Inglourious Basterds: A Review

inglourious basterds

Of all directors currently making movies, Quentin Tarantino is by far the most interested in movies themselves. All of his films include specific allusions, both in subject and style, to obscure movies, and they often work within the conventions of very refined genres. His latest work, Inglourious Basterds, is supposedly both a war movie (sorry, Josh and Tim) and a “spaghetti western,” as well as Tarantino’s homage to The Dirty Dozen. Whatever that means, it is really, really good.

Given Tarantino’s infatuation with cinema, it comes as no surprise that the climax of Basterds takes place in a movie theater. The “Basterds” of Basterds—a ragtag group of American Jews who (in case you haven’t seen the previews) like to kill “gnatzees” for their leader Brad Pitt—have chosen this spot for an attempted assassination of the crème de la crème of the Third Reich as they gather to watch Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda flick, A Nation’s Pride.

This film-within-in-a-film tells the story of Frederick Zoller’s (Daniel Brühl) attempt to fight off 300 Allied soldiers while holed up in a tower in Italy; from the glimpses we see of this film, it looks repetitive and boring— though Hitler seems to get a kick out of it.

The movie is decidedly unlike Basterds itself, which is altogether uninterested in the kind of glamorization of lone soldiers in bell towers that makes for great propaganda. Instead, Tarantino begins his story on a dairy farm in Nazi-occupied France. A lone SS officer, played with brilliant aplomb by Christoph Waltz, with the nickname of “the Jew Hunter” comes to visit the farm in search of Jews hiding from the Germans.

The Jew Hunter, or Colonel Hans Landa, is polite, charming, persuasive, cunning and articulate in at least four languages. In other words, he is the quintessential Tarantino bad guy. Tarantino does not do unsympathetic villains (Bill from Kill Bill, Vincenzo and Virgil in True Romance, and even Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction are all very likable in their own way), and Landa never seems entirely unsympathetic— he’s just not on our side. He’s also tremendously uncool: After revealing his evil plan to Pitt’s character, Aldo Raine, he practically giggles:

“That’s a bingo!…Is that the expression?”

“You just say ‘bingo’”

Of all of Tarantino’s contributions to mainstream cinema over the last two decades, the most obvious is his establishment of a certain type of gritty, aestheticized violence as “cool.” The Basterds relish in brutally killing, scalping and carving Nazis, and Tarantino delights in showing us this: This is the complete opposite of a lone sniper holed up in a tower taking the enemy out from long-range. The Basterds also thoroughly enjoy doing what they do; they laugh, they have inside jokes, they talk about baseball, they have nicknames: It’s like summer camp, with genocide. Unlike the hero of the Nazi propaganda film, who walks out of the film because he doesn’t like seeing what he did, these guys are happy with their accomplishments.

What makes the Basterds so impressive—and, in the world of Tarantino, so cool—is their willingness to get their hands dirty. They don’t shy away from it, like the German “hero” and they don’t talk about it as much as Landa does— in fact, the Basterds themselves have hardly any lines at all. Instead of talking, they specialize in looking tough and earning nicknames: Brad Pitt is Aldo the Apache, Eli Roth is the Bear Jew and BJ Novak is the Little Man.* Two of those are just as intimidating as “Jew Hunter.” While the Nazis, and even the British officers in the movie, are filmed from far away, in big, almost empty, rooms, the Basterds are framed in close-up, in the mud. The message is clear: The higher-ups are nothing more than impotent, empty suits, while these guys are the ones in control, getting the job done. Instead of the Bear Jew, the officers are comprised of the Love Guru.

*Though I have a hard time believing that, in a group that includes Samm Levine, Novak would get saddled with the nickname “Little Man,” unless Levine’s nickname was something like “even littler man.” Besides, everyone knows that Novak’s height is average.

This, of course, contrasts with the film being shown at the premiere. The bell tower hero, who has become a sensation after playing himself in the film, is the kind of idealized, romantic war hero officers (and audiences) love: At one point of the film-within-the-film, he appears to etch a swastika into the tower he is defending during the ambush; doesn’t he have more important things to worry about?

This fake film is fraudulent because it ignores the gruesome realities of war—like Hitler himself who at one point tries to remove the phrase “Bear Jew” from military descriptions of the Basterds instead of eradicating the actual group. The Basterds are cool and heroic, however, because they acknowledge those realities and thrive in them.

When the gritty Basterds show up at the posh premiere (their rendezvous with a German actress/double agent may constitute the movie’s best scene, despite featuring none of its main characters), they stick out like comically sore thumbs and are, of course, fingered by Landa.

Tarantino is often criticized for equating “cool” with “morally good,” and if the Basterds were our only heroes in this film, that would be fair. If all Tarantino were doing was contrasting an effective German soldier (Landa) with some cooler, equally effective American soldiers, then the story wouldn’t have much substance.

In fact, though, Tarantino, as usual, gives the film a more solid emotional center and, as usual, it comes in the form of a blonde woman. Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna, the owner of the cinema hosting the get-together and a secret Jew who escaped Landa’s Jew hunting many years earlier. She and her boyfriend Marcel are, like the Basterds, trying to use this shindig for purposes of assassination, but it’s not as simple as Brad Pitt’s “we love killing Nazis” raison d ‘etre.

A scene in which Shoshanna comes face to face with Landa for the first time since he massacred her family is played brilliantly, with Waltz controlling the scene with typical deft and polite banter, while Laurent’s responses are simultaneously evasive, assertive, and frightened. This is one of many scenes that Tarantino saturates with tension and suspense by not letting us know precisely who has the upper hand, but it is the only scene that ends with someone letting out a frantic gasp of relief, as Shoshanna does.

