When have you ever watched a movie by Quentin Tarantino and felt like he showed restraint?
My relationship with everyone’s favorite cinematic culture junkie could be described as tenuous at best; Tarantino never shies away from letting his influences show in his pictures, and often his film fetishism feels tiresome and even disruptive to his work as he introduces new nods to his favorite films at an almost break-neck pace. Tarantino’s own indulgences threaten to overwhelm the stories that he’s trying to tell. And yet Tarantino is a master director who possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of cinematic technique; even the QT films I don’t like are constructed with a nearly impeccable craftsmanship that simply can’t be denied. (It doesn’t hurt his cause that he’s also one of today’s reigning champions of cinema; recently, he saved LA’s New Beverly cinema from being turned into a Super Cuts. A Super Cuts.)
I’m letting my reaction to Tarantino and his oeuvre be known explicitly to serve as a framing device for this review of his most recent film, 2009’s Inglourious Basterds (which is long overdue). My verdict in short? I adore it. (In the time that’s passed since posting my top 10, it’s moved up on the list.) I’m speaking blasphemy here, but Tarantino’s historical re-writing of World War II is hands down my very favorite picture amongst all of his works, a superior entertainment even to Pulp Fiction that showcases QT’s significant and genuine love for cinema in a way that dropping innumerable film references, obscure and iconic alike, into his works simply doesn’t.
With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino envisions a US unit of Jewish soldiers being deployed behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France in 1944, tasked with sewing terror and fear amongst their enemies through a campaign of brutality and torture. As it happens, the life and times of the Basterds only make up a portion of the film’s focus; in fact, they often feel like guest stars in a film bearing their very name. And given that a day in the life of a Basterd generally consists only of killing Nazis and scalping their corpses, that’s actually okay. As the Basterds carry out their mission, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who lives and owns a cinema in Paris, finds herself presented with the chance to take vengeance for the death of her family, slaughtered 3 years prior in the film’s opening by over-arching antagonist of the picture, SS Colonel Hans Landa.
The shape of her revenge (and make no mistake, Inglourious Basterds is definitely a revenge movie) bears little resemblance to the sadistic methods the Basterds so cherish: She plans to burn down her cinema on the opening night of Nazi propaganda picture Stolz der Nation (Nations’s Pride), a film by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) depicting the exploits of national hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). More specifically, she intends to do so by lightning up a pile of over 350 nitrate films. Film pops up as a motif throughout Inglourious Basterds: Aside from Shosanna’s scheme and Goebbel’s picture, Michael Fassbender’s British soldier becomes entangled in the web of assassination due to his pre-war credentials as a film critic. Tarantino here seems to be making a statement, intentional or no, about (speaking nebulously here) the power of cinema. For Goebbels, cinema is a means to motivate his nation; Nation’s Pride is nothing but pure promulgation promoting the strength of the Nazi party, manifested in the deeds of Zoller, but be that as it may his intent behind his picture is to boost the moral of the German people. And in this way, Inglourious Basterds highlights cinema’s ability to inform or, in the case of the movie-within-a-movie, misinform and obfuscate.
For Shosanna, cinema, literally, is a weapon, a tool for defeating her enemies and experiencing catharsis and relief for the murder of her family. More than that, the cinema is her shelter, a place where she can avoid or deflect attention from the prying eyes of the Nazis and live her life in relative peace. It is not until Zoller approaches her one evening as she changes the letters on the marquee that her safe haven is compromised.
Film fulfills a myriad of roles in Inglourious Basterds, so many in fact that the film becomes as much about examining the functions and qualities of the cinema as depicting brutal vengeance visited upon Nazis. Knowing Tarantino is a true film aficionado, that even may be the primary point that we’re meant to extract from his picture , but the man also adores exploitative grit and extreme violence so his intent remains entirely debatable. Whatever you choose to take away from the film, a love for the cinema undeniably runs thick through the core of its narrative. There’s no question that Inglourious Basterds came from someone with genuine passion for their craft, and while that point may be made about any film in Tarantino’s oeuvre, the movie-centric nature of Basterds‘ plot makes it much more of a love note to the art form.
