The first chapter of Inglorious Basterds finds SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) visiting the home of stoic French farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet). Like a vampire, Landa, in studious French, cordially requests to be let inside, where he sits and enjoys a glass of fresh milk. The rolling pastoral beauty framed by every window of LaPadite’s modest abode subtly contrasts the strange glare reflected off the heavy wooden table, offering just the faintest suggestion of interrogation—which for all the politesse is of course precisely what’s underway. Landa’s worldly, chatty, digressive. He’s like the sensitive Nazi aesthete from Jean-Pierre Melville’s La Silence de la mer, but more assured and far more menacing. He’s also a lot more entertaining. The tension escalates conspicuoulsy, buffered by diversions, like Landa’s deadpan reveal of an absurdly large accoutrement. The scene’s climax, like that of the movie as a whole, promises to be explosive.
Quentin Tarantino’s latest magnum opus is, unsurprisingly given its author, a rather wordy war movie. This scene between Landa and LaPadite is but the first of what we might call variations on the theme of double talk and games of life-or-death deceit. Tarantino’s war is fought with language, which gives the apparent advantage to Landa, in a bravura performance from Waltz, since over the course of this chamber epic we hear him speak articulately in no less than four different tongues. But linguistic Euro-sophistication isn’t everything—what of the invincibly confident Native American-imbued hillbillyisms of Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), the cool British pith of Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), or the theatrically trained good-time sass of UFA starlet and secret spy for the allies Bridget van Hammersmark (Diane Kruger)? Watching these shamelessly colorful characters verbally spar is one of the great pleasures of Inglorious Basterds. The others have a lot to do with sheer audacity. The score fuses ‘Für Elise’ with Morricone. Later on we get a Riefenstahl homage set to David Bowie. Hitler appears, in a cape, like James Brown. Churchill sits in on a meeting, frozen in iconic wax museum pose. Goebbels turns up too. As things chug along, swerving vertiginously from one locale and set of players to another, some dying spectacularly, you start to notice that the Second World War isn’t going along quite as you remembered it. Tarantino’s war isn’t Spielberg’s. It isn’t even Paul Verhoven’s. Inglorious Basterds is inspired revisionist comic melodrama, and it’s absolutely fucking bananas.
Playing perversely with convention and expectation, Tarantino doesn’t introduce his one bonafide star until a good half-hour into the movie. Pitt’s outsized Raines is the leader of the so-called Basterds, a special squad of tough motherfucking Jews who, as Raines cheerfully puts it, “are in the Nazi-killing business—and business is a-booming!” Every Nazi they encounter meets with death and a scalping or is marked for life by a giant swastika carved into their foreheads. They’re less somber and a lot more Jewish-looking than the boys in Defiance. Hostel writer/director Eli Roth shows up to play “the Bear Jew,” whose specialty is clobbering Nazis to death with a baseball bat. But despite sharing their name with the movie they’re only in about a third of it. This is no reason to complain.
The lynchpin in the structure of Inglorious Basterds—as elaborate and deceptively tight as that of Pulp Fiction—is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a survivor of a massacre overseen by Landa. He lets her flee, it seems, for pure sport. Years later she turns up in Paris with a new gentile identity and a cinema to manage. Her icy allure, combined with her respect for filmmakers and ace projectionist, snags the heartstrings of Nazi hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). He’s recently wrapped a movie about how he earned the Iron Cross—he plays himself—and he wants the film to have its gala premiere at Shosanna’s theatre. (The scene in which she begins to realize she’s in danger of becoming a Nazi collaborator plays out as she adjusts the marquee to announce Henri-George Clouzot’s German-produced Le Corbeau—it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without clever nods to a lot of other movies.) Hitler himself is to be present for the premiere, and refusal of the offer seems out of the question. But Shosanna has a plan. It involves the 350 nitrate prints stored in the cinema’s basement and a really big face. (For explication on the flammability of nitrate Tarantino gives us a quick lesson, making use of scenes from Hitchcock’s Sabotage.)
Am I giving too much away? Is it any comfort to know that there’s much, much more? I suppose those who insist on the horrors of history being handled with kid gloves, or even, you know, sensitivity, should be warned that Inglorious Basterds is wildly irreverent, and the Holocaust remains a strictly peripheral event. But the film holds our great collective fantasies of what could be as something of sacred value. It’s also among the best ensemble films of the last decade, showcasing the talents of Waltz, Kruger and yes, even Pitt, with sublime results. If there’s anything to groan over in the film it’s merely the few overt exhibitions of Tarantino’s insufferable ego. He has the impudence to close the film with Rains announcing that his latest bloody swastika may just be his masterpiece, the implication being that Tarantino wants you to know that Inglorious Basterds is his. The thing is, I feel no compulsion to argue with him.