At The Picture Show
Tarantino delivers a deliriously unique, bloody, revisionist valentine to World War II iconography
The Weinstein Company
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael
Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, August Diehl and Denis Menochet
Rated R / 2 hours, 33 minutes
Opened August 21, 2009
(out of four)
More than any other filmmaker alive, Quentin Tarantino creates his own universe
in which to play whenever he makes a movie. When takes on World War II, as he
has with Inglourious Basterds, it is not about World War II. It is about his World
War II, divorced from the restraints of actual history - a magnificent, revenge-fueled indulgence in the iconography of war movies, propaganda, history books,
folklore and cinema itself.
Of course this is the movie he would make. Because it is the movie no one else
would. It also seems like a grand culmination of his entire career - a movie he's
been building toward for the last 17 years. This is like a master class on pure
filmmaking and a brilliantly conceived valentine to the glory of cinema.
It's true that all of his films have been, to one
degree or another, about movies - which is perhaps what frees him to make films
that exist entirely within their own rules. He has used his encyclopedic knowledge
of movie history as a sort of grab-bag, using all the goodies he finds as jumping-off
points for his delirious cinematic concoctions. In Basterds, his story, his characters
and their very Movie-ness are integrated in a glorious way that, in this world,
makes absolute sense.
By sheer nature of the storytelling style at play, Tarantino is able to gracefully shift
tone between scenes and subplots and images. A film that is overwhelmingly
suspenseful one scene can be gleefully cartoonish the next.
Inglourious Basterds is Planet Tarantino transplanted to Nazi-occupied France in
the middle of the war. In this version of history, circa 1944, Hitler, Goebbels and
Co. have grown increasingly concerned about the exploits of the titular Basterds, a
splinter group of mostly Jewish-American soldiers who have taken vengeance on
the Nazis in the form of scalping. Clubbings and shootings are, of course,
permitted as well. All in the course of duty.
But a film like this couldn't have just one broad
villain like the Nazis, right? No, we get a specific one - and he even has a sinister
nickname. In a landmark performance that already won Best Actor honors at
Cannes this spring, Christoph Waltz plays SS Col. Hans Landa, or "The Jew
Hunter," who is in charge of rounding up all escaped and hiding Jews throughout
France and surrounding areas.
Waltz is a true arch villain and one of the best characters from any Tarantino film -
or, for that matter, any recent film at all. He's smooth and methodical and cruel in
the matter-of-fact way he goes about his business. He oozes a kind of perverse
charm. All of his scenes are interrogations of one form or another, but he doesn't
treat them as such - that'd be no fun, would it? Instead, he calmly eases his way
through each conversation, taking an immense pleasure in what he does for a living
- and just how well he does it.
Of course, the star of the movie is Cinema - specifically, a theatre in France that
will serve as the intended site for both a German film premiere and a massive
revenge plot. The theatre is owned by a young Jewish woman, Shosanna (Melanie
Laurent), who is living under an assumed identity. It does not spoil anything to say
that the theatre is where the film's astounding climax takes place - with all the key
characters and pieces in place to play their parts.
Needless to say, the theatre setting is no
coincidence - it speaks to the redemptive power of cinema, something Tarantino
cherishes deeply. Conversely, cinema is also used as a sort of villain in the film in
the form of Goebbels' propaganda ministry.
The effectiveness that German propaganda films had during World War II speaks
to the impact of movies - but in the film it's almost as if, in a way, Tarantino is
getting his own revenge on film being used for evil. This is wish fulfillment at its
In much the same way he fetishizes Shosanna as she gets herself ready on the night
of the big premiere, Tarantino does the same with the physical elements of film. He
lovingly shoots the film canisters, the cutting of the reel, the projector, the
projection itself - that romantic, smoky light from source to screen.
Movies, of course, are made up of legends, of mythologies, of stories told. As
many have mentioned (Jim Emerson has spoken about it at length on his great
"Scanners" blog), Tarantino's movies are often shrouded in mythologies - mainly,
I suppose, because they so consciously exist in the world of movies.
Consider the nicknames his characters so often
have, the larger-than-life stories that are told about them, the way their names have
gone down in history. Even his regular touchstone of revenge is something that, in
and of itself, is thick with personal history.
Well, Inglorious Basterds is no different. This is all about Tarantino creating his
own folklore. Consider the way he uses the Basterds themselves. While there are
some delicious scenes of bloodletting (and interrogating), their function in the plot
has more to do with the stories that are told about them; their legend grows and
grows, and it's their reputation and exploits that have - in this dizzy, absurd
incarnation of World War II - really gotten to the psyche of the German High
Command. Instead of scene after scene of Aldo "The Apache" Raine (Brad Pitt)
and his men scalping Nazis, Tarantino finds ways to fully assimilate them into the
world he has created.
Inglourious Basterds is a spectacular piece of entertainment and another boldly
idiosyncratic effort from Tarantino, who with this film under his belt must
officially be cemented among the all-time greats of American filmmaking.
Read more by Chris Bellamy