For me, what further differentiates Basterds from many of Tarantino’s other pictures– the Kill Bill series, Reservoir Dogs— is how much he keeps himself in check in telling the stories of Shosanna and the Basterds themselves. In point of fact, he literally holds back, often choosing to remain detached from the violence inherent to his film. History shows that Tarantino neither fears filming brutal acts of torture, nor shies away from capturing human suffering on camera, and while the agony of the Basterds’ victims certainly translates, we’re often kept distanced from experiencing it in any intimate fashion. Eli Roth clubs a man to death with a baseball bat (and celebrates his victory with post-kill commentary straight out of Fenway); QT shows almost nary a trace of the grue up front, placing the camera to provide an idea of what Roth’s fury looks like. It’s an evocative and appropriately disturbing moment that generates tension based on what we imagine rather than what Tarantino deigns to show. And arguably, half of the fun of watching Tarantino movies comes down to the elegant mayhem he’s known for creating, but the fact that he defies that particular expectation in Basterds ends up being totally refreshing. Does it get violent? Of course. But the violence never feels like the focus.
Anchoring the film are sterling performances by the film’s true protagonist, Laurent’s Shosanna, and the intimidating, pervasive nemesis of all, Waltz’s Landa. For those of us who kept up with the Oscars, Waltz’s work here is award-winning (fact!), but take away that shiny statue and you’re still left with a villainous performance for the ages. Rather than make Landa into a mustache-twirling antagonist, Waltz turns the SS Colonel into a machine that operates on raw charisma, someone who smiles warmly and shares a glass of milk with you as he slowly leads you into engineering your own doom. Maybe what makes Landa so compelling as the monster of the piece is that he doesn’t identify himself as a Nazi, or even an anti-Semite; he considers what he does detective work, an analogy that borders on being so casual as to be offensive in light of what his “work” truly entails. Waltz imbues Landa with genial sensibilities that belie (or perhaps inform) his true nature as a calculating killer; he wades through the film instilling subdued reactions of terror in his enemies, a shark trolling for his next meal. In light of how utterly dangerous Landa is, that Waltz is able to flip him into someone we can genuinely smile at (his attempts at employing American slang are charming in their enthusiasm) is nothing short of miraculous.
Laurent’s role calls for a much quieter approach, and rightfully so. Shosanna lives her life in enemy territory, a Jewish survivor surrounded by people who gladly would turn her in for the glory of their party. She can ill-afford drawing the unwanted attention of prying eyes. And one has to recognize that her experiences (detailed in the film’s prologue) have hardened her as a person; Shosanna’s demeanor is tough, and it must be. Once Zoller has approached her for their first interaction, we wonder how many times Shosanna has rebuffed the advances of similar men. But Laurent gives Shosanna vulnerability, too; in her first encounter with Landa three years after his ordered massacre of her family, she holds a stoic line until his departure, where the actress permits her character a hushed moment for breaking down. In the end she seeks the same goal as the Basterds (unwittingly), but Shosanna has pathos on her side rather than mere unbridled wrath.
The Basterds themselves provide enormous entertainment, particularly Brad Pitt who here subsists primarily on a diet of scenery as he gnashes his way through the role of the Basterds’ tough talking Southern leader, Lt. Aldo “the Apache” Raine. He’s here to have fun, and it shows. (Thrill at his mastery of the Italian language!) Also coming out looking great are Michael Fassbender as the previously-mentioned film critic turned soldier, coolly delivering some of the best-written dialogue of the film, and Diane Kruger as German actress and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark.
But the film, despite the name, isn’t really about the Basterds; in fact it’s really not even about World War II at all. From start to finish, Inglourious Basterds is really an ode to film, a praise chorus composed for commemorating the cinema. As audiences we come to expect Tarantino’s love for movies to permeate his work, but here that love comes through in a way that feels entirely unlike the affection he shows in previous films. Inglourious Basterds is an accomplished testament to the power of film, and arguably the best film Tarantino has made to date.