Right now, Quentin Tarentino is operating on a level which few filmmakers can come close to. For almost two decades he’s been a leading figure in the world of cinema and in all that time he’s never quit refining his unique style, every film he’s put out has only served to prove just how much of a natural eye for cinema he has. His first two films, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, are undisputed classics of the crime genre. His 1997 film Jackie Brown may not have pleased those looking for carnage, but it revealed a degree of maturity that may not have been readily apparent in his earlier work. After a relatively long hiatus he reemerged in 2004 to deliver Kill Bill, a film of the utmost craftsmanship whose first half proved Tarentino’s proficiency at action filmmaking and whose second half revealed layers of pathos which may not have been apparent at first. Then there’s Death Proof, the film featured as the second half of the Grindhouse double feature he put together with friend Robert Rodriguez. This film was not widely loved upon its release, but I stand by it. It certainly will never be looked at as one of Tarentino’s major works, but I think its unique narrative structure and razor sharp dialogue will be better appreciated by those who give it a second look. But amidst all of this activity there was always the prospect of his legendary World War 2 project, a film which he had been working on as far back as that post-Jackie Brown hiatus. The script he’d been working on began to take on legendary proportions and after more than a decade the movie has finally emerged complete with its deliberately misspelled title: Inglourious Basterds.
Set in a World War 2 that would be more recognizable to an Id Software designer than a historian, this film tells a pair of stories that are fated to collide in its final sequence. The first story is that of a French Jew named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) whose family is killed by a ruthless Nazi tasked with hunting down Jews hiding out in occupied territory. After four years she has adopted the name Emmanuelle Mimieux and begun managing a movie theater in the middle of Paris. After meeting a German war hero named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), her theater is chosen as the new venue for the premiere of a Nazi propaganda film about Zoller’s exploits. The other storyline is that of the titular commando unit which is composed entirely of revenge seeking Jewish American soldiers but led by the southern born and supposedly part Apache Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who claims that he is “in the killin’ Nazi bidness, and… bidness is a-boomin’.” This premiere is quickly revealed to be a hotspot for high ranking Nazi officers. So the “Basterds,” aided by an SAS agent played by Michael Fassbender, decide to target the place for an attack; but Shosanna has plans of her own.
You may not have noticed it amidst all the trouble Lars Von Trier was causing, but when Inglourious Basterds debuted at the Cannes Film Festival it was pretty divisive. I think that’s going to be the case for a lot of Tarentino’s films for a while, possibly for the rest of his career. In the directors own words in a GQ profile by Alex Pappademas “I’m not a nice-guy artist. When my movies come out, they draw a line in the sand.” Tarentino’s style has basically become its own monster and those who don’t like it will probably not like his films; he stopped making movies for “everyone” a long time ago. Those who do appreciate his artistry however will be rewarded in droves by his recent work and especially what he does with this latest film.
I found myself oddly excited by this film’s opening credit sequence, I say oddly because those credits are just large white letters over a black background. That may not seem like much but I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen such simple opening credits projected onto a big screen. This is the kind of credit sequence that people seem to have lost patience for a long time ago. Today, if there even is an opening credit sequence in a mainstream film it’s almost always either on top of the opening scene or at least accompanied by some other kind of added stimuli. These minimalist credits pretty perfectly establish the kind of courage and patience that Tarentino will use throughout the film and the scene that follows theme, a tense conversation between a vicious Nazi (Christoph Waltz) and a French farmer (Denis Menochet), embodies the attitude. In the hands of any other filmmaker this scene would have been a five minute throwaway, in Tarentino’s hands the conversation is a fifteen minute epic that builds upon itself until it finally pays off to heartbreaking effect. One suspects that the influence of Sergio Leone is at play in this, and many other long scenes like it, which build up for longer than one would expect only to be resolved through fast bursts of action.
We live in a time when screenplays are all too often written to exacting formulas and rules. The scene I described above is most definitely not within these rules and if someone with less clout had tried to submit it he would have quickly been shot down by a Hollywood reader unable to process such creativity. As the boldly two-act Death Proof proves, Tarentino has never been one to follow rules, and he breaks them with joyous abandon throughout Inglourious Basterds. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of short sighted reviews complaining about the film’s length, and I’ve got news for them: this movie is a minute shorter than both Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown and I didn’t hear anyone bitching about their run times back in the day. Granted, I’m sure most of these critics will claim that they are complaining about pacing rather than the actual running time, but frankly I’m getting more than a little sick of this lazy shorthand that has gotten out of control among critics as of late. Roger Ebert’s adage that “no good movie can be too long, and no bad movie is short enough” comes to mind. To me, if the material on hand is all gold I can watch it for hours on end. Nine out of ten times, if a movie is “too long” one should probably answer why it isn’t worth watching for as long as it runs rather than why it runs as long as it does.
I can understand why this pacing may come as a bit of a surprise to those who had their expectations shaped by Harvey Weinstein’s deceptive advertising campaign which makes this look like some kind of hyper-violent movie that mainly consists of Brad Pitt murdering Nazis. First of all, Brad Pitt is not the main star of the film; he’s just one part of a larger ensemble. In fact I’d be willing to bet that he has less screen time than some of the less known actors. This also isn’t an action film, there are no scenes of open warfare and the violence that is here is graphic but brief. Of course this kind of false advertising has been a staple of Tarentino’s career. Despite their blood soaked reputations, neither Pulp Fiction nor Reservoir Dogs really had much onscreen violence at all. People were similarly disappointed when Jackie Brown, Kill Bill Vol. 2, and Death Proof weren’t the action-packed blood baths they had been lead to expect. In general, Tarentino is not the carnage-meister that the public seems to think he is, and this film is no exception. Those looking for savage pleasures will probably leave disappointed, but hopefully there will be others who leave happy they witnessed something much grander than the low brow thrills they were promised.
