“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?”
Despite all the references to genre film, Tarantino goes to inventive lengths to flesh out a cast of interestingly shaded characters. For instance, a German soldier (Daniel Bruhl) who at first seems merely a puppyish dullard with a crush on a pretty Parisian movie theater owner (Melanie Laurent), holds a lot of surprises for her (and us) in both what he has done and of what he is capable. For a movie whose moral is sweet American Jewish revenge against the Third Reich, it has some of the most layered Nazi characters ever seen on screen. Nobody in last year’s The Reader, for instance, is remotely as memorable as the smiling hawk that is Col. Landa. Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler also are among the cast — and Goebbels manages to get a laugh toward the end.
It would be wrong to give away too much of the plot of Inglourious Basterds. Suffice it to say that Tarantino’s Jewish soldiers join forces with the girl who runs the movie theater, a coolly competent English officer (Michael Fassbender) who in civilian life was a film critic specializing in German movies and a German actress (Diane Kruger) to put together an audacious scheme to end WW II early — with a movie screening.
All of these actors, some of them previously little-known, are excellent, and it’s to Tarantino’s credit that he takes the box-office gamble of daring to use subtitles so that everyone speaks the language they’d actually be speaking in any given situation. There is a strong reason, for instance, for the French peasant and the German officer in the first scene to speak French for a while and then switch to English.
Superb though the film is on a technical level — in addition to the acting, the score, the cinematography and the sets are all marvels — Tarantino will deservedly get the loudest applause. His script manages to both honor and subvert the clichés of action movies, and if his dialogue in past movies was sometimes so jokey that it called too much attention to itself, this time the laughs come without any of the characters sounding like wisecracking video-store clerks. As it builds to a feverishly well-executed climax, Inglourious Basterds proves, as Pulp Fiction did, that Tarantino’s imagination can take apart other movies and rebuild them into something splendidly original.