I’m not entirely certain what to make of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009). It’s not a remake of the 1978 shoot ‘em up quickie (with ‘bastards’ correctly spelled in its title) by Enzo Castellari, although Castellari does appear herein in a very brief cameo playing, of all things, a Nazi. It’s certainly not anywhere close to being historically accurate, but an exceptionally skewed Allied counterpoint to the propaganda movies of Leni Riefenstahl. Its bloodthirsty, scalp-collecting Jewish mercenaries fronted by a redneck general with Apache bloodlines; its Jewish female protagonist who deliciously leers and howls from beyond the grave as an audience of high ranking Nazi officials burn to death in her theater, and the explosive (literally) revenge finale that has Adolf Hitler riddled in bullets inside his box at the theater (very Abe Lincoln, if you ask me) do more than hint at subliminal anti-Semitism, or at the very least, anti-American sentiment: making the liberators as well as the victims of the holocaust appear as maniacal, morally bankrupt and self-destructive as their Nazi counterparts.
Inglourious Basterds has all the ‘over’ and ‘undertones’ of a Sergio Leoni spaghetti western, its cavalcade of severely flawed and very anti-heroic figures managing to do some good in spite of themselves. Tarantino, a director primarily known for his tough as nails approach to most any subject matter, shows unremarkable restraint herein. His set pieces are raw and occasionally gruesome, but on the whole he seems more captivated in telling us his revisionist theory of the war years: a frankly unapologetic, and in ghastly poor taste bastardization to all those who lived through, barely survived and/or defeated the tyranny of Europe with infinitely more gracious dignity than the protagonists in this film. And yet despite its insidious amalgam of faux history and abject nightmarish fantasy, Inglorious Basterds holds together as semi-compelling – if wholly bizarre - fiction.
After Pulp Fiction Quentin Tarantino was hailed as one of the burgeoning masters in American cinema; able to cleverly exploit both the oddities and eccentricities of his own personality into an artistic milieu that simultaneously manages to revile and delight his audiences; marrying a very wicked, extremely dark sense of humor to the most perverted moral ambiguities of our steadily declining contemporary society. But in Inglourious Basterds that probative artistic license is rather inconsistently rendered with smite from an artist clearly drunk on his own reputation as an aging ‘enfant terrible’. Tarantino’s insertion of various title cards in a multitude of fonts is arbitrary at best and seemingly without any deeper meaning.
As example: it’s curious at best that our introduction to Sgt. Hugo Stigleitz (Til Schweiger), a murderous thug filled with inconsolable rage, should include a freeze frame with a massive stylized text of his name, followed by a brief back story of how he acquired his fear-inducing reputation. After this rather lavish overture Stigleitz barely speaks, is rarely seen on the screen, is given no pivotal moment to distinguish himself, and finally, is unceremoniously – and rather easily - killed in a ratskeller. Other characters receive no such ballyhoo, begging the inquiry as to why Tarantino should choose to have us focus on this one.
If a point is being made then it is beyond the analytical skills of yours truly. But it’s just the sort of contradictory diversion that Tarantino takes immense delight in perpetrating on his audience. Do such ‘in jokes’ work? Not sure. Am I supposed to get it? Again, not sure. Frankly, I’m tired of trying to figure Tarantino and this film out especially when the director has illustrated such glib gravitas toward his own work. When asked about his misspelled title Tarantino said he would never explain it. In a later interview he referenced its Basquiat quality and faithful phonetic adherence – “That’s just how you say it!” But that still doesn’t explain anything and with due deference of Tarantino, he hasn’t attained that sort of self-appointed autonomy in either his career or the social echelon yet to start inventing his own language – cinematic or otherwise. Given Tarantino’s overt and impenitent manipulation of history is it any wonder that Inglourious Basterds incurred mixed reviews upon its premiere; the pundits and praise-worthy grossly divided over its merit and overall cultural impact.
Le Monde politely criticized Tarantino for “getting lost” in his fiction; perhaps the kindest criticism the film received. Le Tablet’s Liel Liebowitz was less circumspect, arguing the movie as an “alternative to reality…where we needn't worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat.” By far The New Yorker’s David Denby was the most pointedly terse, likening the experience to having a “great pot of warm piss emptied very slowly over your head” describing the film in totem as “too silly to enjoy – even as a joke” and citing Tarantino as “an embarrassment” and “idiot de la cinémathèque.” I’ll throw my own shovel of earth over this open grave by simply saying that Tarantino should stick to fiction and leave history well enough alone.
At its best Tarantino’s screenplay is a not altogether successful mishmash of stylistic and narrative clichés, lacking his usual gutsy subterfuge to carry off the farce. Don’t misunderstand. Inglourious Basterds has some marvelous set pieces; two in which Tarantino manages to elevate the nail-biting tension of suspense into a near interminable frenzy for his audience. There’s good stuff here. But getting to it is very much like picking at a scab with the anticipation of finding raw, but healed, soft flesh underneath, only to discover a modicum of puss still oozing from an open wound.
