Jan 16, 2020
Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Inglourious Basterds was released in 2009, and Quentin Tarantino fans everywhere prayed that it would at least be better than Death Proof. Luckily, Basterds was a creatively-charged return to form that not only became Tarantino’s highest grossing film at the time (until Django Unchained took the title four years later), but also scored eight Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and a Best Supporting Actor win for Christoph Waltz.
Like the majority of Tarantino’s films, Basterds is a loving tribute to exploitation/grindhouse cinema of the ‘60s and ‘70s (the title comes from the 1978 Bo Svenson/Fred Williamson action picture The Inglorious Bastards, but is not a remake), and provides an alternate history-based spin on the events of World War II, where a ragtag team of American soldiers plan to kill Hitler and take down the Nazi party with, naturally, a movie theater and highly flammable film reels. Starring alongside Waltz are Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Diane Kruger, and Samuel L. Jackson providing an expository voiceover. Utilizing multiple foreign languages and an eclectic soundtrack, the film also shines in a 35mm print.
The film opens in 1941 in Nazi-occupied France, where SS colonel Hans Landa (Waltz) is interrogating a French farmer over whether he’s hiding a Jewish family or not. By his tense demeanor, we can tell the farmer is in fact hiding them, and under Landa’s threat of harming his family, he quickly reveals that the Jewish family is under the floor. Landa orders his men to open fire on the floorboards; however, a young girl named Shosanna (Laurent) is able to run away from the carnage.
Next, we meet the Basterds of the title as they interrogate Nazi prisoners. This team of American (and mostly Jewish) soldiers is led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), who’s ordered his men, including Utivich (BJ Novak) and the baseball bat-wielding Donowitz (Roth) to collect one hundred Nazi scalps. Their tactics are vicious, and they torture prisoners for information. They spare a prisoner’s life in exchange for revealing the enemy’s position, but before they let him go, they carve a swastika into his forehead so that he can always be recognized as a Nazi (or as Raine pronounces it, “Naaat-zee”).
The film then tracks back to Shosanna, who’s now living in Paris under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux. She runs a local cinema, and this is where she meets the celebrity German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller quickly develops an affection for her, and because there’s a new film coming out celebrating his heroics (starring Zoller as himself), he convinces Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels to hold the premiere at her theater, to be attended by several high-ranking members of the Nazi government. And so, Shosanna devises a plan to pile highly flammable nitrate film reels behind the screen and set the theater ablaze during the premiere, while trapping the Nazis inside.
However, Shosanna isn’t the only one with a plan. The British government has begun Operation Kino which (apparently completely by coincidence) involves setting off dynamite during the very same premiere. British lieutenant Archie Hicox (Fassbender) is recruited due to his being a specialist in German propaganda films. He’s assigned to meet a couple of the Basterds in a tavern, all posing as SS officers, along with German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Kruger), who’s really a spy for the Allies.
To their surprise, the tavern is also occupied by a group of actual Nazis having a drunken celebration. Eventually, Hicox’s strangely-accented German gives them all away, and the tavern meeting ends in a bloody shootout. However, Von Hammersmark, Raine, and a few other Basterds are able to escape. Aldo Raine learns that Hitler himself will be attending the premiere, and this increases his desire to commit to the plan. He decides that the Basterds will also be at the premiere, disguising themselves as Italian filmmakers, despite none of them knowing any Italian.
Meanwhile, Col. Landa arrives at the tavern and discovers several items that connect Von Hammersmark to the shootout. This raises his suspicions of what will happen at the premiere, and he intends to find out the true intentions of the actress and her colleagues.
Landa has a short conversation with Von Hammersmark and an undercover Raine at the premiere, but quickly sees through their disguises. He strangles Von Hammersmark, and has Raine and Utivich held as prisoners, but then strikes a deal with them: he wants immunity in exchange for allowing them to go through with their plan to blow up the theater.
