A film review by Craig J. Koban August 26, 2009

Rank:  #4


2009, R, 153 mins.


Lt. Aldo Raine:  Brad Pitt / Shosanna: Melanie Laurent / Col. Hans Landa: Christoph Waltz / Sgt. Donny Donowitz:  Eli Roth / Lt. Archie Hicox: Michael Fassbender / Bridget von Hammersmark: Diane Kruger / Fredrick Zoller: Daniel Bruhl / Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz: Til Schweiger / Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki: Gedeon Burkhard / Marcel: Jacky Ido / Pfc. Smithson Utivich: B.J. Novak / Pfc. Omar Ulmer: Omar Doom / Major Hellstrom: August Diehl / Perrier Lapadite: Denis Menochet / Joseph Goebbels: Sylvester Groth / Hitler: Martin Wuttke / General Ed Fenech: Mike Myers / Francesca Mondino: Julie Dreyfus / Sgt. Rachtman: Richard Samuel / Master Sgt. Wilhelm/Pola Negri: Alexander Fehling / Winston Churchill: Rod Taylor

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino

“Once upon a time…in Nazi-occupied France...”   

So begins Quentin Tarantino’s INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, which most certainly has to be the most daringly audacious, swaggeringly inventive, and maniacally entertaining war film I have ever seen.  

However, pigeonholing it within the simple and neatly defined moniker of a “war film” certainly does not do it justice: Yes, this is a World War II film that uses that historical conflict as a backdrop, albeit very, very loosely.  However, within the hypnotically frantic and colorful imagination of Tarantino, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS becomes a whole other exercise altogether.  Part DIRTY DOZEN-esque war thriller, part European art house picture, part DEATH WISH-infused Jewish revenge flick, part 1940’s film noir, part 1970’s exploitation grindhouse caper, and a whole smattering of Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western overtones…Tarantino’s BASTERDS swings fanatically for the fences without a care in the world as to whether it has any semblance of reality or accuracy.  The film may not have the shocking and industry stirring freshness and vitality of PULP FICTION (what few films do?), but this is definitely Tarantino’s finest hour since that landmark 1994 effort. 

BASTERDS - which has very little to do with the Enzo Castellari 1978 film of the same name -  will easily have its detractors and…shall I say…outright haters.  Narrow-minded critics and viewers will come out saying that it glorifies and exploits painful memories of the Nazi-led Holocaust by using it to make a revenge-porn action film.  There is certain truth to that statement, to be sure, but the hecklers will overlook that INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is not engaging in historical veracity, nor is it attempting to ground its story in any sort of pragmatic past-reality.  No, Tarantino is using the Nazism and the horrors of WWII to boldly craft a macho-crazy Spaghetti Western with Great War iconography with further hints of French New Wave cinema.  More crucially, BASTERDS is a pure wish fulfillment fantasy from beginning to end (it has gnarly, tough, and head strong Jewish heroes that get to dispense with Nazi vermin as told in a story that gleefully reinvents history as it goes).  It tells a narrative that definitely would force the augmentation of many a high school history textbook. 

What the film does so marvelously and with so much passion is that it revels in its auteur’s obsessive love and knowledge of the movies itself: very few filmmakers are as nitpickingly knowledgeable and observant about the cinema as Tarantino and very few, in turn, display their zeal for it in their movies.  The greatness of Tarantino is simply in how he conjures up such an irresistible and smoothly orchestrated pastiche of multiple genres to embody a cohesive whole.  From the opening frame of BASTERDS – a very distinct visual homage to Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN – punctuated Ennio Morricone’s sweltering and blissful music cues, the revels in its encyclopedic knowledge of the movies it’s emulating.   

The plot itself – which revels in Tarantino’s predilection to unconventional storytelling devices and tricks – is divided into five distinct chapters, all which unavoidably coalesce upon the other.  Within those five chapters the film tells two distinct plot threads that are all meticulously tied together into a rousing and explosive (literally) final act.  In the first act – the film’s most sublime and masterfully executed – we are introduced to Shosanna Dreyfus (the luminous Melanie Laurent), a French Jew that is hiding with her family under the floor boards of a dairy farmer’s shoddy house.  Regrettably, the home is visited by a very shrewd, verbose, articulate, outwardly charming, but inwardly monstrous Nazi SS Colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, in a deliriously empowered performance for the ages), who just may be the most developed and innovatively written Nazi character in the movies.  This guy – infamously nicknamed the “Jew Hunter”, and for good reason – is not a one-dimensional, unthinking killing machine.  Upon his majestic and unforgettable entrance, this Nazi is simultaneously a slimy and barbaric butcher of lives and a crafty, ruthlessly smart, and cunningly literate figure.  He’s a Nazi Sherlock Holmes that blends seductive charisma with satanic aggression and repulsion.     

