Inglourious Basterds (2009): Tarantino’s Pulp War Fiction–Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France….

The first line on screen in Quentin Tarantino’s long-in-the-works WWII film, “Inglourious Basterds,” is “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” which immediately sets the tone for a semi-mythical fable, a fairy tale based on the premise of “What if the Jews did fight back, killed Hitler and his command and successfully ended the war?”  Ultimately, the film is more about the mythical and real power of movies than about WWII or any reality or actual event.

 

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Call it “Pulp War Fiction,” for “Inglourious Basterds” interweaves deliberately, if not always smoothly or effectively, fact and fantasy, realism and surrealism, actual and fictitious characters, famous and infamous incidents, factual and larger-than-life stories of WWII, arguably the most extensively covered war in pop culture, be it through movies, novels, memoirs, photos, music, and paintings.

 

It’s easier to say what “Inglourious Basterds” is not than what it is.  First and foremost, it’s not a realistic combat film.  Second, though there are some action sequences, the film is not an action-adventure in the mold of Hollywood’s familiar genre; the best scenes in the film are dialogue-driven.  Third, though it borrows its title from the Italian film, “Inglorious Bastards,” by Enzo Castellari (who has a cameo in the picture), Tarantino’s take is not a remake of that 1978 picture.

 

Instead, what Tarantino aims at is a personal meditation on a familiar genre, a reimagined WWII reverie, told in his unmistakably distinctive style, which filters all the American and foreign films about WWII that he admires and now wishes to comment upon, including “The Dirty Dozen,” “The Great Escape,” Sergio Leone’s Westerns (particularly the opening sequence), Visconti’s “The Damned,” and even Bertolucci’s “The Conformist.”

 

World-premiering at the Cannes Film Fest in competition, “Inglourious Basterds,” a co-production of Universal and the Weinstein Co, will be released in the U.S. August 21.  With the right marketing, and Brad Pitt’s help, the film could become an event of quite a considerable artistic and commercial appeal. 

 

The movie likely will divide critics and audiences.  However, as a follow-up to “Death Proof” and before that “Kill Bill: Parts I and II,” “Inglourious Basterds” is a step in the right direction, a movie that’s far more enjoyable than Tarantino’s recent pictures, harking back in approach, dialogue and characterization to “Pulp Fiction,” though overall it’s not as accomplished or satisfying as that 1994 Oscar-winning picture.

 

Before I begin my analysis, a word about the running time, which in the Cannes’ catalogue is enlisted as 160 minutes, but it’s actually 151 minutes.  A critic should not tell a director how to cut his picture, but should there be need, at least 20 minutes could be excised without damaging the movie’s coherence and integrity.  Rumors on the Croisette are that the movie will be shorter in its U.S. version, and there’s also a question about its rating due to the gory violence in several scenes.

 

Using his favorite structural device, the novel-like movie is divided into five chapters, which are not of equal running time, and are also not of equal thematic interest, emotional engagement, and artistic significance.  Sharply uneven, “Inglourious Basterds” shows more than anything else a director who’s too closely attached to his footage, who’s perhaps too much in love with his own creations and words.  (Critical reaction in Cannes and detachment between the festival and film’s release in three months may actually help Tarantino to fine-tuned his narrative and some of the over deliberate pacing).

 

No doubt, there will be discussions about the necessity of showing so much bloody violence on screen, but frankly, other films at Cannes this year are far more indulgent and excessive in their gory elements than “Inglourious Basterds.” Case in point: Lars Von Triers’ preposterous “Antichrist,” which descends to a gory horror flick all the way with self-mutilation.

 

Chapter One of “Inglourious Basterds” begins in rural France, during the first year of the German Occupation, by depicting a French farmer named Perrier Lapadite (a terrific Denis Menochet, blessed with the most soulful and expressive eyes), who’s hiding a Jewish family in the cellar of his house.  In the first heavy-duty dialogue-driven scene (this is a Tarantino picture, after all), the Nazi Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) unexpectedly arrives at the farmer’s house and begins interrogating him.  Two glasses of milk later (I am not kidding), the farmer is forced to reveal the whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, the Jewish family he’s hiding, which leads to the first of many massacres of bullets flying all over the place.

 

One of the children, Shosanna Dreyfus (played by an extremely beautiful actress, Melanie Laurent), narrowly escapes the execution, while being watched by Colonel Landa from afar.  “Au Revoir Shosanna,” Landa says, and we all know that it’s a matter of time before the two would fatally meet.  As it turns out, Shoshanna flees to Paris, where she changes identities and is now a French girl named Emmanuelle Mimieux, who owns and operates a small Parisian art cinema (again, this is a Tarantino picture), which shows movies by Clouzeau and other directors (Pabst) that Tarantino cherishes.

 

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe, Aldo Raine (a tribute to Aldo Ray, who appeared in many war and action films), a Jewish lieutenant from Tennessee recruits and organizes in the woods a group of Jewish-American soldiers to perform extremely swift, brutal and shocking acts of revenge—he calls it retribution—against the Nazis.  Aldo is played by Brad Pitt, who sports a moustache, a perpetual (Bruce Willis-like) smirk and a heavy Southern accent.  Pitt receives top billing, and his star power is the most exploitable element in the marketing of the film, but size-wise, he plays a character role and is part of an ensemble of at least a dozen thespians.

