Inglourious Basterds

(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)

Rated 18. Contains images of strong bloody violence, torture, scalping, strangulation, castration (no balls at all!), farce, cartoon German and British soldiers, cartoon war leaders, a cartoon Brad Pitt, self-referentialism, geek-outs, Hostel director Eli Roth with a machine gun, and bad spelling.

Inglourious Basterds is a Tarantino film, which means something very different in 2009 than it did in 1992, when Tarantino unleashed Reservoir Dogs, or even in 1997, when he turned out Jackie Brown. Back then there was a meaningful difference between Tarantino’s films and his “films,” the latter category festooned with freeze-frames, blaring musical stings and Facebook-style status updates on what film genre QT mostly watched this week. In Inglourious Basterds, a lot of Tarantino’s trademark talk-heavy scenes are conducted in French and German, making you wonder; What if Tarantino had bifurcated his output into popcorn romps and deeper fare, like bilingual superstar Guillermo del Toro? For every Hellboy, a Pan’s Labyrinth; for every Kill Bill… Who knows? Watch Reservoir Dogs again, and there’s no knowing where we might have gone.

Tarantino’s new film, though, takes us to the familiar scare-quotes, only-a-film terrain of “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France,” where the only thing missing is Harrison Ford’s immortal epigram, “I hate these guys.” The Basterds are a bunch of anti-Nazi serial killers, led by a speechifying Brad Pitt with the entertainment value and, er, plausibility of David Carradine’s Bill. Meanwhile, a vengeful Jewish woman, Shosanna (a striking Melaine Laurent), lives under a forged identity as the owner of a Paris cinema, plotting payback for what happened to her family. She gets her chance when the Nazi brass plan a morale-boosting premiere for Goebbels’ new fascist epic, about a young defender of the Fatherland (Daniel Bruhl), who happens to be infatuated with Shosanna. In the messy way of things, we end up with two assassination plots double-booked for the night, courtesy of the ball-crunching Basterds and the tightly-wound Melaine, who, inevitably, echoes Uma Thurman’s Bride from Kill Bill.

For the record, I liked Kill Bill (well, I got bored in Part 2) and even enjoyed the much-panned Death Proof, Tarantino’s half of Grindhouse. Inglourious Basterds is probably better than both, though I suspect a lot of critics and viewers tune out when they see Martin Wuttke’s bilious Hitler pounding a desk, screaming NEIN! NEIN! NEIN! NEIN! NEIN! (to which the reply is, of course, “Just one, Mein Fuhrer!”) Yet parts of the film, which mostly consists of talky vignettes interspersed with blood and bullets, are genuinely, even sincerely, gripping, and make the scare quotes and geek annotations redundant. In the first scene, a satantic “Jew-hunter,” Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz) talks amiably with a French farmer in his house, while a terrified Jewish family huddles under the floorboards. For no obvious reason, Landa asks his companion if they can switch to English, which seems like a blithe Tarantino gag about Hollywood’s Anglophone conventions. Several minutes later, the switch is chillingly revealed to be part of a lethal trap.

Another scene turns into a bloody reprise of Reservoir Dogs, one of several moments where Tarantino invites surprising sympathy for men in Nazi uniform. His cinephile plot seems shamelessly masturbatory: a British officer (Michael Fassbender channelling George Sanders) is a gentlemanly film critic with an interest in taboo Nazi cinema; there’s a German actress-turned-Allied agent (Diane Kruger) who gets an especially rough deal; and the climax turns on highly explosive nitrate film prints. Yet the bloodbath finale pays off as celluloid mirrors reality, ghosts form in projector smoke, and the end reminds us you can do anything in movies. Few will proclaim this the work of an artist, as the director was touted a decade ago, and there should be a 100-minute version for viewers who’ve had enough dialogue Tarantino-isms for one life. But as for the charge that the film is a stupid, tasteless depiction of the greatest slaughter of the last hundred years, well, we can always watch Downfall in penance.

(c) 2018 Rebellion A/S. Reprinted with permission.