by NIR SHALEV
“Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…” is the appropriate opening title for Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fable Inglourious Basterds. While very loosely based on the Italian film Inglorious Bastards (1978), this film takes a completely different path than its predecessor due to Tarantino’s flair for neat back-and-forth dialogue, scenes of unrelenting tension, and good ol’ Nazi scalping.
Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) helms The Basterds: a crew of eight Jewish American soldiers that murders every Nazi they come across. Aldo expects a hundred scalps from each of his soldiers and they are all glad to deliver on the quota, because no one hates the Nazis more than the Jews. Aside from Aldo “the Apache,” a nickname coursing its way throughout all of Germany, the second-most famous Basterd is Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, director of Hostel and its sequel), famously known as “The Jew Bear.” Donny likes to carry a baseball bat and he likes to beat Nazis to death with it; and The Basterds like to cheer him on.
Inglourious Basterds is a surprisingly misleading title because its main story is actually of a Jewish girl named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) who alone escaped a Nazi massacre of her entire family. Several years after, she goes by the name of Emmanuelle Mimieux and has inherited a movie theater from her late “aunt.” While avoiding the flirtations of the famous Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Emmanuelle keeps to herself and lives with her black companion Marcel (Jacky Ido). But Zoller informs the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels (the actual Nazi Minister of Propaganda) of her quaint theater and they choose it to premiere Goebbels’ latest film “Nation’s Pride.” Emmanuelle decides to trap all the Nazis that she can in the theater and burn it down.
The Basterds have a similar plan. Working secretly with them is the famous film actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who channels Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl. She is to attend the film premiere with a couple other Basterds as escorts and assist in the destruction of everyone inside, including Goebbels and Hitler. Like I mentioned earlier, this is a fable about WWII.
The crème de la crème of this odd masterpiece is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). As the man responsible for delivering the best conversational piece early in the film and then following it up with the massacre of Shosanna’s family, Waltz is a revelation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he receives an Oscar nomination for this performance.
Throughout 99% of the film Landa is calm and his words are chosen carefully. When he enters a scene, tension automatically rises; especially when he meets with Emmanuelle for the first time and dines with her, begging the audience to guess whether he knows her real identity. Landa is menacing because he’s never angry, he never raises his voice, he never overreacts like many other film Nazis do, and he is known as the Jew Hunter. He’s proud of his nickname because he earned it and he considers himself to be a great detective. He even smokes from a pipe that is curiously similar to that of Sherlock Holmes’. Great fictional minds work alike.
The film has a running time of just over 2 1/2 hours and is never boring. There are the few great dialogue exchanges within, a few spurts of violence, and most importantly a matured directing style like that used in Tarantino gem Jackie Brown (1995). While Kill Bill and Death Proof were excellent exploitations of their genre origins, Inglourious Basterds is a film shot in a traditional way.
With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino delivers a talky film that transcends the films of Tarantino-wannabes. The witty banter never hinders the plot; it’s merely the way people speak in this universe. And its quantity it greatly reduced in comparison to his other masterpieces Pulp Fiction (1994) and the Kill Bill saga. We know that QT’s truly a fan of the cinema and by dropping names like G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, and Max Linder we know that he knows who they are. But QT also incorporates the name-dropping into the story, adding to the period evocation so we really feel like we are in Nazi-occupied France.
Inglourious Basterds re-confirms that Tarantino is capable of delivering more than schlocky Grindhouse films and artistically stylized, violent revenge/action thrillers. We can see that the cast had a blast making it and also that we’re going to have to purchase another of Tarantino’s wonderful soundtracks.