Finally, the premiere begins with Hitler and Goebbels in the audience. But they’re shocked to see Shosanna has spliced a clip of herself into the movie, telling all the moviegoers that they’re about to be killed by a Jew. Her partner sets the film reels on fire, and as the theater erupts in flames, the remaining Basterds start gunning down everyone in sight, including Hitler. Eventually, the bombs go off and the theater explodes, killing everyone inside and thus ending the war. The movie concludes with Raine and Utivich keeping their deal with Landa, but first carving the customary swastika into his forehead.
Inglourious Basterds is one of Tarantino’s most daring films, and that alone makes it a pleasure to watch. The film features his standard slicing and dicing of the narrative into various pieces and sticking them back together, and it also shows his usual love for (often pop culture-related) dialogue. However, the greatest addition to his script is the inclusion of multiple languages and a cast full of multilingual actors. The Basterds speak in a brutish English, while several of the Nazis switch back and forth between German and French, and Landa speaks eloquently in French, German, English, and also Italian in one of the film’s funniest scenes.
The rich dialogue and use of multiple languages makes the film a delight to listen to, and this is further enhanced by the soundtrack including original songs from Ennio Morricone, as well as a David Bowie song. Yes, a Bowie song originally used in a 1982 horror film underscores a scene in Nazi-occupied France, and it fits right in.
The style of the film is brazenly in the forefront, and this can be found in the use of sweeping camerawork that passes through floorboards, gives us overhead shots that combine beauty and mayhem in a projector room, and subtitles that translate, point at characters, and seemingly disappear when characters don’t understand the language either. Tarantino throws everything he can into this film, and it plays like a consistently inspired invention.
While all of the actors do a fine job, no review is complete without mentioning Christoph Waltz. He gives a performance that deservedly brought him instant stardom. You’re captivated by each word he says, regardless of the language, and he makes a detestable Nazi into the film’s most captivating character.
The film plays out as a series of vignettes, complete with a title card for each “chapter”, and its overall use of characters is greatly similar to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in the way that it puts emphasis on individual scenes and not larger story progressions or character arcs. It’s a unique way of writing a script, but it keeps the film from becoming a classic. While all of the scenes work on their own, a few of them don’t seem to be all that necessary. A scene where Landa eats strudel with Shosanna, while not knowing who she really is, is great and tense, but doesn’t do much to advance the story; likewise with a scene where Mike Myers appears as a British general to set up Operation Kino (and when you think about it, even the mission itself becomes extraneous to the story, seeing as how Shosanna’s plot would have killed Hitler even if the Basterds had never gotten involved).
The film revolves around the very real subject of World War II and the Nazis, and while Django Unchained tackled a similarly gruesome subject, Tarantino found a way there to balance those atrocities with his cartoonish and pulp sensibilities. In Basterds, there is no such subtlety or even respect towards the real-life subject matter. While not offensive, it results in a masterfully constructed film with a terribly childish undertone. Some of the “chapters”, particularly those featuring the Basterds, play like something a 13-year-old would write after learning about the Holocaust for the first time.
Now, this isn’t all bad. It’s hard to fault a film or filmmaker whose inspiration comes from grindhouse flicks like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS or SS Experiment Love Camp. There have been many tacky Nazi-exploitation films throughout the years, and absolutely none of them have been a quarter as good as Basterds.
One of the most difficult aspects of the film is accepting that Tarantino will likely never rise above being an exceptionally talented shock/exploitation director. Of course, he doesn’t seem to want to. It’s hard to fault a film for not being what you want it to be, but one can’t help but wonder what would happen if Tarantino treated his material with a little more maturity or respect.
He created a finer balance of historical absurdity in Django, but that film is overall less daring and exciting than Inglourious Basterds. It might be a more well-tuned vision, but it lacks the raw visceral thrill of seeing Basterds for the first time. While this is far from a perfect film, it is perfect as a Tarantino film: it’s both rough and polished, and it’s highly eloquent without saying much at all.