Kill Adolf, Vol. 1: A Review Of ‘Inglourious Basterds’
When Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last May, critics and audiences alike were quick to bash it as being, among other things, so very un-Tarantino-like. I beg to differ. Yes, it’s a heavy-handed period piece about the plight of European Jews during Hitler’s reign. And, yes, there’s a certain juvenile quality to the material that’s absent from his masterpieces, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. But make no mistake, Basterds is as certifiably Tarantino as any that came before it. All the trademarks are in place: the highly stylized opening credits; the lengthy, casual conversations at moments of impending doom; the cartoony ultra-violence; and, of course, movie references galore. Even the hunt-for-Hitler plot is reminiscent of Kill Bill.
Basterds evokes the feeling of what WWII would have looked like through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old comic book nerd. Let’s face it — that’s probably the age when Tarantino came up with the idea. And he’s been harboring the screenplay since his twenties. So now, many years and many drafts later, his fully-realized WWII fantasy is complete. It’s a mess, much like Martin Scorsese‘s long-awaited dream project, Gangs of New York, was a mess… but it’s also a lot of fun if you can make to the midpoint without falling asleep (I saw the late show and got a bit restless).
As usual with Tarantino, Basterds is composed of multiple stories all about one story: “killin’ nahhzis”, as Brad Pitt‘s character, Aldo Raine, would say. Aldo is head of an elite group of Semetic killing machines, primarily American, known as “The Basterds”. They are on a righteous mission to locate, torture, and scalp as many nazis as possible.
The Basterds are deliberately shown as strong, fearless Jewish men who relish the thought of exacting revenge on the Third Reich. When we first meet Aldo, he tells his men with a smirk, “The Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us and the Germans will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be with thoughts of us that it tortures them with.” The character they call “The Bear Jew” (played with excruciating intensity by Hostel filmmaker/Tarantino cronie, Eli Roth) is the most prolific of the bunch. In what must be a nod to Brian De Palma‘s The Untouchables, the Bear Jew goes postal on the Nazis with his handy baseball bat. But what De Palma turns his camera away from in his film, Tarantino shows us in full glory (no pun intended). The Basterds are an image of the kind of fighters we wish would’ve been around to combat the Third Reich. But, alas, this is not a realistic film. Tarantino indulges our inner Nazi vengeance and lets us taste the blood.
The other stories involve a French-Jewish refugee named Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) who, years after witnessing the murder of her family at the hands of Col. Hans Landa, aka “The Jew Hunter” (Christoph Waltz), opens a movie theater in Paris. One day a German war hero, Pvt. Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), develops a crush on her when he spots her changing the letters on the cinema marquee. He falls for Shosanna instantly. Then, as a supposed favor to her, he organizes a screening of a propaganda film based on his exploits, titled Nation’s Pride, to take place at her theater– to be attended by every major Nazi leader, including der Führer himself (played for laughs by Martin Wuttke). There is also a subplot involving a German double agent and actress, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), and her secret mission to help block the Nazis from spreading their territory any further. Eventually, all the paths intertwine and, together, they go after Hitler, making history along the way. Or re-writing history, I should say.
Basterds delivers what it promises in its ad campaign: a crude, Nazi-scalping epic that’s deeply embedded with cinema history (even film stock plays a major role in the plot). It’s a mishmash of styles, from pop art to War film to Spaghetti Western. The combination of the soundtrack–made up of dozens of scores from other movies, the gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson, and its sheer audacity, makes Basterds well worth while.
Not everything works, however. The first part of the film is rather slow and drawn out. It doesn’t really pick up until halfway through. There are also several moments when Tarantino and editor Sally Menke disturb the pace, momentum and tone in jarring ways. There is a montage where we see Shosanna getting ready for the Nation’s Pride premiere in full-on combat mode. She looks tough and ready for a good fight.
Too bad David Bowie‘s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” is blaring over the soundtrack. It suddenly feels less like a film and more like a cheesy 80s music video. I thought to myself, “What the hell is going on?” In another scene, mock instructional footage (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson) is abruptly inserted in between the action to explain an important plot detail. Tarantino breaks one of the cardinal rules of cinema by telling, not showing. Not to mention that this is the only instance in the whole picture where this occurs. Another part that threw me off was a strange cameo by Mike Myers. He appears as British General Ed Fenech, complete with fake-looking old person makeup and a hammy accent. For a few minutes, it felt like Austin Powers 4.
For all of its faults, Basterds is a unique film that sticks with you. Even the afore-mentioned scenes that don’t work are fascinating in their failure. Who else but Tarantino would attempt to incorporate all those elements into a WWII epic? Throughout its 2 1/2 hour running time, there’s a lot more to like than dislike about it. Half of the performances are extraordinary, in particular Laurent, Kruger and Waltz (whose sadistic and animated portrayal of Col. Landa is hotly tipped to receive an Oscar nomination). Pitt, Roth and the rest of the basterds, not so much. It’s odd how the characters seem to exist in different worlds. In the climatic scene with Waltz and Pitt in the interrogation room, it’s like watching Lawrence Oliver square off against Yosemite Sam. But that’s all forgivable because Basterds is, above all, a painstakingly crafted film, born out of passion. It’s a fascinating, uneven and entertaining mess that only Tarantino could have made.