Inglourious Basterds (2009)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz
Despite him being my favorite filmmaker when I was in high school, and despite the fact that engaging with Tarantino’s cinema was one of the most important and influential developments in my early introduction to the movies, I really fell off of Quentin Tarantino almost immediately after high school. The Kill Bill movies were released at the beginning and the end of my senior year of high school, and I remember spending much of the ensuing summer under the thrall of their pastiche of cinematic influences, continuing my love affair with Hong Kong action cinema and getting more seriously interested in Sergio Leone. When I came to Pittsburgh for college, however, I found myself with access to a wealth of movies to explore, and I was eager to explore the texts that had informed the post-modern cinema of my favorite director. Somewhere along the way, revisiting Tarantino’s actual films seemed less and less important. Death Proof, released the summer before my senior year of college, didn’t move the needle for me, and I don’t think I saw Inglourious Basterds until as much as a year after its initial release. Missing it on the big screen is a big regret of mine, since I’ve seen every other Tarantino since Kill Bill: Vol 1 in the theater, and because after nearly a decade of returning to Inglourious Basterds, I’ve found it to be my favorite 21st century Tarantino movie. It might be the quintessential Tarantino film, perhaps more so than even Pulp Fiction, and the more I watch it, the closer, and more comfortable, I get to declaring it my favorite Tarantino movie ever.
Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s revisionist history of World War II, framed through the lens of Italian B- action movies, American Westerns, both classic and revisionist, and the European New Wave cinemas of the 1960s. It finds Tarantino at his most appropriative, and at his most original, weaving a tapestry of these disparate styles to create a pattern that’s distinctively unique, while fabricating from whole cloth a compelling narrative worthy of a 1940s dime store pulp serial. Set in and around occupied Paris, Inglourious Basterds introduces the audience to a cast of misfits – American soldiers, defected former-Nazis, English spies, and one vengeful French Jewish cinema owner – who are brought together by their fervor for killing Nazis. The titular Basterds are a renegade squad made up primarily of American Jews and led by Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Pitt), feared throughout Europe for their penchant for ambushing and murdering entire Nazi units. Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent), is a French Jew hiding out in Paris and posing as a cinema owner, whose whole family was killed by an infamous Nazi interrogator, Hans Landa, nicknamed The Jew Hunter (Waltz), who also happens to be on the trail of the Basterds. Through a chance meeting with an over-eager Nazi war hero, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), Shoshanna’s cinema is chosen to host the propaganda film that Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made about Zoller’s military exploits. This screening is to be attended by much of the high brass of the Third Reich, including Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself, which prompts Shoshanna to launch a plan to burn down the theater with the Nazis inside. All of the involved parties are put on a collision course culminating in the film’s literally explosive climax during the film’s premiere.
I’ll be writing about two of the movies that Tarantino directed in between Pulp Fiction and Inglourious Basterds within the next couple of months, so I won’t delve into either Jackie Brown or Kill Bill, but after watching Inglourious Basterds for the sixth or seventh time, I feel more assured than I ever have that this is Tarantino’s best work post-Pulp Fiction. It’s tough for me to take any of the credit away from the latter film, as it has rightly gained a classic status for its role in shaping post-modernism in cinema, its announcement of Tarantino as a major influencer and voice in independent film, and its radical reinvention of visual and narrative cinematic language. That being said, I am really starting to think that Inglourious Basterds does everything that Tarantino’s earlier film does while also improving upon some of Pulp Fiction’s rougher edges. Simply put, Inglourious Basterds is the work of a more mature filmmaker. By 2009, Tarantino had already fully established his signature style of cinematic collage, wearing his wide set of influences on his sleeve, and often straddling the line between homage and plagiarism, but Inglourious Basterds is the movie that sees him mastering his style and seamlessly meshing his own visual aesthetic with the visual and storytelling styles of his influences in service of a tight narrative, creating a sharp film in which form and content are perfectly complementary. It’s a blend of the artistic modernism embodied by the French New Wave and the exciting, slapdash postmodernism of the New Wave of American independent film that established itself in the 1990s.
