It must be a genuine thrill to be part of a Quentin Tarantino production. To be part of the creative process of somebody who is as uniquely talented as he is, with such an obvious love for storytelling and playing with the structures of film and narrative would be invaluable for anybody, but there’s also that added thrill that nobody can really anticipate what goes on in that gigantic head of his or what the finished product will resemble. “Inglorious Basterds” is so beautifully and lovingly layered as a story; Tarantino has created an entire fabrication of history which (for the most part) feels somehow credible and intensely gripping, and though it is of course pure fantasy, its so easy to get totally absorbed by this film, as we swallow what we know to be true and relish in the comforting embrace of what could have been.
The film is structured through a series of storylines running parallel to each other, each with its own distinctive and memorable central characters and the most explosive moments occurring when the protagonists clash and the storylines cross over. The film opens with Standartenführer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in his Oscar winning turn) interviewing a French farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family, and offers to save him and his family in exchange for turning them over. Landa and his soldiers shoot the hiding family through the floorboards, one of the daughters, Shoshanna, escaping. Some years later in the midst of WWII, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) has gained notoriety throughout Europe for his troop of Jewish-American soldiers who target Nazis and brutally scalp them to instil fear throughout the Third Reich. Meanwhile, Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) has made it to Paris and reinvented herself under the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. She operates a small cinema, and following a meeting with Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a German sniper famed for killing 250 Allied soldiers in a battle and the star of the new Nazi propaganda film “Stolz der Nation” (Nation’s Pride), propaganda minister Joseph Goebells (Sylvester Groth) chooses to host the national film premiere at Shoshanna’s cinema, where Hitler himself will be attending. Shoshanna hatches a plan to trap and kill all the guests and the senior members of the Third Reich, unaware that Britain has organised a covert mission to do the exact same thing with Raine and his Basterds.
Perhaps more so than any other Tarantino film, “Inglorious Basterds” is superbly entertaining; its a juicy story and some unbelievably strong performances. The brief but consistent bursts of intense violence are typical of Tarantino, but isn’t as much of a feature as say “Kill Bill” or “Reservoir Dogs”, although he was sure to get a good shot of Hitler getting pulverised by a machine gun. This is far more character driven, and the characters are so well done; you can tell the amount of love and thought that has gone into this script. This is with one major exception however, and I’m sure this is contentious because this is where a lot of the film’s comedy comes from, but I didn’t like Brad Pitt in this at all. For the character he was playing, Pitt is far too much of a pretty boy to pull this off, especially since Raine is supposed to be a grizzled, tough and merciless ex-soldier. I get that his accent is supposed to be a little cartoonish, but he seemed out of place to me for the entire film and was the only aspect of the story I couldn’t really get on board with. This is especially so when Raine meets with Landa, and Pitt scores a couple of cheap laughs by saying “Buonjourno” with his heavy Southern accent. For that entire scene, the credibility of the story, the characters and the plot all went out the window and it even felt somehow dishonest or blasphemous to see the convergence of those two narratives. Then Landa takes Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) off to a separate room and the trajectory of the story is back on track. Luckily, this is the only questionable performance in the film; Waltz is phenomenal, so sadistic and chillingly charming, but Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna is very impressive as well, playing her character as tough and resourceful while allowing the audience to sneak glimpses into her occasional moments of terror (particularly so when she dines with Landa, all the while knowing that he was the man who had killed her family).
What is most striking about the film are a number of stand out scenes in which the parties know that they are moments away from death but maintain the facade of pleasantries and cordiality. One is where Landa sits with the French farmer and interrogates him as to the whereabouts of the Jews hiding under the floorboards. Landa knows that they’re under there, the farmer knows that too, and every one of Landa’s honey toned remarks or friendly smiles are so terrifying because we know that Landa is only prolonging the inevitable bloodshed for his own cruel game. Another is between British commando Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) as he is undercover as a Nazi officer and Major Dieter Hellstrom, a sadistic member of the SS, play cat and mouse with each other in an underground bar. Both are as intelligent and charming as the other, and the tension of the scene is excruciatingly drawn out until everything finally explodes. What Tarantino does so well in these scenes is the use of close up camera angles and accentuated sounds, whether it be the dolloping of cream onto a plate or the filling of a glass with whiskey, almost as if to show how in the moments so close to death, the senses become heightened; the smallest things become exaggerated and amplified and the seconds seem to last an eternity because in that moment, there’s nothing else in the world, only those moments before the end.
“Inglorious Basterds” is slick, masterful, gripping and showcases a beautifully crafted story that subverts a well documented and known time history in a way that’s ridiculous and implausible yet somehow still conceivable. Tarantino knows that people will be expecting some kind of “Tarantino-esque” revenge for Hitler and the officers of the Third Reich, the more brutal the better. He delivers this in spades, and the result is satisfying and strangely cathartic; we know in our hearts that Hitler didn’t come to the grisly end that the movie portrays, and we know that the man in the film isn’t really Hitler either, but to pretend just for that moment and to imagine that there was some retribution for the evil he brought into the world is a welcome feeling.
By Jock Lehman