Inglourious Basterds
Inglourious Basterds can be considered Tarantino’s literal take on the idea that cinema could fight the Nazis, and ultimately it is Tarantino’s love for cinema that makes the film so enjoyable.


8 December 2009

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Plot summary

In Nazi-occupied France during World War II, a plan to assassinate Nazi leaders by a group of Jewish U.S. soldiers coincides with a theatre owner's vengeful plans for the same.

Let’s not beat about the bush: Inglourious Basterds is superb. There has been so much talk and controversy surrounding the film before its European release – capped by a contentious appearance at this year’s Cannes – that I feel it’s important to state right away just how much I enjoyed Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering. Make no mistake, Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s best film since Pulp Fiction by a long way.

The film has a certain swagger to it right from the off. “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…” is the movie’s tagline, and after some stunning establishing shots of a remote and bleak French farm, the camera focuses in on the farmhouse for a scene that is steeped in all the sweat and grit of a Sergio Leone spaghetti Western. It’s a straightforward homage to the great Italian director in many ways, but Tarantino – perhaps the ultimate film buff – does it with such vigour that the results are spectacular.

Much has been said about Brad Pitt’s performance – as with the film itself, critical reception seems to be divided – but this opening scene is dominated by two lesser known actors: Denis Menochet and the quite brilliant Christoph Waltz. Menochet is a French farmer hiding a Jewish family under the floorboards of his house while Waltz plays Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa, an S.S. commander charged with rooting out the last remaining Jews in France. It is impossible to convey the sheer tension Tarantino builds up as Landa arrives, sits himself down in a chair right above the family’s hiding place, and calmly asks for a glass of milk from the trembling farmer. The outcome of Landa’s visit is, of course, inevitable, but Tarantino skilfully draws out the scene so that when the moment of brutality finally comes, it really hits home.

This, in itself, is somewhat of a departure from his more recent films. We are used to Tarantino movies being brutally violent, but while Kill Bill or Death Proof – to use two obvious examples – are unrelenting gore-fests, Inglourious Basterds is more sparing with its use of violence and is all the more effective because of it. The violent climax of the film, for example, is one of the most thrilling and disturbing moments in any Tarantino film; not because it is excessively gory – though this is no movie for the squeamish – but because the film builds up to the moment so impeccably.

In this respect Inglourious Basterds is more akin to Tarantino’s earlier work. Sure, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction are violent, but what makes those films so great isn’t simply their brutality, it’s the dialogue of their characters. Similarly, it is the dialogue that sets Inglourious Basterds apart. There is a charming moment in the opening scene – which starts off entirely in French – when Landa apologises for his poor French and asks the farmer if they can continue their conversation in English, thus allowing the rest of the scene to continue without subtitles. It’s a wonderfully knowing nod to the Hollywood tendency to fill the world outside America with characters that speak impeccable English with a foreign accent (à la Harrison Ford in The Widowmaker), and Inglourious Basterds is littered with such moments of self-referential humour.

Brad Pitt is responsible for much of the less subtle comedy in the film. As the stiff-jawed Lieutenant Aldo Raine, he leads a crack-team of American Jews on a Nazi-scalping revenge

mission in France, and it is this strand of the story that provides most of the slapstick laughs, as well as the more typical Tarantino gore (the scalping is particularly graphic). Pitt is neither as amazing as some sources have suggested, nor as terrible as others have claimed. Perhaps he hams it up a bit too much, and, while he certainly has his fair share of hilarious moments, he’s upstaged as soon as Michael Fassbender arrives on the scene. Fassbender isn’t known for his comic acting, but he is brilliant as the film-critic-cum-SAS-commando Archie Hicox. One of my few reservations about the film is that he doesn’t get the screen time he deserves.

There are other problems with Inglourious Basterds. Despite what the trailers suggest, there are actually two storylines that make up the movie (both of which are rather on the thin side) and the two are never really satisfactorily brought together. Pitt’s men-on-a-mission storyline is actually dominated by the separate revenge story of a French-Jewish cinema owner called Shoshana, who, when her cinema is chosen to host the French premier of a German war film, plans to burn it down with most of the leaders of the Third Reich trapped inside. This storyline is as implausible as it is historically inaccurate and is rather bogged down by an unceasing stream of movie references. Tarantino has always referenced other movies, but Inglourious Basterds takes it to new levels. German filmmakers Leni Riefenstahl and Georg Pabst are constantly referred to and Tarantino even borrows bits of soundtrack from classic war films such as The Battle of Algiers and The Alamo. A little less reflectivity and a bit more plot would have been welcome.

But, in a sense, Inglourious Basterds is about cinema as much as it is about anything else. Of course, during the Second World War many European directors – the Douglas Sirks and Jean Renoirs of this world – moved to America to escape the Nazis and made explicitly anti-Nazi movies, what are often referred to as the American propaganda movies. Inglourious Basterds can be considered Tarantino’s literal take on the idea that cinema could fight the Nazis, and ultimately it is Tarantino’s love for cinema that makes the film so enjoyable. Inglourious Basterds has been crafted with such obvious care, attention to detail, and – most importantly – sense of humour, that, despite its flaws, it is almost impossible to dislike.

Read the Pure Movies exclusive interview with Quentin Tarantino