Inglourious Basterds also features the single best performance in a Tarantino film in Waltz’s truly terrifying turn as The Jew Hunter. The film’s masterfully suspenseful opening scene is the perfect introduction to Waltz’s truly villainous SS Col. Hans Landa. He plays the Nazi interrogator with equal parts sophisticated charm, savage brutality, and ruthless cunning, creating a layered villain who is as fearsome for his silver tongue as he is for his abject viciousness. In the scene, Landa is interrogating a French farmer, M. LaPadite (Denis Ménochet), who is suspected of hiding a Jewish family in his home. The Jew Hunter begins his investigation by complementing and cajoling with the farmer, but of course this is a pretense, as both parties are well aware of the deadly consequences that will befall LaPadite and his family should his wards be discovered, or if he resists the line of questioning in any way. The two actors circle around one another verbally as Tarantino allows the scene to play out languorously, tension building by the second. There’s no doubt as to the outcome of the scene, but this doesn’t make the moment when Landa calls in his goons to machine gun the poor family hiding beneath the floor boards any less shocking or viscerally horrible. The violence isn’t what makes the scene so particularly horrifying, but rather the fact that Landa has been building to this particular climax with a smile pasted to his face, relishing the discomfort he is causing in LaPadite. The character’s erudition and charm are insufficient to mask his inner monstrosity, and Waltz is perfectly cast as an actor who at once can embody the exterior of societal niceties, as well as the flinty interior of a cold-hearted, remorseless killer.
Inglourious Basterds also finds Tarantino drawing from a broader set of influences than in many of his earlier films. While Jackie Brown drew its inspiration solely from the world of Blacksploitation films and Kill Bill operates in a Western milieu, with dashes of Hong Kong action and Wuxia thrown in for good measure, Inglorious Basterds is a beautiful pastiche, borrowing liberally from the works of John Ford, Sergio Leone, Leni Riefenstahl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and Howard Hawks, as well as featuring homages to famous films such as The Wizard of Oz, The Dirty Dozen, and Unforgiven, among others. The film is a love letter to classic cinema, and it’s the Tarantino film which most explicitly highlights his cinephilia, placing films and their exhibition at the core of its narrative. I’ve heard a criticism of Tarantino and of post-modernist filmmaking in general that it offers up great style with little substance, essentially functioning as a checklist of “in” references to be discovered by fellow movie nerds, but I’ve always felt that that criticism is hollow and really doesn’t stand up to the actual experience of watching a Tarantino film. The director might bear his influences proudly and obviously, but his frequent liberal borrowing from film texts always serves as a complement to original and engaging narratives, and this is truer than ever in Inglourious Basterds. Certainly Tarantino has lifted some settings and motifs from earlier films, but they serve as the window dressing for a revisionist history fable that is thoroughly modern and original and that, at the same time, couldn’t exist without being informed and influenced by its predecessors. In this way Inglourious Basterds forms a feedback loop, or an Ouroboros, a B-movie that achieves actual prestige, propped up by a host of earlier texts while also informing those texts and imbuing them with new meaning and life. It’s the perfect Quentin Tarantino movie.
I reserve the right to reevaluate this judgment when I soon write about Kill Bill and Pulp Fiction, but I don’t expect that I will. While those are both movies that I love and that I relish the opportunity to engage with in a more critical manner, I think that I am familiar enough with them all that at this point my mind is made up. Inglourious Basterds achieves levels of meaning and critical engagement with its influences that those movies fail to, and it’s a better movie for that reason. It lacks the shock factor that must have accompanied Pulp Fiction’s initial release in 1994, but only because it takes a similar, and already accepted, template and perfects it. Tarantino followed up Inglourious Basterds with two films that I enjoyed, but that I felt were more style than substance and which I haven’t had a lot of interest in going back to in the way that I have with all of his other films. As a fan for life, I’ll turn up with interest for any new Tarantino project, but it will difficult to top the high water mark that Inglourious Basterds holds in my mind.