Hollywood has a penchant for rewriting history, especially when it comes to war movies.
The oddly spelled Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s uberviolent World War II epic, is no exception on that point… but you’ll forgive it, as it is exceptional in every other way, offering a cinematic experience that is simultaneously terrifying and hilarious, and wholly unforgettable.
Much of the film’s charm lies in its unpredictability. So, the less said about the plot, the better. The action mainly takes place in the Nazi-occupied French countryside and Paris, between 1941 and 1944, while the plot is motored by the efforts of an American-Jewish Anti-Nazi squad, the Inglourious Basterds, led by First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), to cause havoc and panic among Hitler’s men, and their eventual mission to take down the whole regime, which involves a film premiere and a ton of explosives.
Meanwhile, Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French-Jewish girl whose family was cruelly obliterated by Nazis, has her own plan for vengeance…
Many Hollywood films subject the audience to Americans playing other nationalities, with accents of variable quality, or no attempt for verisimilitude whatsoever (see Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). Fortunately, in most cases, Tarantino has refreshing cast the right nationalities in the respective roles and his quest for authenticity has paid off in spades.
Accordingly, Inglourious Basterds’ standout stars are the Austrian Christoph Waltz as Austrian Colonel Hans Landa and the French-Jewish Melanie Laurent as the French-Jewish Shoshanna, both actors who are unknown in Hollywood but respected in their homelands.
The villainous and charming Landa is the film’s linchpin, providing much of its almost unbearable tautness – thanks to Waltz, he is compelling in everything he does, whether eating strudel or interrogating a hapless victim.
Landa “the Jew Hunter” is the kind of bad guy you love to hate – and watch – joining the lofty cinematic ranks of fellow psychopath Hannibal Lecter. Apparently, Leonardo DiCaprio was originally in the running for the role. be grateful for small mercies.
Laurent’s Shoshanna is an ideal tragic heroine, a gritty blend of pathos, beauty and gumption, far overshadowing the more famous former Helen of Troy, Diane Kruger, who plays Bridget Von Hammersmarck, a German film star. Like Waltz, Laurent compels the viewer to keep their eyes on her at all times, her own blue eyes glinting with both steel and buried pain.
While Brad Pitt is the centerpiece of most Inglourious Basterds promotion, Raine is really a supporting character, and the role benefits mostly from his inherent Brad Pitt-ness, and the fun in seeing such a superstar sans his trademark pretty boy sheen.
Other supporting actors/characters of particular note (they are all of note) are Eli Roth as Sgt. Donny “the Bear Jew” Donowitz, a Basterd who clubs Nazis to death with a baseball bat (a role originally meant for Adam Sandler); Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz, a laconic and menacing Austrian Basterd; August Diehl as Dieter Hellstrom, a suspicious Gestapo with a sharp ear for accents; Dennis Menochet as Perrier Lapidite, a French dairy farmer; Jacky Ido as Marcel, Shoshanna’s sweetheart; Daniel Bruhl as Pt. Frederick Zoller, a young soldier-cum-film star famous for singlehandedly killing hundreds; and Michael Fassbender as Lt. Archie Hicox, a debonair undercover spy and former German film critic.
Historical figures Winston Churchill, Joseph Goebbels and Hitler are humorously brought to life by Rod Taylor, Sylvester Groth and Martin Wuttke, respectively. In addition, Samuel L. Jackson and Mike Myers have brief but amusing cameos – listen or watch out for them.
The strong casting and authentic accents aid and enhance the trademark Tarantino quick-fire dialog, with the best lines being in a mix of English, French and German. In another Tarantino tradition, most of the film’s key scenes take place around tables, accompanied by beverages, edibles and buckletloads of nail-biting tension. You may never look at a glass of milk the same way again.
The dense and witty dialog is perfectly complemented by the dynamic, gorgeous cinematography, which holds up even when no one’s saying a word – not one element on screen is ever wasted.
Every close up and detail reveals something about a character or works as foreshadowing, whether Landa is lighting up a ridiculously large pipe or Shoshanna is applying her make-up as if it were war paint, accompanied by David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out the Fire).”
The graphic violence – while occasionally hard to bear – is as gracefully choreographed as in Kill Bill, and never drags on for too long.
All these details ensure that the oft-used World War II theme is freshly updated, with a lid on sentimentality and drawn-out death scenes, while still respectfully retaining the emotional resonance of war and tragedy.
The film is also an eulogy to cinema itself, both in its own entertainment value and its pastiche of/homage to a range of genres, from spaghetti western to blaxploitation, and especially in the creative use of cinematic history in its plotting, with a cinema theatre serving as the stage for the climax and a projectionist acting as an executioner.
It’s hard to imagine how Inglourious Basterds could possibly be improved upon. The film ends with the line, “You know somethin’, Utivich? I think this might just be my masterpiece.” You know somethin’, Tarantino? I’m pretty sure this is yours.