That gasp allows us a glimpse of both the emotional vulnerability that lets us empathize with the character, as well as the human impact of Landa’s Jew hunting. Whereas the Basterds are motivated by sheer hatred of what the Nazis stand for, they themselves are trained killers, and there seems to be a grudging respect for Landa as a worthy opponent. Shoshanna, on the other hand, is motivated by what the Nazis—specifically Landa—have done, and what she does takes more courage and moral fortitude. 

Tarantino isn’t one to dwell on the melodramatic: Shoshanna’s gasp lasts about a second, but it is enough to give weight to what would otherwise be a rather simple “Nazis v. Allies” confrontation. And it is enough to convince any doubters that, in the scheme of things, killing and carving Nazis is pretty cool.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dan on August 30, 2009 at 11:57 PM

    My thoughts:

    (Although I did rather enjoy the ending) I do agree that the bar scene stands out as the movie’s best scene … so many things went right with that scene*

    *especially since it is somewhat of a throwback to Alistair MacLean novels such as “Where Eagles Dare” (and the movies based on them).

    Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. However (and not to reignite previous debates), this is what I think keeps me from saying that “Inglourious Basterd”s is an excellent movie qua movie:

    In the context of the movie, there is no motivation for the basterds action towards the nazi’s. On one hand I was thrilled to see the nazi’s hunted and tortured and shot to bits and blown up. I was thrilled to see fear driven into nazi’s at the hands of a group of jews. Of course, one’s knowledge of history fills in the gaps. But at times I almost felt a need to keep refreshing the historical context in my mind while watching. The first scene is the only part of the movie that provides this motivation, and for me this validated Shoshanna but remained disconnected from the basterds (perhaps because Shoshanna and her story remained entirely disconnected from them … more on this later). I’m not saying that the basterds were unjustified. I am saying I would liked to have felt a lot better about Nazi hunting and torturing than I did.

    The movie was long, but did not cover a lot of events. This provided a number of positives and negatives. It allowed Tarantino to spend a significant amount of time crafting important scenes (such as the bar scene), without making the movie really feel long. The problem, I felt, is that the movie seemed like a lot of disjointly related events/plot points without a real feeling of progression. We are forced to be told rather than shown (in one scene we are introduced to the basterds, the next scene we are told that they are infamous and striking fear into the germans … we have no sense in how they got there*).

    *although we do get to see “why” the germans fear them in the next scene.

    Many of the characters are flat and slightly uninteresting. Actually, this really just applies to the basterds. But I think this is just part of a larger issue; the movie really isn’t about the basterds. They aren’t really the movers of the plot or climax (their plan is comical, it is Shoshanna’s that really succeeds). In many ways, Shoshanna’s story is more interesting, carries more emotional depth and (when we see her image projected on the smoke laughing at the burning nazi’s) creepily awesome. The basterds plot was laughable (I mean, it was actually quite funny), but in the end entirely superfluous. And rather than tying these stories together in a complex plot, they are left parallel and unrelated.

    In fact, the movie could have been great without the basterds at all – yes it would have been an entirely different movie, but I think merely being able to make a statement like that means these elements should have been better connected.

    What we do have is a bunch of superbly filmed / acted / scenes that are incredibly fun and entertaining to watch. But when trying to integrate them into a full movie, I think “basterds” leaves a little to be desired.*

    *I understand all this** was his intention***, but I think the movie could have been better if any of these issues were addressed… (so, I guess, this movie is not beyond reproach for me).

    **meaning any criticism I made

    ***which goes back into the “well, because Tarantino did it, it was intentional and sublime, but for anyone else it would be a flaw”

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on August 31, 2009 at 3:22 AM

      I agree with a lot what you said, but my understanding (or excuse, depending on how you want to look at it) of the Basterds’ relative lack of motivation was that the film was really using Naziism as a trope. The movie was really more interested in exploring the concepts of vengeance and brutality, and so the Nazis were really just stand-ins for “bad guys.” I don’t think it would be an interesting point if the movie was focused on telling us how Nazis are bad; I think the interesting focus of the film was on the contrast between the actions/motives of someone like Landa and the actions/motives of someone like Aldo or Shoshanna. And I think the deliberately excessive cruelty of the Basterds is brilliantly juxtaposed with the situational vengeance of Shoshanna. These elements provide real substance and story for the film.

      I do agree though, that Tarantino is probably better (at least in this film) at making scenes than movies. Pretty much all of his movies have amazing scenes, but sometimes they connect better than others. This movie did feel a bit disjointed, but I still think the excellence of the acting and some of the great images (like Shoshanna’s face on the smoke, which was definitely “creepily awesome”) more than made up for this feeling.

      Reply

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  3. Posted by Dan on August 31, 2009 at 12:42 PM

    I agree that the movie would not be interesting if it was about telling us how bad the Nazis are. But I think at least a couple of more scenes would have helped (although, I guess, an additional scene in this movie would have added another 15 minutes). Since you say, “the movie was really more interested in exploring the concepts of vengeance and brutality,” I always thought to understand vengeance, you need to understand the motivation. Imagine the Count of Monte Cristo if the story began with Dantes in jail, or [insert other revenge story where it begins after the motivation].

    This, of course, is not entirely a fair comparison since we do have the scene with Shoshanna’s family …

    Reply

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