Inglourious Basterds (review)

Revenge Served Hot

Only Quentin Tarantino — cinema’s bad boy, the film geek who’s film-geekier than thou — would have the balls to state, as Inglourious Basterds comes to a close, that this could well be his masterpiece. Sure, it’s one of Tarantino’s characters who delights in his own achievement, that something he’s just done is his finest work of art in a medium he’s made his own, but that character is staring, cheekily, right into the camera as he says it. It’s Tarantino tweaking the audience, daring us to disagree with him.
Thing is, he might be right. Basterds is, well, glorious: a bleakly comic revenge fantasy that gets drunk on its own bloodthirst and invites us to join the orgy — and we do, oh we do — and then, when we’re so caught up in it that we’re hungry for more, he turns the tables on us and indicts our ferociousness. Which is perhaps the last thing I expected from Tarantino, who’s made a career out of pandering to fanboy yearning for blood and guts and the supposed glory that comes with it (see: Death Proof, Kill Bill Volume 1 and Volume 2). Or, no, actually, this is Tarantino’s point here, I think: He reminds us that it’s one thing to cheer on the most heinous acts of cruelty and vengeance on film — by god, it’s fun even! — as long as we remember not to forget that it’s all pretend. Inglourious basterds belong in the movies, not in reality.

Yes, Basterds is, hilariously, all about acknowledging the power of cinema: have your revenge, but have it on film, where it really will be more satisfying, anyway. Movies, to Tarantino and to those who are his most fervent fans, are incendiary, dangerous, explosive… or they should be! Movies can be literal weapons. (He implies here too — tee hee! — that film criticism can and should be all those things.) But Basterds is so superior to much of Tarantino’s previous work because he’s not just being a smug geeky basterd himself here: all the geeky movie jokes he deploys — from the 1970s-era Universal logo that opens the film and the old-fashioned “guest starring” credits to the film-within-the-film to that final parting shot — aren’t just masturbatory film-geekery. Unlikely many of his other films, this isn’t about feeding film-geekery: it’s about why and how movies can inspire such devotion in the first place. If many of Tarantino’s other films have been circle jerks in which he and his fans get off on one another and how clever they all are to be such rapacious film geeks, this one is making love to The Movies.

“Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France,” we’re told, a special secret squad of Jewish-American soldiers were dropped behind enemy lines with a special mission: Kill Nazis. Kill lots and lots of Nazis. Take no prisoners — take scalps. Make sure the Germans, when they hear about these deeds, are sickened by them. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt [The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading], in a glouriously basterdly performance) leads this squad with glee. And we cheer them on with glee, even this pacificist liberal who would, in real life, scold Raine and his boys for their war crimes and insist it makes them no better than their enemies. But this fantasy, not reality.

But Raine and Co. are only the beginning of the story. We meet them, and then they disappear for a long stretch while we are introduced to Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), whose Jewish family was massacred by Nazis and who now lives in Paris under an assumed (and non-Jewish) name and runs a cinema. And Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl: The Bourne Ultimatum, Joyeux Noël), a German soldier and war hero who’s starring in a propaganda film directed by Joseph Goebbels himself (Sylvester Groth: The Reader) about his own heroic deeds. And Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), one of the most terrifyingly calm monsters the movies have ever given us.

Tarantino — who wrote as well as directed — is building to one of the hoariest of WWII-movie plots: the plan to kill Hitler. Here, it’s scheduled for the Paris premiere at Shosanna’s theater of that propaganda film, Nation’s Pride. (The snippets we see of it were directed by schlock horror filmmaker Eli Roth — he made the revolting Hostel, but it appears he’s much better than that; Roth appears onscreen here as one of Raine’s team, too.) The plan is audacious. The resolution of it is even more outrageous. In between, Tarantino treats us to less spaghetti-western splatter than we’re used to from his films — though there is some, of course — and more suspense constructed from long, slow scenes that are so excruciatingly nerve-wracking that I didn’t even realize I had tensed up until they were over and I found that I was in physical pain from how tightly wound I was. Scenes of slowly mounting menace become the blocks that make up a movie of such agonizing expectancy that even the inevitable doesn’t feel inevitable… and isn’t.

It’s all so deliciously fantastical, in fact, that any suggestion that Tarantino is endorsing, in actuality, the kind of behavior Raine’s team gets up to — say, in our prosecution of the current wars we find ourselves embroiled it — has to be dismissed. But that would have already been the case, it seems, because surely the only way to interpret the disgust we feel as we watch a cinema packed with Nazis cheering on American deaths in Nation’s Pride is to question our own cheering on of the deaths of Nazis we’ve been witnessing, cinematically, all along. Right?

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