Set in Nazi occupied France, Inglourious Basterds is a film that took Quentin Tarantino over a decade to write and produce. Multiple plot threads, an ever expanding script and difficulty with the movie’s conclusion meant that from first to final draft, a decade had elapsed. The completed script is one of pure Tarantino penmanship. Featuring ideas of revenge, duplicity and malice while scattered with pop references, albeit from a different era, Inglouious Basterds is as Tarantino as a Mexican stand-off in a Big Kahuna Burger Restaurant. Nominated for eight Academy Awards and taking over $320 million worldwide, it is also one of the director’s most successful to date.
Split into five chapters, the film focuses on the efforts of two sets of people to bring down the Third Reich. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is a young Jewish woman who, early in the film, escapes death at the hands of the gifted ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Having dodged an early grave, Shosanna relocates to Paris where she runs a small cinema which we shall come back to later. Meanwhile, elsewhere in France, the Basterds, a group of American Jewish soldiers, led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) are scouring the countryside in search of Nazis to bludgeon and scalp. When the Basterds hear that the entire Nazi high command will be in Paris for the Premier of Goebbels latest propaganda film, they set in motion a plan to end the war the very same night.
Taken as a piece of pulp fiction or as a popcorn movie, Inglourious Basterds is an extremely satisfying and enjoyable movie. Its central downfall critically comes in the manner in which that it attempts to blend realism with cartoon violence and cartoon villains. Incidentally, I also think this is a problem with Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Both movies attempt to have their thoughtful, historically accurate cake and eat it with a curly straw. While occasionally off-putting, the alternative history of this movie is at least fun to watch and backed up by some well drawn, incredibly well acted characters.
Hans Landa joins the ranks of Mr. Pink and Jules Winnfield as one of Tarantino’s greatest characters to date and he’s acted superbly by the now double Oscar winning Christoph Waltz. Waltz comes from nowhere, from an English language audience’s perspective, to deliver some wonderfully juicy and terrifying dialogue in an eerily calm manner. He owns the film and it suffers when he isn’t on screen. Brad Pitt is well cast as Aldo Raine, sporting a thick Tennessee accent. Like Waltz, he’s furnished with some extraordinary lines. Mélanie Laurent shines as the heroin, a blood soaked orphan turned femme fatale. Other stand-outs from the huge cast include a typically solid albeit brief Michael Fassbender performance and Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark. Daniel Brühl also excels as the quietly arrogant and charming German soldier, who’s smitten with Shosanna. From top to bottom though, there is barely a mistake in casting or acting. My only slight issue on this front is with the off-putting casting or Mike Myers as a British General. His accent is spot on but his face doesn’t fit.
The plot is typically Tarantino-esque in construction, featuring several meandering plots which come together for a final showdown. On the way we pass by Mexican stand-offs, long discussions at tables and brief moments of extreme violence. The script is strong and leans heavily on the author’s love for cinema. There are frequent mentions of German actors and directors and some lovingly recreated film posters, pasted onto the walls of the well designed sets. Scenes from within the cinema show Tarantino’s passion for the medium as he places his lens close to projectors and cutting machines. For a cinephile, the film is a joy. As well as researching cinema, it would appear that a lot of research went into German culture and mannerisms. The way in which one undercover character gives himself away is beautifully written and must surely come from extensive knowledge and research. Tarantino takes his history seriously in so many respects which is perhaps why it’s a little odd that certain aspects skew so far away from historical accuracy. This however is a mark of a Tarantino film and although frustrating to some, makes his films what they are.
The direction is crisp and thoughtful and the cinematography is masterful. Camera location and movement is judged perfectly and it creates some enduring images. Even though I hadn’t seen the film for a couple of years, shots from the outside Shosanna’s safe house, her illumination at a window and a top down tracking shot inside the cinema were all still fresh in my mind. I adore the way the camera moves in this film. Its design is perfectly realised with accurately recreated Parisian streets and cafes populated with well dressed actors and extras. The use of colour is well thought out with the red of revenge contrasting beautifully with the black and white movie while complimenting the many Nazi banners. The film’s score takes more of a back seat than in many a Tarantino movie but as you’d expect it works well. It’s creeping and subtle and occasionally takes the guise of a Western score. Sometimes one forgets all about it but it’s ever-present, lurking in the background, ready to pounce on a moment of action or suspense.
Overall there is a lot to admire about Inglourious Basterds. It’s lovingly crafted and well scripted by a man who knows what he’s doing and what he wants from his film. The acting is for the most part superb and the many stand-out moments and set pieces stay with you between watches. Its downfall is in its complexity and desperation to cram as much in as possible. While this adds richness to the script, it occasionally over fills the screen. The film is at its strongest when a handful of characters are at a table, plotting, double-bluffing or simply conversing. Thankfully there is more than enough of this to qualify the film as a huge success.
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