Inglourious Basterds

WFTB Score: 11/20

The plot: A band of gung-ho Jewish-American soldiers take the fight to Hitler’s Nazis in the occupied France of 1944. Tales of their brutal exploits reach the ears of Hitler, who has every right to be concerned: he’s due to attend the premiere of Goebbels’ latest propaganda piece, and it’s not just the ‘Basterds’ who want to sabotage the event. Just as well that the Führer has the bloodhound-like Hans Landa – aka the ‘Jew Hunter’ – on his side.

Nazi-occupied France in 1941 is no place to be harbouring Jews, especially with the notorious ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) on the case. When Landa re-visits the farm of Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he senses and kills the hidden Dreyfus family, but young Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) manages to flee with her life. Three years later, Shosanna is running a Paris cinema under a pseudonym and catches the eye of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero whose exploits have been made into a film, Nation’s Pride, by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). Zoller petitions for the film to be premiered at Shosanna’s cinema and when Landa turns up to assist with the evening, she redoubles her own plans to turn the night into a Nazi bloodbath.

Meanwhile, a crack unit of Jewish Americans under the leadership of Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is terrorising rank-and-file German soldiers, their fears multiplied by legends of the ‘Bear Jew’ Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) and the ‘Inglourious Basterds’’ recruitment of homicidal Nazi-killer Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). They become involved in Operation Kino, a plan hatched by the British Army to get Lt Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) into the premiere alongside actress/double agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger); their meeting doesn’t exactly go to plan, but Raine decides that he must attend the premiere with Bridget, Donny and nervous Omar (Omar Doom). After all, Adolf Hitler is rumoured to be coming, and what better Nazi scalp could there be than der Führer?

There are very few things I can say with complete confidence about Inglourious Basterds, not being a connoisseur of War movies – specifically, not having seen The Dirty Dozen or the Italian knock-off/homage which lends this film its odd title. What I do know is that Tarantino knows his films, and I’m sure that the vast majority of Basterds’ movie references flew right over my head as I watched; but I can still give an opinion on the piece, and my immediate verdict is ‘not overly struck’.

It’s a shame, because in places there’s plenty to admire. Since it’s driven by cinema, the climax taking place in one, the plot is unsurprisingly sure-footed; the style is confident, too, the camerawork fluidly swooping over the heads of our characters, the violence explicit and visceral when it arrives. Tarantino boldly presents an alternative, movie-bound universe where Hitler can be shot to pieces in 1944 by brave Yanks and although we know that’s not what actually happened, we accept it as part of the conceit of World War II seen – and heard – as Revenge Western.

The universally-feted Waltz is terrific, but he is merely the standout in a host of strong performances: Pitt is (in)gloriously brash, while Fassbender’s Hicox is convincing (until his fatal mistake) and both female leads, Kruger and Laurent, are very strong.

So what’s my problem? Well, there are a few. Firstly, Tarantino has storytelling issues. The film essentially runs three story strands simultaneously: Raine’s Basterds, von Hammersmark’s role in Operation Kino, and Shosanna’s retribution (pitched against any or all of Landa, Hitler, and the Nazis in general). While these strands physically converge at the film’s climax, they never become contingent; would Hitler and his cronies not have perished in the fire anyway, regardless of Donny and Omar’s bullets?

Perhaps because of this, Inglourious Basterds comes over as disconnected, a self-conscious construct rather than a credible fiction, a film made by someone expert in World War II movies but ignorant of – and caring little about – the war itself. The lack of resonance with historical facts means that despite impressive set decoration, costumery and so on, the film never feels as real as Valkyrie or even Mother Night. And since I’ve mentioned some strong acting performances, I should also point out that Mike Myers’ English General is lousy, Rod Taylor is the worst screen Churchill you’ll ever see, and Martin Wuttke’s Hitler isn’t much cop either.

Secondly, it’s not as if everything about the story works. The queasy comedy of Raine, Donowitz and Omar posing as Italians at the premiere of Nation’s Pride just doesn’t work: not only is it not funny, someone would surely have had them shot, or at least got the high-ranking Nazis out of harm’s way, as soon as it was discovered that they were frauds (ie. immediately). But as we are reminded at every single moment, this is a cinematic construct, not a true history. There are also some directorial tics that I didn’t enjoy: the eclectic soundtrack, which shoehorns a Bowie track (from another film) into a WWII drama; or the silly arrows pointing out infamous Nazis in the cinema.

However – and thirdly – perhaps Inglourious Basterds’ biggest failing is Tarantino’s self-indulgence. He’s evidently testing his own mettle, and the patience of his audience, by stretching out a number of key scenes to the point where they become tiresome, deliberately daring the viewer to lose confidence in the scene before the inevitable explosion of violence arrives. If you’re absolutely caught up in the drama, this technique is potentially effective; I merely got bored.

There is, as I say, much to applaud in many of the scenes, especially the opening encounter between Landa and M. LaPadite and the tense meeting in the cellar between von Hammersmark and Hicox, which swirls intriguingly between outwardly celebratory parties of protagonists who all have their own interesting sub-plots. However, each scene could have lost at least a third of its running time without harming the film one bit.

I don’t quite know what Quentin was hoping to achieve by making so many of the scenes in Inglourious Basterds as long as they are. He may have been allowing them room to breathe, in which case the writing’s not as strong as it needs to be (it certainly lacks the snap of his earlier work); or he may have simply been showing off, in which case he’s literally wasting our time. Whatever, I got fed up with the film’s empty machismo, its absurd fantasy that the Americans would’ve shown Hitler what for if only they’d sent “the boys” over to do the job.

That said, I didn’t dislike Inglourious Basterds at all, because although it’s self-indulgent and overlong, Tarantino’s talent – with a big helping hand from Waltz – comes through. However, people with a deeper investment in the conflict may feel he’s being thoroughly disrespectful; those with a shorter attention span may just switch off instead.

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