 

The main part of the tale concerns in great detail the planning and execution of “Operation Kino,” one in which fate and accident play as a significant role as rational calculation (and in this aspect too, the movie is pulp fiction in both capital and small letters).

 

Through random (pre-destined) circumstances, Raine’s squad joins German actress and undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger, a native German player, who gives her most appealing and most authentic performance to date).  Also through fate and circumstances, Shosanna gets to carry out a revenge plan of her own by using her movie theater (and cinema in general) as a strategically crucial site.

 

Like in all of Tarantino pictures (the good and the mediocre) the best elements of “Inglourious Basterds” are the characterizations, dialogue and acting, and the helmer should be commended to gathering a superlative multi-national cast, which speak in at least three languages (English, German, French, and a bit Italian, too).

 

Though crucial to the plot, Pitt’s Raine is not a particularly interesting character from a dramatic standpoint, so let me dwell on some of the personas, the strongest of which are actually women.  (At this point, Tarantino has created more and stronger female characters than any other indie or Hollywood director, going back to “Pulp Fiction” and “Jackie Brown”) 

The lovely French actress-director Melanie Laurent, who should become an international star, plays the central role of Shosanna, a young, bright, woman, determined to do everything and anything possible to execute her plan of revenge.  In the last, powerful reel, her stunning face looms large on screen, delivering a message to the entrapped Nazi audience in her theater, is bound to ignite a shocking, joyful response among Tarantino’s movie spectators. 

 

Diane Kruger’s Bridget, a glamorous German star of the 1940s, is the film’s second strong heroine.  She’s constructed in the vein of Marlene Dietrich or Hildegard Knef, who unlike Dietrich, decides to stay in Germany, for which she was loved by the Germans, but actually serves as a spy for the Brits.

 

Speaking of Brits, one of the secondary characters is Archie Hicox, a cinema expert, who plays a pivotal role in a bar scene, in which German soldiers celebrate the birth of a baby-boy to one of their comrades.  The brilliant Irish actor Michael Fassbender (who made strong impression in “Hunger” last year) plays him as an intellectual film critic (thank you, Quentin, for acknowledging our rapidly diminishing profession), with real passion for cinema, who is also a skillful British commando.

 

Starring in a pivotal scene with Fassbender are Mike Myers, who’s barely recognizable as General Fenech, and Rod Taylor.  Also deserving a mention is Sylvester Groth as Propaganda Minister Goebbels, a part he had played in another movie, “Mine Fuhrer,” by Dani Levy.   

 

It may be unfair to single out individual performers in an ensemble-driven drama such as “Inglourious Basterds,” but I can’t resist the temptation.  Rendering a stellar, utmost commanding performance is Daniel Bruhl, as a war-hero-turned movie star Fredrick Zoller, a sweet, handsome guy, who is gentle when he courts Shosanna, but is scary and relentlessly committed to his goal as a sniper, shooting Jews like flies from atop a tower. 

 

Ultimately, the film belongs to Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa, the only character that interacts with each of the other ones.  It’s a pleasure to watch Waltz as he deploys his snake-like charm and courtly manner as well as nastily aggressive voice (when needed), not to mention his fluency in four languages.  His scenes with Bridget at the movie house and with Aldo Raine in the woods at the end of the film are priceless, largely due to Tarantino’s exquisite control of language and tone.  Waltz should be considered seriously for an Oscar nomination, though there may be a debate whether his part is lead or supporting (I think lead).


Choice of music, just as the narrative structure, is also bold, eclectic and anachronistic, including the opening number, “The Green Leaves of Summer” by Dmitri Tiomkin from “The Alamo,” David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire,” and various melodies from Ennio Morricone (who did his most iconic work for Sergio Leone).


Unapologetically, Tarantino has created “Inglourious Basterds” as a consciously movieish tale, one that defies realism and reflects the joy of world cinema and the increasingly significant role that it plays in shaping our visual and intellectual consciousness of real-life events such as WWII and the Holocaust.

 

I recommend that you see this retro cool (both postmodern and old-fashioned), highly enjoyable film, which displays Tarantino’s strongest attributes as a filmmaker: rich characterization, dense and loaded dialogue that’s consciously anachronistic, playful, and reflexive, and quite an impressive sense of mise-en-scene and visual style.

Credits

 

A Weinstein Co. (in U.S.)/Universal Intl. (foreign) release of A Band Apart (U.S.)/Zehnte Babelsberg (Germany) production. 

Produced by Lawrence Bender.

Executive producers, Erica Steinberg, Lloyd Phillips, Bob Weinstein, Harvey Weinstein. Co-producers, Henning Molfenter, Carl L. Woebcken, Christoph Fisser.
Directed, written by Quentin Tarantino.

Camera, Robert Richardson.

Editor, Sally Menke.

 

 

Running time: 151 Minutes.