After Landa deduces – in a fiendishly suspenseful scene built upon Tarantino’s patient and lyrical dialogue exchanges that have made him famous – that the farmer is in fact harboring Jews, he orders his men to open fire on the floor boards.  Shosanna manages to escape the viscous slaughter and escapes to a new life later in Paris, where she lives under a new identity and – of all things – becomes the proprietor of a local art house cinema.  When the film catches up to her in successive acts she finds her life inundated with the flirtatious advances of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a recent Nazi war hero and a lavish and popular movie star, seeing as he portrays himself in a very well regarded (at least to Germany) war propaganda film that exploits his recent combat victories.  His film is to be held at one of the largest theatres in the city, but Shosanna finds herself in an audience with Joseph Goebbels (Hitler's right hand man), who eventually wishes her to host the premiere at her smaller, but more tastefully auspicious theatre.  When she discovers that most of the Nazi brass – along with one very important leader – will be in attendance, Shosanna hatches a mischievous plot for revenge.     

Now…let’s flashback a few acts to the “Basterds” themselves.  It is here where Tarantino’s wish fulfillment/Jewish-revenge fantasy takes a galloping leap forward.  These Basterds (by the way…not a misspelling, but yet another wickedly enigmatic stylistic choice for Tarantino) are an elite and feverously bloodthirsty tribe of Jewish American soldiers led by the pencil thin-moustached, former moonshine bootlegging Lt. Aldo Raine (in the film’s funniest performance of goofy, self-satisfied male bravado and tough talking war rhetoric by Brad Pitt, having an absolute ball here).  The men he leads have no interest in capturing the Germans at all.  “The Germans will be sickened by us, the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us,” laments Raine to his loyal troops, and their mission is to eradicate every “Wiener Schnitzel lickin’ finger” of the Nazi swine.  Oh, they do wish to capture key Nazi personal to elicit pertinent information from them to assist their mission, but when the SS unavoidably fails to assist them (as is the case with one darkly funny and shockingly brutal interrogation sequence), the Basterds unleash a whole lot of vengeful and remorseless baseball-bat bashing justice to their enemies.  

During one interrogation sequence Aldo hilariously, but intensely, question and intimidates a Nazi thug (“We ain’t in the prisoner-takin’ business, we are in the killin’ Nazi business.  And cousin…business is a boomin’!”), but he fails to get any answers.  This leads him to asking his toughest and most mean-spirited Basterd comrade to “oblige” the Nazi with death.  The killer is the “Bear Jew” that specializes in killing Nazis with several Babe Ruth home run swings to the noggin, and he is played by – whom else? – the beefy and crazed director of the HOSTEL films, Eli Roth.  His killing of the Nazi represents probably the movie industry’s only justifiably rousing torture porn sequence ever.   

The exploits of the Basterds have become so legendary that Winston Churchill himself and the British high command send in one of their own Lt. Archie Hicox (a terrific Michael Fassbender, barely recognizable from his hellish performance dedication in this year’s HUNGER, but refreshingly suave and urbane here).  Churchill, Hicox, and the Basterds hatch a plan:  They learn that all of the Nazi upper command – including ol’ Adolf himself – will be present at Shosanna’s theatre for the premiere of the aforementioned propaganda film.  Their mission: they will gain entry into the gala with the help of a gorgeous and resourceful allegiance-changing German actress named Bridget von Hammersmart (the luscious Diane Kruger).  While there the Basterds will, in no mistaken terms, shoot and blow up as many Nazis – including the Fuehrer - as humanly possible.  Unknown to them, though, is that Shosanna and her lover are also planning their own fiery and bloody eradication scheme of their own. 

This final act is a thrilling and bombastically entertaining send off for the film, which also manages to completely alter the historical landscape for the Third Reich in manners...well...altogether satisfying.  This, of course, is largely attributed to the lustful audacity of Tarantino to go against the grain of making yet another dime-a-dozen WWI flick; instead, he leaps well over genre conventions – and our knowledge of history – by unleashing a revenge-fantasy steeped within a bizarre parallel universe where all is not what it seems.  There is the sheer unpredictability of where the entire enterprise is heading from turn to turn, which only heightens the film’s tension and intrigue.  At 153 minutes, BASTERDS is a very patient and leisurely film, but deliberately so, as Tarantino is given enough breathing room to let his densely layered and multi-story arcs to play out naturally until they all come to a head – in some form or another – in moments of ear piercing violence and pathos.  Again, Tarantino may be the only director that has the goods to both glorify and deconstruct the divergent genres he’s mish-mashing together here, but there is nothing haphazard about his cinematic collage in BASTERDS; the film copiously borrows from other films, but not to plagiaristic levels.  The difference with the way Tarantino appropriates from the films he adores is in the chutzpah and imagination he displays in morphing them. 

