Wild, eclectic and way cool, Inglourious Basterds may be the quintessential Quentin Tarantino movie. That’s not to say I like it as much as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 – at least, not yet. But with this 2 ½ hour WWII epic, Tarantino’s obsessions as a filmmaker seem to have been given their fullest artistic expression.
Two of those obsessions – language and cinema – are at the heart of Inglourious Basterds. Cinema helps defeat fascism, and language is pivotal – when used precisely or imprecisely, it can get people killed.
Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is broken up into chapters. The first chapter is called “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” (a reference to Sergio Leone’s magnificent spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West). Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a high-ranking Nazi, visits the secluded home of a dairy farmer. Landa is a master interrogator, switching between German, French, English and Italian to give him the full advantage in any given situation. He suspects the farmer of hiding a Jewish family named the Dreyfuses. The interrogation that follows is one of the most thrilling intellectual exercises I’ve ever seen in a movie.
The scene is also thrilling in cinematic terms. One shot in particular, which reveals the Dreyfuses are indeed hiding at the farmhouse, etches itself into your memory. This is important because what the scene is really doing is setting up the film’s main revenge plot. “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France” closely resembles the “Origin of O-Ren” sequence in Kill Bill, Vol. 1. Both feature a massacre that alters the life of a young girl, and both use the music of Ennio Morricone to give the tragedies an operatic quality. I think the Kill Bill sequence – with little animated O-Ren cupping her mouth before the word “whimper” can escape – is more powerful. But Inglourious Basterds is on the same level. Another bravura shot, framed by a doorway, recalls the famous ending of John Ford’s The Searchers. It’s through this doorway that we see the massacre’s only survivor escape.
The second chapter introduces us to the “basterds,” a team of mostly Jewish-American soldiers who are so brutal they spread fear throughout the Nazi ranks. They’re led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee hick who claims to be the direct descendent of the mountain man Jim Bridger (1804-1881). These scenes demonstrate the director’s flair for comic timing and his tendency to switch moods without warning. The violence is often played for laughs, which (as is usually the case with Tarantino) will make some people uncomfortable. (For a critique of Tarantino’s style, I dare you to watch Michael Haneke’s Funny Games.) But it’s hard to feel guilty about giggling when the people being killed are Nazis. In a wildly violent flashback, a German badass named Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) kills more than a dozen of his comrades before joining up with the basterds. In this sequence and others, Tarantino’s mix of irony, comedy and bloodshed feels just right.
Besides Hugo, a few other basterds make strong impressions. Tarantino’s protégé, Eli Roth (he made the hysterical “Thanksgiving” trailer in Grindhouse), has some nice moments as Donny Donowitz, nicknamed The Bear Jew for his talent for beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat. And B.J. Novak’s line readings are so hilarious he’s convinced me to start watching The Office. But Pitt’s the main draw. My only complaint is that he never laughs; nothing compares to hearing that crazy laugh of his (e.g., the scene in Fight Club where Tyler gets beaten senseless by Lou the club owner).
The film’s three remaining chapters are devoted to a plot to blow up Hitler (ridiculously played by Martin Wuttke). We’re reintroduced to Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), the lone survivor of that opening farmhouse massacre, who’s hiding out in Paris and running a cinema. We’re also introduced to Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who’s in Paris to show his new film, Nation’s Pride, starring a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). As luck would have it, Fredrick meets Shoshanna and develops a crush on her. Shoshanna uses this to her advantage. At Fredrick’s insistence, the premiere for Nation’s Pride is moved to her cinema – all the better for her to blow it up using the theater’s large supply of highly flammable nitrate film prints.
Fredrick is one of the film’s most deceptive characters. He’s played by the fresh-faced young star of Goodbye Lenin!, and he seems like a nice enough guy as he and Shoshanna talk about 1940s European cinema and he pesters her about going out with him. It’s shocking when we hear him say “Heil Hitler!” for the first time or when he refers to Goebbels as “Joseph.” While Landa is more of an individualist, Fredrick is the true face of fascism – his personality has been swallowed whole by the Nazis.
The basterds also plan to blow up the theater, though Shoshanna doesn’t know this; it’s one of Tarantino’s most original touches that the two sets of plotters never find out about each other. The second plot, named Operation Kino, leads to an extraordinary 20-minute scene in a basement, where a German spy named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is waiting to lead the basterds to the theater. The suspense hinges on a strange accent used by a British Army lieutenant named Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). There are at least four great performances in this scene. My favorite is August Diehl’s charismatic turn as Major Hellstrom, a Nazi poster boy who becomes suspicious of Archie’s accent. Major Hellstrom’s evilly gloating face mirrors a phantasmagoric image we see later inside Shoshanna’s theater.
The climax (featuring a lot of dead Nazis, David Bowie’s “Cat People” and the sexiest red dress in all of Paris) rivals “Showdown at House of Blue Leaves” as the most entertaining and feverishly alive sequence of Tarantino’s career. Waltz has given us the most electrifying movie villain since Heath Ledger’s The Joker. And I haven’t even mentioned David Wasco’s period-perfect production design or Mike Myers’s amusing cameo as a British Army general. Inglourious Basterds is that rarest of things: an artistically pleasing crowd-pleaser.