The film’s prologue is set in 1941 with ‘Jew hunter’ Colonel Hans Landa (played to sinister and wily perfection by Christoph Waltz) arriving at the pastoral country cottage of dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). Landa baits LaPadite with cordial plaudits about his lovely daughters before stating the reason for his impromptu visit; that the Reich suspects him of harboring a neighboring family of Jewish farmers. To spare his own family total annihilation Perrier confesses to Landa that the family he seeks is hiding beneath the very floorboards on which they stand. Landa and his SS officers riddle the cellar with bullets, killing all but the teenage Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) who flees on foot across the open plains and miraculously manages an escape.
Fast track to 1944: American Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is recruiting Sgt. Donnie ‘the bear Jew’ Donowitz (Eli Roth), Cpl. Wilhelm Wicki (Gedeon Burkhard), Pfc. Smithson Utivich (B.J. Novak) and Pfc. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom) for a perilous mission behind enemy lines. These Jewish-American mercenaries have one assignment: to insight fear and chaos in the Nazi high command by butchering and then scalping as many Nazi soldiers as they can. Nicknamed ‘the basterds’ this motley crew begin a reign of terror by first breaking out Sgt. Hugo Stigleitz (Til Schwieger) from a Nazi prison. Stigleitz is particularly effective with a knife, relentlessly driving his blade into his victims until they have literally been shredded to bits. Donowitz’s specialty involves bludgeoning with a baseball bat. To say that these men make the dirty dozen look like twelve altar boys just out from choir practice isn’t an overstatement. The basterds’ are a repugnant and malicious band of cutthroats with little if any socially redeeming values. Their repeated successful ambushes infuriate Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke), particularly after German Pvt. Butz (Sönke Möhring) accounts his own harrowing encounter to the Fuhrer in person.
Moving to Paris, we pick up Shosanna’s story, now masquerading as Emmanuelle Mimieux – the proprietor of a small but fashionable cinema. A willowy looker with an understandable natural distaste for German soldiers, Shosanna catches the eye of German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl); a congenial enough fellow whose heroic exploits have become the subject of Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) latest propaganda film, ‘Nation’s Pride’. Zoller pursues Shosanna romantically, but is repeatedly shot down for his efforts. The stalemate in this pas deux leads into Tarantino’s first flash of brilliance in the film: the unanticipated reunion between Shosanna and Landa. Escorted by a pair of storm troopers to one of Paris’ more fashionable restaurants, Shosanna is mildly relieved to discover that she has been brought there at Zoller’s behest. In fact, Zoller has suggested to Goebbels (who is also having lunch there) that the premiere of ‘Nation’s Pride’ be held at Shosanna’s theatre instead of the more grand venue as earlier planned.
The luncheon is interrupted by Landa who ingratiates himself into their conversation, then joins Shosanna for dessert. Does Landa recognize Shosanna as the girl whose back he only saw briefly as she fled in terror from LaPedite’s cottage three years earlier? Or are his slippery insinuations merely that; designed to exculpate his curiosities about this woman Zoller has suddenly taken a romantic fancy? Returning to the relative safety of her theater afterward, Shosanna conspires with her hired man and lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido) on a murderous plot of her own. On the eve of ‘Nation’s Pride’ premiere she will lock all of the Nazis inside, confront them with their atrocities and then burn down the theater.
Meanwhile in England, film critic Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is recruited by Gen. Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) in the presence of Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) for ‘Operation Kino’. Hicox’s contact is German film star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a double agent who, along with the Basterds will attend the premiere and plant explosives inside the theater. Regrettably, this well laid plan goes hopelessly awry. For as Stieglitz and Hicox meet Hammersmark inside a basement tavern to synchronize their plan of action, they are confronted by Staff Sergeant Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling) who is in mid-celebration over the birth of his baby son with a group of soldiers. Despite Hicox ability to speak fluent German Sturmbannführer Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) detects his ‘Anglicized’ accent. Hicox lies that he was born in a remote village of mixed origin and Hellstrom plays along, engaging the trio in a game of charades that ends when Hicox gives himself away by signaling for a round of drinks using the wrong fingers.
In the ensuing firefight everyone except Wilhelm and Hammersmark is killed, although she has sustained a gunshot wound with the bullet still lodged in her shinbone. Raine makes his presence known at the top of the stairs and attempts to negotiate a détente, giving Hammersmark just enough time to seize a gun off of Stiglitz’s body and shoot Wilhelm dead. Upon confiding her insider’s info that Hitler will be attending the premiere, Raine makes the crucial decision to go ahead with their plan. Fitting Hammersmark’s leg in a cast Raine, Donny and Omar pose as Hammersmark’s Italian escorts and her cameraman at the premiere.
But Landa is not fooled by Hammersmark, her mountain-climbing story of how she supposedly broke her leg, or her non-verbal entourage. After quietly ushering Hammersmark into one of the private offices upstairs, Landa confronts her with a shoe recovered from the tavern and the handkerchief she autographed for Wilhelm in the moments leading up to the gunfight. Unable to salvage a reply, Hammersmark is violently strangled to death and Raines taken prisoner. But it seems Landa has decided not to intervene in the Basterds plan to assassinate Hitler. In exchange for his complicity in their plot he demands immunity from all previous war crimes, American citizenship and a lifetime of financial security. Reluctantly, Raine agrees.