The film has many moments of bustling ingenuity and intrepid style, but four key sequences will go down as the most meticulous executed and masterfully envisioned that you’ll find all year.  Of course, there was the opening sequence already mentioned with Hans interrogating the Dairy farmer, with festers with a hair-raising tension to nearly unbearable levels (Tarantino intuitively knows how to milk tension primarily with dialogue and interplay).  The second involves Kruger’s Bridget setting up a meeting with a squad of allied agents masquerading as Germans in a shabby and tightly confined bar where real Nazis engage in binge drinking and games.  Fassbender’s Hicox leads the group by trying to impersonate a SS officer, but there is one cunning and very observant Nazi officer just around the corner (in a perfect reveal) that comes to his table and begins to question Hicox's authenticity.  Embodying the tone of Hitchock in mass dosages, Tarantino mercilessly teases the audience for what seems like an eternity until a groundswell of tension builds that explodes in a ballet of bullets and brain matter. 

The third sequence is a quieter one, but also one that is still exhilarating, where Landa has a moment with Bridget at the film’s climax during the movie premiere that acts like a Cinderella fantasy gone horribly afoul.  Again, Tarantino fiendishly oils up his audience members with the casualness of the initial stages of these scenes, which only allows for their shocking conclusions to be that much more powerful.  And, finally, we the final action set piece showing the suicidal attack of the Nazi high command from both Shosanna and Aldo’s men, which will certainly be talked about for years to come.  Gratuitously violent and savage as well as being absurdist and cheekily preposterous? You betcha, but there is no denying that Tarantino is a man of his word by fulfilling his promises that this will be a World War II film of a different, more vengefully gratifying breed.   Perhaps what’s even more astounding is how well he manages to sprinkle in moments of macabre comedy amidst the final sequence's unapologetic carnage.  Perhaps the film’s most uproarious moment occurs when Pitt and Roth’s Basterds are forced to impersonate Italian film crewmembers (serving as Bridget’s escorts) that has a Three Stooges manner of buffoon-inspired guffaws.  

Pitt’s timing with one-word answers in stilted Italian is pitch perfect in this instance, and his whole performance is one that feels like broad caricature, but maybe it is, seeing as he’s playing a broad, patriotic war hero archetype in the John Wayne mould.  No matter, because he is a frequently hilarious, infectious, Nazi hunting hoot here as “Adol the Apache”, as is Eli Roth as the maddeningly lethal Bear Jew.  The film’s two luminous female leads, Diane Krueger and Melanie Laurent, give the film a nice injection of feisty, sexy, and intrepid femme fatal fervor (just watch how well Krueger commands the screen in that infamous sequence in the bar where she is surrounded by men both good and bad).  I also loved the super debonair Michael Fassbender as the Brit commando that once was a film critic in his pre-war life (for once...critics are the heroes in a film).   INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS has one towering performance in Christph Waltz’ terrifyingly wondrous portrayal of the Jew Hunter, a malevolent beast of a man in four languages no less.  It’s one of the most fascinating and hypnotic portrayals of a villainy in a long time, as Waltz morphs his character’s sardonic and well-mannered gentlemen with the black heart of a monster.  From the first sip of his milk in the film’s bravura opening sequence, this is a performance that is destined for Oscar gold.

Alas, the real star is Tarantino himself, who has came out of relatively obscurity in the early 1990’s and rushed into the Hollywood directorial elite with guns blazing ever since. INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS represents a Tarantino we are all familiar with – one that combines sharp and strappingly assured dialogue with avant-garde storytelling strategies with an aestheticized zeal for blood curdling, in-your-face violence.  Yet, gone from him is the reliance on pop culture referencing, the 1970’s grind house-martial arts/action milieu (which was exploited in his last three films, KILL BILL 1 and 2 as well as DEATH PROOF) and instead this is a Tarantino that – as he did with PULP FICTION – flamboyantly and defiantly gives a middle finger wag of shame to stale and regurgitated Hollywood formulas and goes boldly forward by carving out his own genre niche.  Of course, like all of the films on his resume, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS feels borrowed, but Tarantino homogenizes all of his influences into the ballsiest, most brazen, most cheerfully self-aware, and triumphantly and joyously indulgent war film ever.  

For those that wish to be bathed within the inertia of a Tarantino fantasia of his version of The Great War….INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS welcomes you.  All those whom are not…flee for the exits immediately.  

  H O M E