Movies become the battlefield and ammunition in Quentin Tarantino's surprising World War II flick
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino has always proudly worn his encyclopedic film nerdom on his sleeve. His movies and scripts are buckshot-riddled with knowing cinematic in-jokes, endless moments of unabashed homage, and outright narrative and musical and costume and character names and sound effects and typefaces and scene set-up rip offs. If his set pieces and frenetic dialog sometimes feel like overindulgent pastiche, at least he does so with entertaining brio and an inclusive camaraderie: His cinema allusions feel less like somebody flaunting his insider knowledge than invitations to share in the little-known-movies love-in. That element makes his films, for all their modern violence, unabashedly nostalgic, but Pop Art is always filtered through the past. With Inglourious Basterds, though, he does something rather daring: He offers unadulterated cinematic love as a way to rewrite the 20th century's darkest moment.
The result is Tarantino's most curiously confident movie since Jackie Brown, and arguably his first real stab at doing something completely his own. And it's nothing like the movie's ad campaign: Inglourious Basterds, as its trailers and posters suggest, is not a bunch-of-guys-on-a-mission, World War II action-adventure following the titular band of Jewish-American Army commandos--Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), Pfc. Smithson Utivich (B.J. Novak), Pfc. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), Pfc. Gerold Hirschberg (Samm Levine), and Pfc. Andy Kagan (Paul Rust), Pfc. Michael Zimmerman (Michael Bacall), aided by ex-German soldier Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who killed 13 Gestapo and is sentenced to execution before the Basterds bust him out of the pokey, all led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, looking like Clark Gable, talking like Larry Flynt, constantly furrowing his brow like a confused American bulldog, and having more fun than anybody should be allowed to have in a WWII movie)--heading deep into Nazi-occupied France to kill and scalp as many Nazis as possible. They do that, of course. But, for once, violence isn't Tarantino's palette here. The violence, when it does occur, is sudden and graphic, but it doesn't happen merely for its own sake.
Basterds, in fact, is more concerned with the plight of Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew whose entire family was killed when Sicherheitsdienst Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz)--dubbed the "Jew Hunter"--finds them hiding under a dairy farmer's floor. She gets away and hides herself as Emmanuelle Mimieux, the owner of a Parisian cinema in 1944. Shosanna becomes the unwilling object of affection to German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a sniper whose story Joseph Goebbels (an appropriately slimy Sylvester Groth) has turned into a propaganda movie called Nation's Pride to glorify Germany's fighting spirit. Because Zoller is so smitten with Shosanna, Goebbels allows Pride to debut at her cinema house, and the bulk of Nazi high command will attend. Shosanna plans to burn the whole place down with the audience trapped inside, while the Allies, aided by German spy/glamorous actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, finally getting to do something for once) plan Operation Kino to bomb the theater, with the help of the Basterds.
A mission called Operation Kino, a Goebbels' propaganda movie, and a movie theater as the final battleground--these are only a few of the deluge of movie-specificity that runs throughout the flick. Basterds is strategically lined with Spaghetti Western motifs (the first of its five chapters is called "Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France"), WWII movie nods, discussion of the 1930 and '40s German film industry, and a veritable mixtape of little-known movie soundtrack work, from Ennio Morricone to Billy Preston--including an arresting use of the Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie collaboration "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" that is one of Tarantino's most daft uses of soundtrack music yet. It's as if Tarantino is merely trying to beat the Nazis at their own game: Just as the Nazis tried to recast German national identity through movies, Tarantino uses movies in his movie as an effort to recast the outcome of the WWII.
It's obviously cheeky--the "Once upon a time . . ." also makes it feel like a fable, an entertaining story to ward off a child's nightmares at bedtime--but it's also excessively talky and borderline serious, and it doesn't tumble into full-blown carnage until the very end. By that time Basterds has almost earned its grand payoff after snaking through perilous espionage. And it's anchored by two solid performances that, finally, create recognizable human beings in the Tarantino universe. Laurent's Shosanna is Basterds' real heroine, and she's able to infuse her character with a beguiling mix of facades as she moves from being a Jew blending in into avenging angel.
But it's Waltz's Landa that owns the entire movie. Waltz fluently shifts from French to German to English to Italian, and he's suavely and chillingly sinister in each tongue. Landa is the consummately sophisticated Nazi who views Jewish extermination with a scientific indifference that effectively infuses the Nazi endeavor with a necessary element of heinous rationality: He does what he does because it's, as he sees it, morally right. That even a monster like Landa eventually pursues basic human survival instincts bluntly suggests the revolting fact behind the Nazi effort: People chose to do this.
That's a rather subtle, if obvious, point to make in a self-satisfied movie that indulges in moments of knowing gallows humor and pop-cultural winking asides, but it also may be the first time Tarantino's tried to let the real world--as opposed to the cinematic one--into his fictional universe. Inglourious Basterds wants to celebrate that simplest of themes, good triumphing over evil--even if it's only in the movies.