Meanwhile, as the screening of Nation’s Pride begins Zoller excuses himself from Goebbel’s box to slip into the projection room where he envisions a seduction of Shosanna. Instead the two fatally shoot one another to death. Prompted by a projected image of Shosanna shot earlier by Marcel and spliced into ‘Nation’s Pride’ – where she venomously extols the sublime irony of having a Jew murder Germans - Marcel, who has been waiting behind the screen with a pile of highly flammable nitrate, ignites the film stock with his lit cigarette. The theater goes up in flames and Omar and Donowitz, with TNT strapped to their ankles and rifles in hand, assassinate Hitler, Goebbels and their guards inside their private box before riddling the auditorium with bullets. Their bombs go off and the theater is destroyed in a thought-numbing explosion.
Not long after Landa and his radio operator drive Raine and Utivich across American lines. In accordance with their prearranged plan, Landa and the operator willingly surrender. But to Landa's surprise Raine reneges on their deal, shooting the radio operator in the head. He tells Landa that even though he has agreed to his freedom, he – Landa – will never truly be free of his past. Raine then uses his knife to carve a permanent swastika into Landa's forehead – a concrete reminder that he was, is and will forever remain a Nazi.
Inglourious Basterds ends on such an abysmal note of moral ambiguity that it is impossible to simply relish the irony in this final exercise of mutilation. Tarantino’s script is all over the place. The more striking vignettes – the unexpected reunion of Shosanna and Landa in the restaurant and the tavern firestorm where Stiglitz and Hicox are blown to bits are bookended by some of Tarantino’s worst attempts to tie these many narrative threads into one cohesive whole. The film is far more an ensemble piece than a star vehicle for Brad Pitt. In fact, Pitt’s mercenary yahoo from the Ozarks is one of the least engrossing characters in the film; his attempt at a redneck southerner never quite what it ought to be. He chips his dialogue with an affected accent rather than a naturalized drawl.
Rod Taylor gives us an intelligent Churchill, but Martin Wuttke’s Hitler is a daft boob with a bad comb-over and an officer’s costume rented from central casting; slamming his fist repeatedly against desks and walls, but cowering like a frightened one eyed rooster when he finds himself trapped in Shosanna’s burning theater. Which brings me to Mélanie Laurent’s aloof and cackling harridan; not believable as a fascinating caricature of the asexual harpy to be contemplated and then cast aside. The rest of the cast ranges from middling competency to downright sloppy embarrassments; Sylvester Groth, Mike Myers, Jacky Ido and Daniel Bruhl being the most painfully obvious and ineffectual of the lot.
This leaves the heavy lifting to Christoph Waltz and Diane Kruger – both batting one out of the park with their edge-of-your-seat taut and tenacious performances that are the most engrossing in the film. Kudos also to Michael Fassbender’s dashing spy, August Diehl’s diabolically malicious Nazi officer, and, Denis Menochet’s demoralized dairy farmer; brilliant cameos augmenting an otherwise inferior script. Honorable mention also to Til Schwieger’s near mute portrait of the vengeful assassin.
Inglourious Basterds isn’t the masterpiece that Tarantino hoped for and perhaps that is a shame, although in hindsight it is also of his own doing. Personally, I cannot fathom the ‘loony-tune’ mindset that would turn the factual record of history on end, claim it as artistic license, and take itself seriously – even as lowbrow entertainment. With its inexplicable slurs perpetuated on the Jewish people (basically carpet-hauling them as the aggressors of WWII while playing the Nazis as outlandish lampoons of staggering stupidity) how could Tarantino not have expected the insult to sting. With all due respect to Tarantino – I get it – due diligence and reverence to the war was never his or the film’s intent. But Inglourious Basterds is too far gone down the rabbit hole to be considered mere glib farce or even a parody in bad taste. At some level both Tarantino and the film must be taken seriously and at face value, and that makes Inglourious Basterds a very sour and extremely perverse little nothing indeed - completely undeserving of our renewed admiration for its otherwise relatively ambitious construction. In years yet to come, Inglourious Basterds may indeed achieve cult status as a sort of delusional revision of the past. More than likely it will be relegated to the ‘anus’ rather than the annals of cinema history.
Universal and Alliance Home Video have collaborated on the release of this Blu-ray with admirable results. The image is bright and razor sharp without appearing digitally manipulated with undue DNR. Colors are bold, rich and fully saturated. Flesh tones look very natural. Fine detail is superb. Lots to admire. Ditto for the DTS 5.1 audio; really kicking into high gear during action sequences but also capturing the subtleness in hushed dialogue. Extras are a hodgepodge at best: deleted/extended scenes represented without any context, talking points expressed by Tarantino and Brad Pitt that begin and end abruptly, a making of snippet on ‘Nation’s Pride’ though curiously no such counterpart for Inglourious Basterds, the full version of ‘Nation’s Pride’; literally a sound byte from Rod Taylor (billed as ‘a conversation’) and some other press junkets haphazardly thrown together. Personally, I’m not surprised. More to the point – I’m not impressed. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)