a motley crew land on occupied soil and kick the living daylights out of the Nazis—chief amongst them being The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare. Indeed, based on past experience, one can easily conjecture a train of suitable scenarios, replete with a hyperbole of bloodletting, Kill Bill-style. Tarantino’s eclectic tendencies are evident in the makeup of the crew, consisting of Jewish-Americans with an obvious axe to grind, and led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who has Indian blood in his veins and hasn’t been dubbed ‘Aldo the Apache’ for nothing! But, no doubt eager to thwart expectations, Tarantino has included surprisingly little in the way of scenes of extended action violence—the kind we are all too familiar with, that go on for too long and become repetitious, boring and predictable in their attempts to continually up the ante. Mind you, the violent scenes that are present are telling, including ickily realistic scalpings, throat-cuttings, head-bashings and some very creative usage of a Bowie knife; and indeed they work all the better for their relative sparingness.
So, in place of abundant action, what does Tarantino give us? The answer is… talk. Inglourious Basterds has to be one of the most incredibly talky movies going—and not just Vincent and Jules discussing burgers and foot massage on their way to a job kind of talk, but great long stretches of cut-and-thrust dialogue, where characters try to weigh up and trip up one another. The danger is obvious: too much talk can destroy the pace of an action movie, push it down into second gear and leave the audience frustrated. But not here. These dialogue scenes are unbearably tense, precision games of chess where a checkmate will most certainly be followed by a coup de grâce. Carried out in a mixture of English, French, German and occasional Italian, with subtitles, they truly exercise the eyeballs as one tries to appreciate the scene and read at the same time.
The opening sequence, where for perhaps twenty minutes Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz)—known as ‘The Jew Hunter'—interrogates a French farmer, gives a powerful taster. And further into the film there’s another lengthy scene in a bier keller—where SS Major Hellstrom (August Diehl) confronts some of the Basterds, masquerading as Nazis, which incorporates a game of Celebrity Heads—that is similarly brilliant in the build-up of its tension.
The plot centres on the clash of the Basterds and Landa, with another strand concerning Jewish girl Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who has her own reasons for wanting vengeance on the Nazis in general and Landa in particular. Everything crystallises around the screening of a Nazi propaganda film in Paris, Stolz der Nation (A Nation's Pride), which stars Pvt Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) as himself and depicts how he became a war hero, single-handedly gunning down 300 allied troops. The film has been masterminded by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who intends it to become a showcase for a new kind of German cinema, and wants the opening night to be a big event, attended by all the Nazi top brass.
Part of the beauty and trickery of the film is that nothing happens quite the way one would expect. Characters are paraded before us, carefully drawn and built up in importance, momentarily dazzling like fireworks and sometimes becoming extinguished just as quickly, so that their hierarchy is continually under question. Of the Basterds there’s Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), known as ‘The Bear Jew’, and Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger)—both with fearsome reputations as brutal killers, which they live up to with typical Tarantino-style relish. Also in the crew is the token suave Englishman, Lt. Archie Hicox—a great performance by Michael Fassbender—who is a film critic and an expert on German cinema, an unusual speciality for an undercover agent. The sultry and insouciant Shosanna and German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) add female verve and colour, whilst both kicking ass, as you’d expect. Of the Nazis, Goebbels and Hitler (Martin Wuttke) are comic book creations, but the puffed-up little prat Zoller is excellent, as is Landa, a superb reptilian villain, lethal in his charm and his perspicacity.
But, though his screen time isn’t that great, Brad Pitt steals the show and, in a very different way to how he did it in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, demonstrates how to dominate a movie. Talking in a deep south, moonshine whiskey-swilling accent, he is terrific as he addresses the Basterds, outlining the very un-Geneva Convention guerrilla tactics they will use; and throughout the action he comes over marvellously as a country boy you wouldn’t want to mess with, whilst at the same time maintaining an ironic undercurrent of comic ridiculousness at just the right pitch—no mean feat. He is also responsible for one frankly hilarious scene, where he attempts to talk Italian in that thick Southern accent.
Overall Inglourious Basterds will undoubtedly fall into that category of movies that you either love or hate. If you do hate it, then you can rip it apart in a million different ways, but to do that with Tarantino’s work is to miss the point. Basterds is, in a way (and no slur intended), like a very very sophisticated student movie, in that it’s out to have unrestrained fun in its own terms and cock a snoot to all the tiresome restraints of consensus reality—such any semblance of factual accuracy. As with Tarantino’s other work, there’s that startling juxtaposition of realism and unrealism, the two seeming to rub shoulders comfortably as they could never do elsewhere. His use of film as subject matter, both as a medium and as a physical substance, is highly inspired, giving rise to a visually spectacular climax worthy of any art movie. Tarantino remains one of the few filmmakers who can really surprise on the artistic level whilst still delivering a mainstream entertainment movie that a wide audience will enjoy… for many different reasons. For food for thought and persistence of striking imagery, lasting long after one has driven away from the cinema car park, Inglourious Basterds is undoubtedly excellent value.