reviewed by Marc Glassman
Quentin Tarantino, director & writer. Starring: Brad Pitt (Lt. Aldo Raine), Christoph Waltz (Hans Landa), Melanie Laurent (Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux), Daniel Bruhl (Fredrick Zoller), Diane Kruger (Bridget von Hammersmark), Michael Fassbender (Lt. Archie Hicox), Mike Myers (General Ed Fenech), Eli Roth (Sgt. Donny Donwitz aka The Bear Jew), Rod Taylor (Winston Churchill), Jacky Ido (Marcel), Pierre LaPadite (French farmer), Martin Wuttke (Hitler)
After more than a decade of disappointing films, Quentin Tarantino has finally delivered a truly exciting and monumentally quirky work. Part revenge fantasy, part war drama, part espionage thriller, Inglourious Basterds is fuelled with a love of cinema and a passion for telling great stories. He’s created a picture that has some of Pulp Fiction’s originality mixed with a number of brilliantly realized set pieces.
One of those elaborate scenes opens the film. Tarantino places us in a French farming region in 1942, during the height of Nazi occupation. As a group of Nazis ride up to a farmhouse, the patriarch of a small family of three teenaged girls waits apprehensively for their approach. When they arrive, their commander Hans Landa gets out of a car, reeking menace. Quiet and calm, he asks the farmer to take him into the house.
Inside, he requests a glass of milk and allowance to have a cigarette. The tension is palpable. The girls are ordered out to talk to his entourage of soldiers. Slowly, inexorably, Landa forces the farmer to reveal that he has been hiding Jews. Landa’s soldiers are ordered to spray the floorboards of the house with bullets killing all the Jews but one. Shosanna Dreyfus, a 19-year-old girl, races from under the floor boards and escapes when Landa’s gun jams.
Ignore the hype about Inglourious Basterds. True, Brad Pitt does have a starring role as Lt. Aldo Raine, a Tennessee hillbilly, who has assembled, Dirty Dozen-style, a group of Jewish American soldiers to wreak havoc behind the lines in Nazi controlled Europe. True, a group of British officers led by German-speaking cinema expert Lt. Archie Hicox is recruited to help Raine’s “basterds” in their biggest mission, to take on the Nazis in Paris soon after D-Day in June, 1944.
But the real film is about the duel between Hans Landa and Shosanna Dreyfus, who reappear in Paris, 1944. Shosanna has acquired a new identity, Emmanuelle Mimieux, and has inherited a cinema from her late “aunt and uncle.” But the beautiful Jewish woman becomes the unhappy subject of Fredrick Zoller’s attentions. It turns out the youthful, arrogant Private Zoller has become a national hero in Germany after killing hundreds of Allied soldiers while holding onto a small town for the Nazis. Zoller’s story has been turned into a film called Nation’s Pride and in order to get Ms. Mimieux’s attention, the heroic Private proposes that the premiere be held at her cinema.
That’s when Landa shows up, to make sure that everything is handled properly for a premiere, which the Nazi high command will attend. Shosanna and Landa have an intense scene in a Parisian restaurant, where he questions her identity. She passes the test and begins to form her own plan for revenge. Why not burn down her own cinema with all the major Nazis from Goebbels to Goering stuck inside, the doors all locked?
Here’s where Tarantino goes too far. If Shosanna wants to kill the Nazis, how about some others? After all, the film is called “inglourious basterds.” So the “basterds,” who have had a few showy scenes, including one memorable one when the “Bear Jew” beats a Nazi to death with a baseball bat, come back into the plot. They, too, decide to kill the Nazis with the help of British agents led by Lt. Hicox.
Then, it turns out that Hitler will attend the screening, too.
The final quarter of the film, when Operation Kino takes place, turns into pure fantasy. While the entire film is fictional, the basic premise of historical dramas is that major events are treated with respect. Tarantino’s alternative title for the film is “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” and his scenario shifts to a fairy-tale ending. Apparently, audiences are accepting Tarantino’s ending but I must admit to being shocked at his historical revisionism.
What’s incontestable, though, is the brilliant performance by Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa, for which he deservedly won the Best Actor prize at Cannes. He’s matched by Melanie Laurent as Shosanna/Emmanuelle. And many scenes are brilliant.
Start the huzzahs: Tarantino is back! Inglourious Basterds may not be the masterpiece that Pulp Fiction is but it’s certainly a fascinating film to see—and see again.