Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 18, 2009)
When I heard Quentin Tarantino planned to make a World War II movie, I felt surprised. Tarantino seems to like to focus on the more recent past. For instance, neither Jackie Brown nor Death Proof took place in the 1970s, but they sure felt like they did.
So the idea of a Tarantino effort set firmly in the 1940s definitely intrigued me. The film starts in 1940 and shows infamous Nazi SS “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) as he seeks his prey in the French countryside. Landa indeed locates hidden Jews, and he slaughters all of them – except for 18-year-old Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who manages to flee.
Four years later, we find Shosanna living under the assumed name of Emmanuelle Mimieux. She runs a moviehouse and attracts the romantic attention of German Private Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). Shosanna doesn’t realize it, but Zoller is a Nazi legend: perched in a bell tower, he managed to hold off an Allied onslaught all on his own.
Because of this, Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) commissions a film about Zoller’s exploits. Entitled Nation’s Pride, Goebbels plans to premiere it in Paris. A smitten Zoller uses his influence to move the debut to Shosanna’s theater.
Burning for revenge against the Nazis, Shosanna hatches a plan. With many Nazi bigwigs in attendance – including one A. Hitler (Martin Wuttke) – she intends to seal the exits, start a raging fire, and kill the entire Nazi leadership.
In the meantime, we meet a band of US soldiers called the “Basterds”. Led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), this group seeks to cause terror among the Nazi soldiers. They attack on a personal level, take the scalps of their victims, and become the stuff of legend.
When the Allied command learns of the Nation’s Pride premiere, they intend to take advantage of it. The Basterds get orders to infiltrate the theater and kill the Nazi leaders – and anyone else they care to slaughter. This leads to much intrigue as the dueling plots unfold.
15 years after Pulp Fiction, it seems unlikely that Tarantino will ever produce another film that makes as strong an impact. Fiction was such a startling bolt out of the blue that it became a cultural icon; I think it’d be hard for Tarantino to ever quite stun an audience in that way,
While the 2009 Tarantino lacks the same “force of nature” brashness of the 1994 Tarantino, he boasts a greater level of maturity and he seems to suffer from less need to impress the audience with his cleverness. Don’t get me wrong: I love Pulp Fiction and will probably always view it as Tarantino’s finest work. However, like most of his flicks, it comes with a certain preening hipper than thou quotient.
Granted, Fiction really was awfully hip, so Tarantino got away with his smugness, and the director’s sheer talent usually carried the day in his other works. I don’t think Tarantino has made a bad movie to date, as I enjoyed all six of the flicks he created prior to Basterds. That said, we had seen moderately diminished returns; while good, none of Tarantino’s post-1994 films merited favorable comparison with Fiction.
And Basterds isn’t quite on that same level either, but I think it’s close. Or I think that today – time may change my mind. Right now, I find myself deeply impressed by what Tarantino did with Basterds.
Some of that comes from the fact that Basterds rarely offered what I expected to find. Based on trailers and my general impressions of Tarantino, I anticipated something wild, violent and semi-campy – a 70s exploitation flick vibe brought to WWII.
And that’s occasionally what Basterds delivers – but only occasionally, and only in a negligible manner. In Basterds, Tarantino walks a fine line. Sure, he shows hints of his inspirations – you’ll see signs of Sergio Leone as well as WWII-based efforts like The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen - but he doesn’t heavily indulge in these.
The director also manages to avoid stereotypical Tarantino tendencies. The movie lacks his signature flamboyant dialogue, and it comes without much of the self-conscious showiness that usually appears in his flicks. Again, aspects of these traits remain, but they’re not overwhelming; Tarantino seems content to evoke them rather than force them on us.
Which helps make Basterds a more fulfilling, complete film than the violent goof I expected. Tarantino seems truly self-assured here, especially during the flick’s opening scene. Basterds didn’t boast a huge budget, but it wasn’t inexpensive, either. Given the way the studio promoted it, I expected it to launch with a big action scene and lots of Pitt.
Instead, the first 21 minutes focuses on Landa’s mostly low-key search for the hidden Jewish family. Viewer befuddlement must’ve run rampant, as this scene seemed to come from an entirely different movie than the one anyone would’ve anticipated.
And it’s absolutely brilliant. The subsequent 130 minutes or so could’ve been awful, but Basterds would deserve attention for the taut, masterful telling of the search. This all evolves over a dining room conversation between Landa and the homeowner. It’s shockingly civilized and completely fascinating.
After that, Tarantino does indulge our desire to finally see the titular Basterds, but even then, he rarely gives in to expectations. As I mentioned, this isn’t the uber-violent “B”-movie it seemed destined to be.
Heck, Pitt’s Raine isn’t even the main character. I don’t think we really have a lead role here, but I’d take Shosanna or Landa over Raine. It’s a true ensemble piece, which you wouldn’t guess from the movie’s trailers; those focus almost entirely on Pitt and the flick’s action.
Trailers are often deceptive, but these promos seem even more wrong than usual. They offer very brief glimpses of Shosanna but offer no hints at her role in the film; it’s all Basterds and all violent. (Well, except for the Japanese clip shown here; it gives a little more attention to Shosanna and hints at a Kill Bill feel.)
Heck, if the ad campaign got butts in the seats, then I guess it’s all forgiven in the end. Basterds did fairly well at the box office, and it deserved that success. I have no idea how many of those patrons liked what they saw, as the film promised by the trailers wasn’t the one that ended up screen.
I do know that I really liked it. Basterds manages to have its camp and eat it too. There are just enough signature Tarantino moments to satisfy, but not so many that the movie becomes another glib hipster-fest.
Even when Tarantino takes anachronistic risks, it works. For instance, when Shosanna prepares herself to execute her mission, the film uses Bowie’s “Cat People” as the soundtrack. On the face of it, this seems like a bizarre choice, but it really soars; the tune’s moody intensity gives the sequence zing. Like the opening chapter, it’s a dazzling sequence, though for nearly opposite reasons; the former impresses due to its simplicity, while the latter succeeds because of its saucy implausibility.
Pitt and the Basterds may get all the attention, but Shosanna’s story becomes the film’s heart. In truth, the flick could’ve only told her tale and it still would’ve been good. Actually, the same goes for the Basterds; this is really two films combined into one, and either would succeed if separated.
But the combination turns the experience into something special, and the treatment of Shosanna’s plot becomes especially satisfying. She’s not some poor tragic figure who suffers from overt PTSD or anything. Shosanna is a warrior who feels the pain of her loss but is damn determined to get her revenge. She’s a Jewish Ripley!
Usually when a movie doesn’t deliver what I anticipate, I view that as a bad thing. In the case of Inglourious Basterds, it became a positive. The film surpasses expectations and becomes something genuinely special.