At the end of Inglourious Basterds a character looks into the camera and says ‘I think I’ve made my masterpiece.’
Some of my fellow critics felt that was a bit… much. Me? I loved it. Just as I loved every other single minute of Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, a movie that gets him right back on the track I thought he lost after Jackie Brown. Ballsy, brash and utterly committed to the revolutionary power of cinema, Inglourious Basterds is a completely remarkable film.
Tarantino has crafted a film that will likely defy all expectations; Quentin’s view of war doesn’t involve massive military operations but rather a small number of very personal acts of violence – bats to heads, point blank shootouts – that punctuate long, tense dialogues. And the tension of these exchanges – Inglourious Basterds is downright Hitchcockian in the way Tarantino stretches these scenes taut, creating almost unbearable levels of suspense between two people simply talking.
Much of that tension comes from Tarantino’s script – his best yet, with dialogue that flows much smoother than the tongue-busters in recent films like Death Proof – but much of it also comes from the director’s impeccable casting. The actors understand that the real action of Inglourious Basterds comes from the use of words as weapons, and the back and forth exchanges are as gloriously choreographed and as athletic as a martial arts battle. That makes Christoph Waltz the film’s Jet Li, the unbelievable vessel for so much inhuman goodness. The cry has been raised long before this review, but let me continue it: Christoph Waltz needs not an Oscar nomination but rather an actual Oscar in his hands. I believe he’s the lead actor of the film, but I understand that the politics of Hollywood will only allow him to be in the supporting category; at any rate he must have gold.
Waltz’ character, SS officer Hans Landa, is the real protagonist of Inglourious Basterds. The Basterds themselves are actually minor characters in a movie that bears their name (a point that is sure to irritate the shit out of people who, 20 years in, still haven’t figured out what a Quentin Tarantino movie is and think they’re getting a splattery actionfest), merely elements in a larger game that Landa plays. I would say that the entirety of the film is all about Landa – he’s in the first scene and he’s in the last, and he’s the single prime mover of the plot – if it weren’t for Melanie Laurent’s Shoshanna Dreyfus, a French Jew who escapes the clutches of Landa (known as The Jew Hunter) in the first chapter (the film is split into five chapters, each of which plays almost like a mini-movie) and who years later finds herself face to face with him in a completely unexpected situation that might offer her the possibility of complete and total vengeance. Laurent brings a smoldering sexuality and a roiling fierceness to her role, the latest kick-ass Tarantino heroine. Brad Pitt, who is really the third lead, plays things broader; chewing scenery and being such a ham that his Jewish soldiers should be nowhere near him, Pitt’s just having fun. Since the Basterds themselves have so little to do we rarely get to know any of them. Eli Roth is brutally charming swinging his baseball bat and Til Schweiger fucking rules as that perennial Tarantino character, Guy Who Is Badass and Who You Would Like to See Get His Own Spin-Off Picture, in this case the side-switching German maniac Hugo Stiglitz.**
Structurally Inglourious Basterds is a revenge picture; the whole movie is about the Jews taking revenge on the Nazis. Tarantino is obviously familiar with that most cathartic of exploitation genres, the rape revenge picture (a genre that barely edges out the avenging ghetto brother genre for catharsis, since the avenging brother movies rarely quite hit the kinds of vengeful notes for blacks that movies like I Spit on Your Grave or They Call Her One Eye hit for women. The reason: blacks slaughtering whites made the white folks who bankrolled pictures uncomfortable), and he wants to find a way to go beyond even that. The result is a revisionist fantasy that gives the Holocaust its own Paul Kersey in Eli Roth’s Donnie Donowitz, the Bear Jew and its own One Eye in the form of Shoshanna*.
But more than that it’s a paean to the power of cinema. By the end of the movie it’s cinema itself that takes vengeance on the Nazis (in one of the most powerful scenes I have experienced this year. Maybe it makes me a sick person, but I wanted to pump my fist in the air and cheer), and all along the way it’s cinema that informs most of what happens. The showdown between Landa and Shoshanna happens because of a movie premiere, a German actress works as a double agent to help the Allies, a British commando is selected for the mission because he was a film critic before the war. Shoshanna runs a moviehouse in Paris, where she meets a young German war hero whose life story has been turned into a propaganda film. In fact the Basterds are the least soaked in cinema characters, and that’s probably because they appear to have simply walked out of a movie themselves.
I love that this is a movie about movies. Tarantino’s films always have been that, in their own way, but here the cinematic elements are at the forefront. In the past he’s always commented on genres and movies and the way they intertwine with our lives, but at a distance. It’s been about playing with the elements of film that impacted him, but in Inglourious Basterds Tarantino is flat out telling us why and how cinema impacts him (and us), showing us first hand the motion picture’s unique power for catharsis, for vindicating and empowering us, for bringing us together. It’s a master class in just why movies matter, in just what movies can do and just why we love them so goddamned much.
* It’s worth noting for the squeamish that Tarantino gives the actual Holocaust a pass in the movie. There are no concentration camps and, with the exception of a very non-graphic (but deeply effective) machine gunning in the opening chapter, no atrocities. The crimes don’t need to be shown because we all know them.
** There were weird complaints from Cannes that Tarantino presents his Nazi villains as inhuman. Well, isn’t that why you pick Nazis as your villains? Beyond that, the complaint is simply wrong. There’s nuance and even some nobility in these Germans, and these traits are offset by the sheer brutality of the Basterds. There are some who will read this as a modern American War on Terror take – the Americans are quick to action and violence (the deciders) while the bad guys are preening cultural elite – but I simply don’t believe that Tarantino is playing it that way.