“War is hell.” Shrewd observation or amaranthine aphorism (call it what you will), it is a sentiment which pops up in some form or other in just about every film made in the genre – re-watch Platoon or Apocalypse Now if you have any doubts.
It has become the ultimate truism, and doubtless for this very reason it is nowhere to be found in the latest Quentin Tarantino outing, an alternate-history Second World War epic which proves true to form by defying every war movie convention it can lay its blood-stained hands on.
In Inglourious Basterds, the war-torn European landscape is less a hell on earth, less even a battlefield than a playground for the eponymous “Bastards,” a band of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The Bastards have carved a bloody swath through Germany’s occupied territory, each member owing Raine one hundred Nazi scalps.
But despite their titular status, the bastards are only one thread in a grander tapestry – and to correct potential expectations, they aren’t actually given that much time on-screen.
Meanwhile, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), the orphaned daughter of a Jewish family slain by Col. Hans Landa the “Jew Hunter” (Christoph Waltz), establishes herself as a cinematheque proprietress in Paris under a new name, only to be courted by Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a fame-hungry sniper who made a name for himself by single-handedly killing hundreds of enemy troops.
Zoller is the subject – and star – of a new propaganda film by Joseph Goebbels which centres on his heroic feat. Accordingly, a panoply of Nazi brass, potentially including the Fuehrer himself, is to descend upon Paris for the premiere, which Shosanna arranges to be held at her theatre, revenge in her heart.
With the Bastards on hand to execute their own plot in league with British operatives – including German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) – who have not quite taken Landa’s Holmesian skills into account, the film’s climax is a series of intertwining and often competing schemes which play out unpredictably, ricocheting off one another and the usual caprices of fate.
The mileage you get out of 149 minutes of Basterds will vary according to your familiarity with – and tolerance of – classic Tarantino tropes. Conceived as a spaghetti-western set in Nazi-occupied France, Basterds fits the bill, beginning with a scene lifted from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and unspooling without a single bona fide “war scene.”
There is the Tarantino who gave us Reservoir Dogs (in ostensible answer to the question, “What do bank robbers discuss over breakfast?”) and Pulp Fiction, ever provocative and utterly mercurial. Then there is the increasingly self-indulgent Tarantino of Kill Bill and Death Proof, which proved bloated if enjoyable, who seemed to have come somewhat unmoored from his original vision and sensibilities in favour of a referential cinema of name-dropping.
As far as Inglourious Basterds is concerned, Quentin has found himself some middle ground. Replete with regulars (Samuel L. Jackson has a small narration role; Harvey Keitel can be heard on the phone) and trademarks (the film is split into chapters announced via intertitles), Basterds is nonetheless a tour de force which frequently pits characters unwittingly against one another and leaves the audience to agonize over who knows what and when everyone’s hands will be revealed.
If there is a drawback, it’s Tarantino’s casting of immediately recognizable faces. Pitt’s Aldo Raine could be a larger-than-life all-American military personality or a mint-julip-swilling Confederate caricature displaced by some sort of rift in the time-space continuum. Mike Myers is insufferable in a walk-on role as Gen. Ed Fenech, a British officer who talks just like Austin Powers and seems ever ready to exclaim, “Yeah, baby!”
And Eli Roth brings absolutely nothing to the table but an irksome manner and poor line delivery as the Bear Jew, who finishes off the Bastards’ conquests with a baseball bat. Roth did, however, also direct Nation’s Pride, the film-within-a-film about Frederick Zoller, in homage to Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda reels.
However, Laurent and Kruger are wonderful. And Waltz is absolutely beyond reproach as the terrifying but pragmatic Landa, a character who combines the best (or worst) elements of Raiders of the Lost Ark’s sinister Major Toht and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher. He is the best reason to watch Inglourious Bastards, and while Tarantino has never before directed an actor to an Academy Award, this has all the makings of a break with tradition.