| Dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA/Germany/France , 2009, 153 mins, partly in French, German and Italian with subtitles
Cast: Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Daniel Brühl
Review by Richard Mellor
Let’s start with an easy one: into what genre does Inglourious Basterds fit? Ahah, you see it’s an, er, comedy espionage thriller. Sort of. Well, except that such a description brings to mind Inspector Clouseau, rather than the Nazi-bludgeoners that Quentin Tarantino‘s film dreams up. Nor does it illustrate the World War II setting and historical re-imagining. Or the level of racism. Or indeed the gruesome violence - likely to horrify more conservative viewers, if not seasoned Tarantino regulars. Blimey – good luck categorizing this one, Amazon.
Better to simply begin with the plot, perhaps. Spanning five distinct chapters and an overly colossal 153 minutes, it has Brad Pitt’s jocular Lieutenant Aldo Raine leading The Basterds, a group of vengeful Jewish assassins, around Nazi-occupied France, their intentions solely to kill and then scalp Germans. A meeting with pin-up actress cum spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) diverts them towards Paris, where Hitler and other Third Reich luminaries are to attend the premiere of Goebbels’ latest piece of feature film propaganda – the story of war hero Fredrick (Daniel Brühl), now a hideously conceited actor.
The villain of the piece is Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, foremost among many unheralded German actors that Tarantino has daringly cast). The Nazi Head of Security and a bit of a Rob Brydon lookalike, he is a fabulous cocktail of menace and mirth, as mean as he’s meticulous and as savvy as he’s smiley. For all that, Landa’s unaware that Goebbel’s chosen cinema is run by Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) - a Jew whose entire family he slaughtered three years ago in Inglourious Basterds’ torturous opening. Unsurprisingly ripe with hatred, Shosanna shares Aldo and co’s desire for avenging Nazi wrongs as brutally as possible. Hitler had better watch out…
The pivotal scene in all this comes when the Basterds first encounter Bridget, in a cellar bar in a sleepy French village. Having already been forced to pose as Germans in front of a genuine Nazi patrol group, the initial trio sent in by Aldo further endure a drunken father, a pistol stand-off involving guns-to-testicles, and a sticky-head game, at which the rival Captain is impossibly good. It’s a long, spellbinding section that never leaves the murky room and that dramatically undulates in mood - terrifying one minute, amusing the next. This weird balance renders Tarantino’s movie a strange, unprecedented movie experience.
And such a frivolous blend feels all the more surprisingly in a film about the Second World War - surely the last subject you joke about? Tarantino has never been one to play it straight though, and besides, Inglourious Basterds so brazenly re-writes history that you can’t possibly take it too seriously. The initial tagline – once upon a time in Nazi-occupied Germany – suggests a fairytale and later scenes are duly subject to panto-esque exaggeration. Witness a permanently-apoplectic Hitler “nein nein neining”, or Churchill’s grumpy tactician, stuck in a slapstick scene with Mike Myers’ colonel and a British commando film geek.
These famous icons aren’t alone in being rather cardboard. For all that he chomps on gum and speaks cutesy phrases and slogans, Pitt’s malevolent Aldo scarcely gives an inkling of the man behind this likeable sheen or explains the motivation behind his bloody campaign. Kruger’s Marlene Dietrich-inspired moll is similarly ill-defined, but thankfully the characters of Landa, Shosanna and Fredrick are much better drawn. The former is gradually exposed as a control freak with a habit of consuming dairy products in terrifying fashion, while the latter purposefully recalls Audie Murphy, a real-life WWII soldier-turned-actor.
Indeed the power of celluloid is a central theme in Inglourious Basterds, as in all Tarantino movies. The terrible bloodshed on show deliberately echoes Goebbels’ films, with sections shot at the same studios once used by the anti-Semite. And the concluding scenario contains Tarantino’s own propaganda: the chance for cinema, metaphorically and lyrically, to vanquish the evil Nazis and save the day. Other cinematic references muscle in, too: the purposefully misspelt title pays tribute to Enzo Castellari’s Inglorious Bastards (Castellari appears briefly as himself), while spaghetti western music sounds throughout.
There are also echoes of previous Tarantino efforts via Inglourious Basterds’ genre-bending (Kill Bill), glamour (Jackie Brown) and gore (Reservoir Dogs). But the strongest recall of all is Pulp Fiction, with Tarantino’s dialogue back to its electrifying best. His characters’ verbal exchanges are once again faster and more thrilling than a Wimbledon rally. Language and pronunciation are particular obsessions in this latest treat; the funniest scene of all has Aldo and Landa discussing game-show catchphrases amid a supposedly tense interrogation. “Is that the way you say it, ‘That's a Bingo?’”, queries the German. “You just say "Bingo", replies Aldo, disgusted at the elementary mistake.
The scene’s brilliant, brazen and utterly bonkers - like this strangest of war films as a whole. That’s a bingo indeed.