As I just mentioned, Brad Pitt is not this film’s star, but when he is onscreen he makes for a very enjoyable presence. He goes all out in his depiction of a violent redneck hell-bent to kill Nazis. Those disappointed that Pitt isn’t a bigger part of the film can take solace in the fact that the rest of this ensemble more than matches his work. Perhaps the performance that most surprised me was that of Mélanie Laurent, a French actress whose previous work was unknown to me. Laurent has the always tricky role of a character forced to conform to a society they inwardly despise. Throughout the film she has a lot of banter with Daniel Brühl, a Nazi who’s clearly attracted to her. Brühl has perhaps an even trickier role because, while he’s a loyal Nazi, he seems like a genuinely nice guy and you suspect that in another life these two might have made a good couple. Both of these actors must perform in both French and German (more on that later), and another actor forced to contend with the language barrier is Michael Fassbender who plays a stiff upper lip Brit who must speak German in order to infiltrate Nazi circles. As for the titular “Basterds,” not many of them were given enough screen time to stand out. I’m sure that many will pick on the performance of Hostel director Eli Roth and Tarentino’s decision to cast him. My answer to this criticism is the same response I have to those who complained about Tarentino’s own cameos in previous movies (and the various M. Night Shyamalan cameos for that matter): that the only reason they are so bothered by their performance is that you know them as a director, if Eli Roth had just been some dude from central casting no one would have even bothered to comment on his performance, because either way he had very little screen time.
The performance that really deserves special attention is that of Christoph Waltz, who has created one of the greatest villains of recent memory. Like many characters here, Waltz must perform in multiple languages (English, French, and German), and no matter what tongue he’s using he comes off like a snake. Making a Nazi come off as evil is easy, too easy, which is why Tarentino does more with the character. This is a character that starts out interesting and only reveals himself to be even more of a devious enigma the more you get to know him. Tarentino could have given Waltz some sort of sadistic weapon or some kind of eye patch or something stupid like that, but instead he simply makes this man a dangerously intelligent and unpredictable opponent with a very strange interpretation of Nazi ideology. At one point he gives a dark speech comparing Germans to hawks and Jews to rats which is right up there with other famous Tarentino speeches like Samuel L. Jackson’s Ezekiel rant, Christopher Walken’s watch speech and Dennis Hopper’s True Romance speech about the Italian lineage. Waltz has already won a well deserved award from the Cannes Film Festival for this award and he also deserves Oscar consideration.
I just mentioned that a number of the characters here perform in German or French, and indeed a good two thirds of this film plays out in foreign languages with subtitles. Ninety nine percent of the time I’d unequivocally support such authenticity in linguistics, but here I’m a bit more on the fence. The only problem I have with the scenes in French and German is that I can’t help but feel like they’re robbing us of precious minutes of dialogue written by one of the English language’s greatest word smiths. Make no mistake, the subtitled dialogue is damn good; one can definitely tell that those scenes have been written with flare, but it just isn’t quite the same as hearing Tarentino lines spoken in the language they were written in. Then again, even the English material is relatively restrained stylistically and adheres more to the work he did on Kill Bill than Death Proof or Pulp Fiction; this probably isn’t going to be the goldmine of quotable lines that other Tarentino movies have been and I think that’s deliberate. In general I do think that having these lines subtitled rather than spoken in English is made necessary both thematically and by the plotline. As the film goes on, communication amongst people speaking foreign languages becomes very important to the film.
Oh, and as for historical accuracy, forget about it. Tarentino claimed to have spent much of his post Jackie Brown hiatus doing historical research for this movie, which had led me to fear he had finally grown up and was planning to make a “normal” movie. Thankfully that wasn’t the case, in fact I suspect that most of this research consisted of watching The Dirty Dozen a thousand times. This movie is set in World War 2 but is not about it, it’s really about something that Tarentino knows significantly more about than history: Film. Let me backtrack on that just a little, I’m sure there is a certain degree to accuracy to the minutia of the movie. The uniforms, weapons, and locations are probably authentic and a certain understanding of history does enhance a lot of the details in the movie, but ultimately the war here represents cinematic imagination rather than reality every bit as much as the criminal underworld of Pulp Fiction was a figment of Tarentio’s imagination rather than a document of any real crime syndicate.
When dealing with Nazis, most films rightfully examine the massive damage they did both during the Holocaust and on the battlefields of the war. But Tarentino seems significantly more concerned with what the Nazis did to the German film industry. It’s mentioned in the film that Hitler’s Germany was largely responsible for the demise of the unmatched Weimar era film industry. The filmmakers that weren’t driven out for being “decadent Jew Intellectuals” would only stay to find their talents wasted on idiotic propaganda films. Is this the greatest sin of the Third Reich? Probably not, and to most of the world it wasn’t worth punishing. So, who better than Tarentino to give cinema its much deserved revenge, something he does with the utmost skill during the films finale which can only be described as “wild.” To Tarentino cinema (and by extension art) is a significantly stronger force than Nazis, than Hitler, than history itself, and nowhere has he so vividly (and literally) expressed this than with Inglourious Basterds.
**** out of Four