Inglourious Basterds (2009)

Director: Quentin Tarantino

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By Roderick Heath

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France, a French farmer (Denis Menochet) watched a German motorcade approach his property, bringing into his life one Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an efficacious, polite, good-humoured SS enforcer who picks at any situation, character, and attendant appearances until the truth finally comes out—which in this case is that the farmer is concealing a Jewish family under his floorboards. Landa’s death squad fire into the floor, killing the family, except for one of their girls, Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who flees. Landa, instead of gunning her down, calls after her in his pleasantly mocking way, “Au revoir, Shoshanna!”

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Four years later, Shoshanna, now a grown woman and running a movie theatre in Paris, finds the path of her life crossing not only with Landa again, but also a charming young Nazi war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), his patron Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), and through Goebbels, the whole Nazi leadership. Also on a collision path with Shoshanna is a vengeful unit of Jewish-American commandos who have been spreading terror throughout the Reich with their unorthodox tactics, like scalping and baseball-bat beatings, using German film star and double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to forward their aims. Personages and events collide until the chance to end the entire war in one night falls into Shoshanna’s lap…or is it Landa’s?

I’ll crawl over barbed wire and eat turds to defend Quentin Tarantino, and I think I had to do that for Death Proof, so you’ll know I don’t count it lightly when I was initially tempted to call Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino’s most original and least coherent film. His most original in that it plugs into a new current of creativity, sporting a finale quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. His least coherent in that although it sports scene after scene of intricately handled drama and humour, dynamic in its textures and incidents, it fails to add up to a grand and unequivocal whole.

Condemning any artwork for not delivering what one hopes for and ignoring what it does deliver is one of the cardinal sins of criticism. So wishing for Tarantino-does-Where Eagles Dare might not have been wise, but yeah, that’s what I was wishing for. If you think it’s headed for a taunting, thrilling, Alistair MacLean-esque battle of wits between Landa and the Basterds, think again. Tarantino has much bigger fish to fry, and the Basterds come across as a retained element of older drafts of the script.

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The film is not actually a war movie. Instead, it is as intimate and, in a curious way, as resolutely down to earth, as Reservoir Dogs or Jackie Brown, which may indeed have been a conscious choice in pushing as deeply into fantasy as he does here. As in his early films, violence comes in sudden, intimate eruptions; there are no set action pieces like the House of Blue Leaves battle in Kill Bill Vol. 1 or the climax of Death Proof. It has much in common with Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book and Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution, which also churn retro movie imagery, modernist force, raw melodrama, and femme fatale glamour into a lumpy, but lucid singularity. All three films reflect that the Second World War is now a long time ago, but its imagery and associated emotions still retain awesome power that infuse explorations of still-contemporary concerns from across the spectrum of the modern world—sex, class and race, the manipulation of imagery, the nature of political leadership—with eternal potency.

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The tenor of the film, confirmed by the disgust a protagonist feels for watching himself in a war movie, seems dismayed by the impersonal slaughter of the genre. It doesn’t suit Tarantino’s fetishist tendencies or his what-goes-around-comes-around moral schema, which is vital to all his films. Although the very end of the film sports random, injudicious killing, it’s tackled with a vengeful gusto that captures the nature of true wrath. Nor is it as much a comedy as Tarantino’s other films. Although often very funny, Tarantino’s jokes are sleights of hand concealing a punch to the belly that arrives with more force than ever before. Inglourious Basterds is, deep down, a rather serious movie, which is perhaps why it’s not quite as much fun as expected. It approaches with deadly intensity the confrontations where life and death depend on the smallest gestures, and finds real disgust in Goebbels playing the maestro of movie-making in serving up violent spectacles for propaganda, and in the final, metaphorical edition of the guilty, postwar habit of giving a pass to former Nazis when they were useful, as Landa tries to wrangle himself a hero’s welcome to the United States. As far as it departs from the historical record, Basterds is vitally interested in the spirit of the epoch it portrays.

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So what kind of film is it? I’m not really sure, hence my feeling that it’s something original. It’s easy, but also incredibly reductive, to say that it’s a movie-movie, but that is, in a way, not at all true. Independence Day is a movie-movie. Basterds is something far more complex. Like Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, it leaps off from the telling image of an orphaned child seeking redress, and balances on a knife edge between tactile and immediate realism and flourishes of raw fantasy—even more so because Tarantino resists stylistic flourish and visual digression more than in any other film. Much as Pvt. Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (Eli Roth) takes a baseball bat to Nazis, Tarantino takes one to the familiar beats of melodrama; what appears to be set-ups for long narrative arcs may instead end in a blink, with the offhand death of seemingly important characters, as Tarantino tries to keep a step ahead of expectations. And yet, finally, this begins to hurt his capacity to sell a story. So many potentially terrific characters vie for attention that they end up cancelling each other out, so that, for instance, Bridget’s startling demise at Landa’s enraged hands and the liebestod consummation of Shoshanna and Stoller’s charged relationship don’t quite carry the weight they ought to.

