Inglourious Basterds Is Glorious Filmmaking

“We’re in the killin’ Nazi bidness,” Brad Pitt announces, as Aldo the Apache in Inglourious Basterds. “And cousin, bidness is boomin’!”

And for all the savagery on hand -- this movie contains stomach-turning graphic violence -- it’s funny business as well. Pitt’s top-notch turn as a cheerfully sadistic Tennessee-bred lieutenant who leads a squad of Jewish soldiers to scalp every Nazi they can find in the last days of World War II is one of many reasons Quentin Tarantino’s latest is one of the most entertaining films of the year.

Beginning with the title, “Once upon a time ... in Nazi-occupied France,” Tarantino makes it clear that he’s thinking of spaghetti Western maestro Sergio Leone, and particularly Leone’s sprawling masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West, which like this film begins with an excruciatingly suspenseful long scene. Tarantino’s equally grandiloquent first chapter takes place against western-sounding theme music in a farmhouse in France, where a chatty, friendly, milk-drinking SS officer, Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz, who is brilliant) stops by to spread a little Third Reich good will with a suspicious farmer. Moments of random humor both puncture the tension and increase it as Tarantino and the SS man toy with expectations. The scene ends with a haunting image worthy of John Ford.

“Facts can be so misleading,” the SS colonel says, setting up Tarantino’s alternate vision of WW II -- one that brings a lot of pulp fiction to history. Subsequent scenes, in which characters chat about such real-life figures as German filmmakers G.W. Pabst and Leni Riefenstahl, underline Tarantino’s goal to make not so much a WW II movie as a WW II movie about movies.

Tarantino wittily updates, most notably, The Dirty Dozen-style secret mission movies so popular in the 1960s. (The 1970s Italian action movie The Inglorious Bastards borrowed heavily from The Dirty Dozen but Tarantino doesn’t take much from it except its title, which appears misspelled on the butt of a rifle in Aldo the Apache’s Nazi-hunting squad.)

There are musical cues that bring back 70s blaxploitation films (Samuel L. Jackson pops in as a narrator) and torture porn gets a nod in the person of Hostel director Eli Roth,  a friend of Tarantino’s who plays a notably merciless Jewish soldier nicknamed the Bear. When the Bear gets to work, things get very bloody very fast. It’s as if Tarantino is cheekily asking critics, “Does torture still upset you if Nazis are the victims?”