Inglourious Basterds Review

It’s never wise to assume that a Quentin Tarantino film will play out exactly as the genre he’s aiming for. Inglourious Basterds has been QT’s pet project for years now, originally described as his World War II “guys on a mission” movie. Now that it’s finally out, it is far from that mold. For starters, it ended up not being a film about WWII, but about film culture instead.

Tarantino elects film—not the H-bomb—as the most important weapon of the war, thus basing everything here around it. The hero owns a movie theater, the villain is making a pro-Nazi movie, the elusive Allied spy is a movie star, the British operation leader is a film critic, etcetera. A movie is the target, the time bomb and the secret weapon in this story; and a movie premiere is the setting of the climax. In doing so, Inglourious Basterds uses film history as its bible. The French countryside looks more like a spaghetti western farm, while Nazi-occupied Paris evokes Godard and Truffaut’s France. You won’t hear anything about war strategy, but you’ll learn all about German and French cinema of the time.

This not only keeps it from being just another “greatest generation” movie, but also frees it from factual restraints. It’s a wonderful alternate universe that Tarantino has created here—the film equivalent of that Captain America comic book cover that has Cap socking Hitler in the jaw.

Divided into chapters, Basterds refreshes itself every few often, like a series of short films that forms a complete narrative once you put it all together. Take, for example, a 25-minute long scene set entirely in a basement bar. It has its own beginning, middle and end—compelling just by itself. It plays with suspense up and down throughout, making you wait for the burst of violence that you already know will end the scene. Particularly great is how it starts off with everybody loosened, drinking drinks and playing games, engaging in their fun-loving humanity, before gradually sinking back into their roles as Good Guys and Bad Guys. Yet even in those lax moments, they stay as the characters they’re supposed to be, and there's an anticipation as to when the other shoe will drop.

This is something the army of Tarantino imitators could never get right. Tarantino rarely inserts pop culture discussions just for the sake of indulging in it. At his weakest, he uses it as misdirection (the famous Pulp Fiction burger convo); at his strongest, he’s depicting how a character’s personality colors their worldview, and that’s what steers the conversation—not the references. In the bar scene, an innocent game of 20 Questions based on early 20th century pop culture allows a Nazi officer to casually slip in a racist observation. That a Nazi would have this thought is an obvious trait, but it’s still a surprise how naturally and suddenly it enters this game, demonstrating Tarantino’s firm hand in juggling the unexpected in his dialogue. This expertise is hard at work in the film’s opening scene, where the chief villain, Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa—played by Christoph Waltz in what is by far the most memorable performance of the film and a very strong contender as one of the year’s best—taunts a French farmer by comparing Jews to rats (somewhat forgivingly, which makes it even more heinous) while a Jewish family tries to stay quiet right beneath the floor.

A recurring motif in Basterds is the use of symbols and its contribution to the war. Brad Pitt’s Aldo and his Basterds leave behind scalp-less corpses throughout France to scare the enemy; they have nicknames like Aldo the Apache and The Bear Jew; and just as Hitler repurposed the swastika as his own symbol of hate, they in turn use it against captured Nazis. On the other side, there’s Frederick Zoller, a German soldier who singlehandedly killed hundreds of enemy soldiers and is the subject of Joseph Goebbels’ new film, thus becoming the rising symbol of the Reich’s glory. It’s deliriously cool, especially in the frenzied finale, how Tarantino juxtaposes Zoller’s role in Goebbels’ film to the Basterds’ role in this film.

I briefly wondered why the film is named after characters who aren’t even the main focus. Despite their insistence, it’s obvious that the main character of Inglourious Basterds is Shosanna Dreyfus, a French-Jewish survivor played strongly by Mélanie Laurent, who plots a revenge against the Reich for murdering her family. It occurred to me that it’s because the Basterds are the Allied propaganda, and like pretty much every WWII movie ever made, this is destined to be a retroactive propaganda film. The difference is that Basterds toys with that fact. If history is decided by the winners, then history is ultimately an altered reality, not unlike movies. It comes back to what the tale is supposed to reflect, and changing history is completely fair game.

Tarantino lumps patriotism, superhero fantasy and film history into one surprisingly coherent and thematically consistent epic, while simultaneously raising the flag that proclaims his love for cinema. No wonder he considers this film his masterpiece, as he not-so-subtly declares via Brad Pitt’s mouth in the film’s closing line. It very much is.

"Inglourious Basterds" opens August 21, 2009 and is rated R. Action, Thriller, War. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Starring Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger.

Aug
20
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

Popular

New Reviews