Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is a spectacular unholy pile of Movie – in a sense that you just don’t see much in America. Other cultures still do it to a degree – indeed Bollywood is steeped in the idea – the whole “you laugh, you cry”, outsized style, performances, presences, etc. Obviously, this is Tarantino’s long awaited “war movie”, although of course, it is more accurate to say is that it is a film ABOUT the war movie genre. His films always have that meta layer. Obviously he plunders the endless recesses of his movie memory, and fans and haters spend lots of time documenting inspirations – but he is not executing a paint by number exercise. He is a filmmaker of vast gifts, who taps into our moviegoing unconsicious – even if you don’t know ALL of the sources – his films make you think you do. It is a collective movie watching unconscious – if I were to trivially borrow from Jung.
The film opens with a Nazi Colonel (Christoph Waltz) arriving at a farm in France – suspecting that the owner is hiding Jews. In a lesser movie of course, we’d have some perfunctory plot advancing dialogue, and then the shootout. Of course, Tarantino is too good a writer for that – so we get a conversation about something. This colonel is something. He compares Jews to rats, but not in the way that a Godwin’s lawyer might think. He discusses how he is a great hunter of Jews. When he arrives at his conclusions about the farm – we have gotten somewhere. We get established character – and Landa is the fulcrum of evil around which this loopy plot rotates. Waltz is fabulous in the role – like many Tarantino characters, taking the character to the precipice of parody, but stopping JUST short. Among the escapees of the ensuing violence is a young lady.
Another character who veers close to utter silliness is Aldo Rayne, the head of the Basterds in the title. He is played by Brad Pitt of course, and Pitt has shown that despite his US Magazine reputation – that he is a good actor with a lot of range, and the willingness to – well – not be normal. Rayne speaks with a supremely mannered Southern accent – not mannered as a mistake like that chick on The Closer – but clearly for comic purpose. We first meet him addressing his dirty-dozen esque onclave of Jews who now are here to scalp Nazis (quite literally). The team has its types, whether it be the legendary Bear Jew, or Stiglitz – a former German who has switched teams. Stiglitz killing power is quite the reputation, which gives Tarantino the excuse to break convention and film a 70s Cop Show style intro for him.
Despite their actual vocation, the Basterds actually provide much of the comic counterpoint of the movie – but the main thread of the movie takes us to a movie theater run by the girl who escaped the farm. She has been showing Nazi propaganda films and doing whatever she is told, but then a Nazi soldier, Frederick Zollner sees her and is smitten. She rebuffs his advances, but then he tries to impress her with his exploits – as both a propaganda movie star and a killing machine. The latter trait would not seem to rake in the ladies to me, but whatever – either way she is not impressed, but he uses his influence to get her, um … convinced … to premiere a new propaganda movie (starring Zollner). This is a big premiere with Goebbels (seen as a sort of effete frustrated artiste here) and Der Fuhrer (pretty broadly drawn, as he should be) attending – it could put her theater on the map. As you might imagine, Landa is called in for security detail. Of course, the woman has some motivations that might not precisely align. This allows for a sequence where Tarantino can toss in documentary footage on film prints.
What allows this zany pile of war genre as a spaghetti western hold up is Tarantino’s ability to sort of work both sides of the war movie commentary. The seriousness reflected by Landa’s evil and shrewdness (note the particular way he is able to sniff out a double agent) and the very real motivations of the lady. We are spared examples of Nazi evil (really, they are just the villains here – Tarantino properly intuits we know what they did) – but we sense the occupation and the tension of having the soldiers around. This puts some extra juice into a scene where the Basterds are masquerading as soldiers when a real captain comes and joins them for a card game. The dialogue in this scene, in particular is brilliant. It is not plot moving, but it is great dialogue and the sort of conversation that these folks might have. We get a sense of the dread of occupation that does not resonate so strongly even in more “serious” fare.
What can I say? The film is not a war movie – though that is the foundation it uses to build it’s original vision. The movie is dark, sad, horrifying at times, very funny in others. It is a full bodied Movie – and that seems to be the best compliment I can think of. Tarantino has been the real thing since his full bloom began – it has not stopped yet.