A sprawling feast of a movie that’s by turns funny, exciting, outrageous and just plain exhilarating, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds actually is the event—make that Event—it was touted to be. That in itself is deliciously apt since a large part of the movie’s plot—and certainly its raison d’être—centers around the idea of film as an event. Inglourious Basterds culminates with a film premiere that manages to place most of the Nazi high command—including Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, The Reader), Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) himself—in the same movie house at the same time.
A movie geek of Tarantino’s standing is hardly likely to be unaware of the claim that was once made that the premiere of a new Fritz Lang film in 1920s Berlin was such a big deal that if a bomb had gone off it would have removed most of Germany’s intellectual and political bigwigs in one fell swoop. Considering that Tarantino’s movies are largely about his own love affair with the movies and with the history and esoterica of film, this is precisely the sort of anecdote that one might rightly expect to fuel a Tarantino film (in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this was indeed the genesis for the story in the film). What’s surprising is how well it works. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find anything in Inglourious Basterds that doesn’t work.
As with most of Tarantino’s films, Inglourious Basterds is pulpy trash. It’s the form he most likes to work in, because it’s exciting and inherently cinematic. Plus, its very pulpiness makes it a little subversive—possibly because Tarantino is one of the few working filmmakers who revels in the fact that there’s a fine line between exploitation and art. Tarantino makes movies that become films because of their total immersion in film culture. I sometimes find Tarantino a little too full of himself and a bit grating, but he’s almost certainly right when he claims that he knows more about movies than most of the people who write about them for a living. That’s neither arrogance, nor a put-down. Were it the latter, one of the heroes of Basterds would hardly be a movie critic and film historian (Michael Fassbender) who has written a monograph on German director G.W. Pabst.
Although there is more to the story line than the film’s last—and most spectacular—act, Basterds is all about the movies one way or another. Its opening—“Once upon a time in Nazi-Occupied France”—sets the tone not just in fairy-tale terms, but in movie fairy-tale terms by invoking Sergio Leone movie titles (Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America). Tarantino then proceeds to create a scene that deliberately recalls Leone’s style. The Basterds themselves are a movie construct—by way of Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Enzo Castellari’s Italian variant The Inglorious Bastards (1978)—reimagined as vengeance-seeking Jews (led by a bizarre hillbilly-ized Brad Pitt) terrorizing Nazis behind enemy lines.
It may even be that the slightly preposterous casting of torture-porn director Eli Roth (Hostel) as Sgt. Donny Donowitz (aka “The Bear Jew”), who specializes in bludgeoning Nazis to death with a baseball bat, is a movie reference to Roth’s films. (This is suggested by the assertion, “Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is as close as we get to the movies.”) Everywhere you turn, this is a movie about movies—from making them, being in them, showing them, promoting them, writing about them, using them as a means to revenge and as wish fulfillment. There’s even a lesson—complete with a split-screen insert of an educational film (actually a clip from Hitchcock’s 1936 film Sabotage pressed into service in this capacity)—about how flammable nitrate movie film is.
The structure of the film is really little more than three fairly involved setups that merge into the movie’s frankly astonishing and beautifully crafted final act. The first part sets up both a central revenge scenario for Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and introduces us to the movie’s primary villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz in a show-stealing performance), who has Shosanna’s family slaughtered. The second jumps ahead in time and brings in Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt) and his Basterds, who are the bane of the Nazi’s existence, jumping and killing and scalping groups of soldiers—and leaving one alive with a swastika personally carved into his forehead by Raine. (This—and the whole presentation of the Nazi elite as self-absorbed, absurd buffoons—makes one wonder if Tarantino has managed to see Ken Russell’s “banned” 1970 TV film Dance of the Seven Veils.)
The film then turns to its third setup with Shosanna, who is now running a cinema in Paris, and the romance-minded pursuit of her by Nazi “war hero” Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl, Ladies in Lavender), who wangles the premiere of a propaganda film about his exploits (produced by Goebbels) at her theater. Enter the British high command’s plot, Operation Kino, to take out the Nazi elite at the premiere with the help of double-agent actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and the Basterds.
What follows is certainly not history (by the time David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” appears on the sound track while Shosanna readies her own plan against the Nazis, you will have guessed that). But it’s remarkable filmmaking, even more remarkably satisfying—and a spectacularly twisted version of using art to make something more “right” than reality. In essence, it’s the ultimate war-movie fantasy. And why not? Inglourious Basterds is kind of the ultimate war movie. It’s the film of the summer that actually is an event—and it just might be what Brad Pitt’s closing line suggests as concerns Tarantino’s oeuvre. Rated R for strong graphic violence, language and brief sexuality.