By Francine Schwartz
From the moment the film begins, with the thumping soundtrack of a spaghetti Western going full blast and the words “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France …” superimposed on the screen, we know we’re in Tarantino country.
Film noir, Western, epic Hollywood, black comedy, you name it– Inglourious Basterds is Tarentino’s lovesong to the cinema.
An intricate fantasy of Jewish revenge against the Nazis, the story demonstrates the essence of what makes a movie a movie—situations and people looming larger than life on the screen. With Tarentino, everything is exaggerated—sometimes to the point of outright farce, as with Brad Pitt’s character. But that’s part of the fun.
As you move through the fabric of the story, you engage in something fantastic, something you know can’t be entirely real (it’s a movie afterall, and we never forget that for an instant); and yet in spite of the implausibility of many of the events, you willingly play along, because you wish that somehow that’s how it could have been. Sweet, sweet revenge. In this pumped-up, pseudo-reality, it’s just as Andre Bazin, noted French film critic, once commented. “The cinema substitutes for our gaze a world more in harmony with our desires.” This is what draws us to the cinema. And Tarentino plays it for all it’s worth.
It’s 1941 and a group of Jewish-American soldiers during World War II are spreading fear throughout the Third Reich by scalping and brutally killing Nazis in sordid retaliation for the horrors of their deeds. Headed by Aldo Raine, a non-Jew from Tennessee (performed with obvious amusement by Brad Pitt), who insists on receiving no less than 100 scalps from each of his soldiers, the group relishes what they do. And they’re good at it. The ultimate revenge sought by the soldiers intersects another plot of revenge—this one cleverly and selflessly engineered by a Jewish French woman, Shoshonna (played skillfully by Melanie Laurent) in retaliation for the death of her family.
Tarantino’s love affair with the movies is evidenced throughout the film–from the sight of Leni Reifenstahl’s name displayed on Shoshonna’s cinema marquis to Pitt’s character, Aldo Raine, whose name is a slight alteration of that of the famous 1950s’ actor, Aldo Ray. And there is Tarentino’s masterful use of classic cinema technique–extreme close-ups and longshots, inventive angles, and dramatic use of lighting and color, (especially red). Add to this an eclectic and killer soundtrack, which Tarentino considers as important as any other ‘character’ in his movies. Rather than sticking to 40s music, Tarentino brings his signature style to the soundtrack and makes it more contempory. Who else could mix “Green Leaves of Summer”, Ennio Morricone, and David Bowie’s “Cat People”. And throw in a voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson explaining the combustibility of nitrate film.
Tarentino tauntingly drags out the moments. The result in a number of scenes is an atmosphere so tense that you feel yourself being questioned, forced to think on your feet, knowing that the wrong answer can cost your life and that of others. Such a scene takes place in the beginning of the film when Colonel Hans Landa visits the home of a French dairyman, Perrier La Padite, in search of Jews.
Christoph Walz’s interpretation of the ruthless Nazi Colonel is nothing short of brilliant and will no doubt win him an Oscar nomination at the very least. He gives Landa the smooth charm, intelligence, and finesse of the educated Nazi stereotype, the guy we can almost like, but know we can’t. Because beneath the smooth veneer is the cold stealth and determination of a hawk chasing a rat. Denis Menochet’s portrayal of La Padite is elegantly underplayed. While seemingly polite and at ease with his unwanted “guest,” his eyes speak to us of the thoughts and fears he tries so desperately to keep hidden.
Although there are other moments in the film that delve beneath the surface to reveal characters with more than two-dimensional substance, you never see the kind of raw depth to human relationship like the one between the Uma Thurman and David Carradine characters in Kill Bill. Love so deep it surfaces beneath the hate. Hate so deep it manages to obliterate the love.
In Inglourious Basterds, we assume the scene with the dairyman is setting the stage for the rest of the movie. But it takes a different turn, becomes a different genre. For Tarantino, World War II seems to exist as a convenient vehicle for setting good guys against bad guys–a variant of the American Western. As beautifully crafted as the film is, it’s more of a comic strip come to life, where the audience needs to fill in the blanks between each frame.
That said, Inglourious Basterds is a rich tapestry of broad stroke acting, black comedy, as well as stunning and haunting imagery—even in the midst of outlandish fantasy. The movie is so entertaining that you can’t wait until you find out what happens next, but simultaneously want to stay in the moment, because you don’t want the movie to end. And in spite of its 152 minutes, it doesn’t feel too long.
Written and directed by Quentin Tarentino with cinematography by Robert Richardson, the movie also features Eli Roth, who is disappointing as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, and the beautiful Bridget von Hammersmark, who is convincing as the 40s film image of a German actress/spy.