Review: Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino

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.

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14 thoughts on “Review: Inglourious Basterds, 2009, dir. Quentin Tarantino

  1. Excellent review of a great film. I really can’t believe it got snubbed in every category at the Oscars except for Waltz. Melanie Laurent was deserving of a nomination at least. Thanks for the blogroll add! I will do the same 🙂

    • Yeah, no problem! I dig your blog, read it regularly, and I’d like others who check my page out to see yours, too.

      I definitely agree that IB absolutely was snubbed outside of Waltz’s much-deserved win, but I suppose more than seeing the film passed over at the Oscars, what really irked was seeing Laurent not even get a nomination. Frankly, she’s the closest thing to a “main character” that we get in the entire film, and she’s nothing short of spectacular.

      I’d honestly argue that she’s just as good as Waltz, even though their performances are completely different.

  2. Wow, what a great comprehensive reviews. Loved this film too. I don’t know if it’s one of Tarantino’s best, Pulp Fiction is one of my favourites, but it’s definitely up near the top of the list.

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      Pulp Fiction for me never really adds up as a cohesive whole, though each segment works for me on its own. It’s undoubtedly a strong film– just not one that I care to revisit that often. Inglourious Basterds, on the other hand, feels really refined, which should be expected after close to two decades in the business, and maybe that’s what does it for me.

      But really, as a film enthusiast, it’s the film’s central love for cinema that really makes IB work so well. It’s just a treat.

  3. You nail it. It’s about cinema and film and the power of film. I’m not sure it’s my favourite Tarantino film, but it was my favourite film of last year and one of my top ten of the decade. It’s a movie that shouldn’t work, but just… does.

    • Having rewatched it, I would even rate it higher on my top 10 of ’09, and I’d definitely place it in my top 25 of the decade. That’s a list I’d love to go back and re-work.

      I think part of what makes Inglourious Basterds work so well, apart from the fact that Tarantino’s love of and admiration for cinema truly shines through the story, is that Tarantino understands that making an exploitative WWII movie is undeniably vulgar, and he does a great deal to cut through that inherent quality.

  4. Good review – although I disagree entirely on this one. IB is, in my opinion, a rather baggy affair in which a decent story has been lost. Personally I wish the ‘Basterds’ themselves had been left on the cutting room floor – then we might have had something interesting.

    • Glad you liked the review even if you didn’t like the movie. I suppose I can understand the comment about the film being “baggy”, but I frankly feel like you could say as much about most of Tarantino’s movie. He’s a creature of indulgence. Arguably the greatest art is the art that includes only what’s necessary, but as much as the Basterds are secondary characters in their own movie, seeing them in action feels like it matters even if the film’s real conflict lies in Shosanna’s plot.

      That said, I could have easily watched 2.5 hours of Shosanna and Landa circling one another.

      Hope to hear more from you! Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Restraint in a Tarantino movie? That’s like realism in a David Lynch film! It’s crazy talk, Andrew, just crazy talk.

    “Inglourious Basterds” tries to do way too many things too big and that’s what I love most about (what I argue) was the best film of 2009. It contains the best villain Tarantino’s ever written (he’s said in interviews he thought he’d created a villain that couldn’t be played by anyone); it brilliantly rewrites history; it contains comedy and violence and outrageously bad accents; it has too many great performances to name, and many (like Melanie Laurent’s) that went unrecognized come Oscar time.

    This one is … a masterpiece. There’s just no other word for it.

    • I know, right? Restraint? Tarantino? But this is definitely a restrained movie, one where Tarantino indulges his best and worst tendencies without really letting either run wild and dominate the entire picture, for better or for worse. Again, Tarantino isn’t someone I have a totally positive relationship with. This movie is the kind of movie that I could commune with him over. Masterpiece is absolutely right.

  6. I agree, great flick. One of the best of 09. I was freaking laughing my ass off the entire time! Plus, there was some serious intense scenes: i.e. opening and the tavern basement. Seeing Hitler’s face get chewed up by a Tommy gun was pretty sick too. Good review, check out mine when you can!

  7. Pingback: QT, Je T’aime: My Love/Hate Relationship With Tarantino « A Constant Visual Feast

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