I’m not sure if the film’s relatively restrained tone is the product of personal consideration or the result of commercial necessities. Although the chattiness, profuse film and cultural references, and moments of utter fantasia comprise a work no one else could have served up, in sheer cinematic terms, it’s Tarantino’s most limited and least stylish work. It mostly lacks the balletic camerawork, the relish of staging, the ukiyo-ye colour and fairytale art direction that gave the Kill Bill films their pep or Death Proof its forceful action sequences. Inglourious Basterds has so much to do in its running time that it both adds up to a hell of a ride and slight letdown. The Basterds themselves barely do anything that’s necessary for the course of the film, which instead, takes refuge in a series of Leone-esque scenes that in a rather more dialogue-driven fashion than Leone, trace small power plays, ploys, and vagaries of intent between characters in charged situations, building to explosive outbursts. Tarantino almost entirely avoids showing the Basterds in action; there’s one scene of them terrorising and disposing of prisoners after a battle. Only right at the end do two of them, Donnie and Omar (Roth and Omar Doom playing the same two scrubs they played in Death Proof in period drag, which is pretty funny in itself) get into action.

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The three key—and best—sequences are queasy-making epics of expectation and violent pay-off: the opening in the farmhouse; a taut set piece in a bar in which British lieutenant and former film critic Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbender), who has been assigned to contact Bridget and accompany her to the premiere, tries to bluff his way through a conversation with a suspicious Gestapo officer (August Diehl); and the finale. The film’s pitch is to be a Jewish revenge fantasy by believably hijacking the rather grotesque propositions of ’70s Nazi exploitation films like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS (1974) and Lager SS5: L’Inferno delle Donne (1976), and turning them inside out.

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And it is, finally, a hellish moment when the revenge finally arrives, Shoshanna’s filmed face, laughing mockery at the film audience being burnt alive and machine gunned from above by Donnie and Omar, whose faces are glazed with psychopathic indulgence. This comes after Shoshanna shares a kiss with her black projectionist and lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido), the ultimate slap at Nazi ideals. The whole sequence, whose orgiastic mixture of pop art and reverse-holocaust is something genuinely apocalyptic and disorienting, is distinctly less cynical than the finale of an obvious precursor, Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967). In the latter film, the indiscriminate slaughter of Germans and their whorish companions was detached from a context of the actual war, portraying instead a war of base, rugged individualism against oppressive culture; Tarantino’s film displays the revenge both a specific culture—Judaism—and a cultural trope— cinema—against abusers of both. Inglourious Basterds, both literally and in the textures of its filmmaking, sets itself against the appropriation of the raw potency of cinema, and it feels as much Tarantino’s “fuck you” to cultural dullards and the visual and conceptual blandness of much of contemporary cinema as it is to Nazism. In such a context, even Tarantino’s more wayward impulses service his messy idealism.

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I certainly won’t complain about the cast. Pitt, sporting a consciously pasted-on hillbilly accent (“Bon-jaw-no!”), is hilarious in the few scenes in which he has anything to do, but he’s far from the centre of this opus. Kruger, who’s grown exponentially as an actress since her underwhelming Helen of Troy (2004), might have stumbled directly out of a ’40s film with her alternations of bright-eyed bluff and gimlet-eyed grit. Mélanie Laurent is affecting as Shoshanna, rising star Fassbender is amusingly retro, and Brühl communicates both humanity and subtle prerogative in Stoller. Christoph Waltz’s Landa is as sublime as advertised. Anything Omar Doom does cracks me up. I’m not sure why Rod Taylor’s Winston Churchill or Mike Myers’ Lionel Mandrake-esque British general are there, but they are there, to be enjoyed in any fit manner.

Big, unwieldy, and eccentric, Inglourious Basterds will nonetheless stand as one of the signal movie events of the year. l

  • Pat spoke:
    30th/08/2009 to 12:15 pm

    Rod –
    Very fine and thoughtful review, as always. I particularly like that you mentioned “Black Book” as that film came to mind for me a few times as I watched “Inglourious Basterds,” particularly in the scene where Shosanna is at the cafe with Landa, struggling to conceal her horror at sharing a strudel with the man who gunned down her family – it direcly recalled for me the scene in “Black Book” where the heroine recognized the killer of her own family.
    I don’t have sufficient knoweldge of Tarantino’s earlier output or many of his references (Sergio Leone westerns, earlier war films) to put my appreciation of/struggles with this film into proper context. But I love your final statement here – that succinctly and perfectly wraps up the experience of “Inglourious Basterds” – and its subsequent, endless analysis in the the blogosphere and elsewhere.
    And I still need to see it again!

  • Rod spoke:
    30th/08/2009 to 10:49 pm

    Indeed. I expect this will spend a lot of time in my DVD player in the near future. I actually deliberately shied away from a lot of the commentary, apart from a couple of reviews by favoured critics (although I knew what to expect; I’d seen the script online, which is, admittedly, not the best way to go into a project like this).
    I’ve probably seen more black-and-white WW2-era war movies than anyone under the age of 35 and I was intrigued when QT said he was strongly inspired by many of them, e.g. Lang’s Man Hunt, with their still-dynamic sense of the war’s outcome, but really I found the film far more in thrall to ’70s trash and pop-art cinema – Leone, Fassbinder, Visconti, Tinto Brass.
    Dammit, I’ve never seen The White Hell of Pitz Palu. I do have The Blue Light lying around somewhere. Ah, Leni, you fascist minx…

  • danny spoke:
    8th/11/2009 to 2:47 am

    nice movie
    🙂

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