Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds features a couple of good acting performances, stylish cinematic flourishes, carnage on a grand scale, shameless amounts of directorial self-reference, and enough German, French, and Italian dialogue to tickle the ear of the starchiest Swiss film critic. Neutrality is not an option. Inglourious Basterds is essentially a rich and archly cross-eyed WWII farce, and if the reviews are an indication, it has a foot in two battling critical camps. Good camp or bad camp? Welcome to the Alsace and Lorraine of films.
Basterds relies on Tarantino’s most shop-worn storytelling conceit, the revenge fantasy. A group of Jewish American commandos parachutes into Nazi-occupied France to slaughter every German soldier they can lay their hands on. The leader of the Basterds, as they are known, is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), known as Aldo the Apache because he demands that his men scalp each Nazi they kill. In a film populated by caricatures, Pitt’s jut-jawed, southern-fried Aldo could be the best. A scar on his neck hints at a close shave sometime in his past. Also a Basterd is Eli Roth’s baseball bat-wielding, Boston southy-bleating Sgt. Donny Donowitz, known as The Bear Jew, get it? The Basterds, the ostensible heroes of this black fairy tale, are pretty flat characters, flat as the screen on which the audience witnesses them carry out a humorously sadistic campaign of cosmic vengeance.
The real hero is the young Frenchwoman Shosanna Dreyfus, played by Melanie Laurent, a pretty, fresh face. Hard not to notice that only the two star Jewish characters are portrayed by fairer-haired, lighter-eyed actors – Pitt and Laurent. Anyway, Shosanna owns a movie theater in Paris, where she hides in plain sight from the Nazi occupation forces (a circumstance never completely explained in the story.) When the Nazi brass decides to hold the Reich-studded premiere of a propaganda film produced by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) about the exploits of a young German sniper (Daniel Bruel) at her theater, Shosanna sees an opportunity to enact her own revenge fantasy. Meanwhile the Basterds get wind of the event, too.
Standing in the way of the Nazi’s annihilation is a perfidious SS commander, Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, played by Christoph Waltz. In Landa, Tarantino delivers the captivating character of the film, a man whose fiendish cruelty writhes beneath a comically solicitous veneer. Waltz gets the best the script has to offer – including dialogue in no less than four languages – and he delivers in kind, a mandibular grin clawing across his face even as he verbally stalks his quarry. Never on film has the simple act of eating strudel been enough to make your flesh crawl.
The other memorable performance is by Denis Menochet, who plays a French dairy farmer, a man on whom Col. Landa works his distinctive brand of coercion in the film’s opening chapter. The man’s half-lidded eyes convey more genuine soul than anything else in the two hours that follow.
In typical Tarantino fashion, the five chapters that comprise the film practically stand alone as vignettes. Each has a distinctive setting and feel. Tarantino’s wide-angle to hard close-up shots of the dairy man’s face a la Sergio Leone, plus his generous use of Ennio Morricone’s distinctive Spanish-style arpeggio guitar themes (Morricone wrote the score for Leone’s The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), these are reasons some (including Tarantino) have called Inglourious Basterds a spaghetti western, but that’s hardly the case. Tarantino uses those obvious devices most liberally in chapter one. The techniques are referential, but more importantly, they work. Indeed, chapter one probably works the best. The drama is real – the director lays it on thick, but we haven’t descended into full-on farce yet. The story becomes overly theatrical and disjointed thereafter as it bumps along. Visually, the film is richly styled, and Tarantino’s ear – for dialogue, for music (in addition to the Morricone, there’s some obscure David Bowie on the soundtrack) – keeps us in it. But the movie never really adds up to much more than Tarantino constructing his most provocative trope yet, Kill Bill hiding inside a film about a gang of Nazi-exterminating Jews. Even as two entirely separate movies, Kill Bill is a more cohesive and compelling whole than Basterds.
The graphic violence in Basterds is nothing new for Tarantino, though it does perhaps represent one of his many preoccupations as a filmmaker taken to the extreme. There’s nothing samurai about these guys. They’re blunt and brutal. But prize scalps are just another joke. The audience gets a kind of riotous send-up of all the things that make Tarantino Tarantino – gunplay, Mexican standoffs, and plans gone awry. Stilted dialogue heats the suspense to a boil. “Did you get that for killing Jews?” sneers Sgt. Donowitz to a captive German sergeant as he prods the black Germanic cross medallion on the man’s chest with the business end of a Louisville Slugger. The German sergeant fixes his executioner with a cold grey stare. I won’t divulge his one-word answer, but it’s badass.
Language, not violence, is at the heart of this movie. The dialogue alternates as much between French and German as English. The piles of subtitles are distracting and high-minded. Eyes want only to watch the characters on the screen.
But the extraordinary linguistic variation gives the film greater value, lending it dimension beyond farce, a classic cinematic feel to accompany the classic war-era look. If nothing else, the act of tuning the ear to a foreign language stretches the imagination. Suddenly Aldo the Apache’s florid down-home accent starts to sound exotic, as perhaps it was meant to all along.