When a character in Inglorious Basterds looks down at the camera and says, “I think this just might be my masterpiece,” it’s clear that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is carving a self-congratulatory blurb for his own World War II film. Maybe he’s earned the right to gloat. As a viewer, when I think of Tarantino, I think of chapterized revenge. The revenge in Inglorious Basterds is of a historically revisionist nature. It unfolds in five chapters, which collectively serve as a five-point-palm exploder on the moviegoer’s chest. As Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hits theaters this Friday, we can hazard a guess that it might take a similar revisionist approach to its treatment of the Manson murders.
Tarantino was the quintessential filmmaker of the 1990s and he’s never made a movie that was as culturally significant as Pulp Fiction. That kind of era-defining success only comes once in a career. There are cinephiles who prefer Jackie Brown—a like-minded exercise in restraint that consciously appeals to an older audience. These two entries are linked in Tarantino’s directorial filmography in that they’re the only instances where he’s shared a writing credit with someone else. Roger Avary helped conceive the story for Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown is based on an Elmore Leonard novel.
As great as those movies are, it’s the exuberance and unpredictability of his more original screenplays that made me a fan of Tarantino’s work. In Inglourious Basterds, these elements come into play in a film that is perhaps the truest expression of Tarantino’s style, which is simultaneously cartoonish and craftsmanlike. Tempering some (but not all) of his excesses, he distilled his ideas for a TV miniseries down into a punchy script with sections that play like short stories. Don’t let the title fool you: the results were glorious.
Inglourious Basterds contains Tarantino’s best villain: namely, SS Colonel Hans Landa, portrayed by Christoph Waltz. At first, Landa embraces his Nazi nickname, “The Jew Hunter,” with a kind of twisted professional pride, but when we meet him again later, his attitude has shifted, as if he resents being typecast in such a way.
Landa is a polyglot, able to shift effortlessly from German to English to French to Italian. It’s easy to see why Tarantino, a director whose films are dialogue-driven, would regard this “linguistic genius” as his best character. Inglourious Basterds introduced the world to Waltz and his finesse with language is essential in guiding us into this subtitled movie.
In Chapter One (“Once upon a time … in Nazi-occupied France”), Landa arrives at a French farmhouse whose axe-swinging owner is sheltering hidden Jews under his floorboards. The ensuing conversation between the two men becomes a chess game of rising unease.
When Landa produces a Calabash Meerschaum — the same pipe Sherlock Holmes smoked — the sight of it lands as a comically oversized prop yet it’s also the psych-out he needs to call checkmate. The mark of a “damn good detective” and a consummate role-player, this pipe signifies his prowess in ferreting out lies and uncovering the charades of others. It’s a function he’ll perform right up until the end when Brad Pitt’s reciprocal Nazi-hunter, Lieutenant Aldo Raine, unsheathes his Bowie knife and leaves Landa forever exposed with a swastika scar on his forehead.
Though it seems unfathomable given the sheer wealth of great characters Tarantino has written, Waltz is the only actor to have ever won an Academy Award for playing one of them. He did it twice, actually. The second time was for Dr. King Schultz in Django Unchained.
Schultz is unbearably talky; there’s a scene where Django is doing shooting practice and Schultz’s head literally pops into the frame, as if to remind us that he’s still there to hog the spotlight and embody the kind of faux-enlightened white savior the Academy loves. (Chris Mannix, the racist and slack-jawed Barney Fife caricature left to guard another black antihero who’s gunned into a bedridden, testicle-free state in The Hateful Eight, is a less scrupulous example of the unconscious white-savior streak running through Tarantino’s westerns).
Schultz can be annoying with his needless theatrics and verbosity but Landa has the opposite effect. He’s a character who exudes menace through cheerful pleasantries. When he’s around, it raises the tension in a scene by orders of magnitude. We feel like something bad’s about to happen, and then it does, with Landa ordering his soldiers to exterminate the “rats” under the floorboards. It just so happens this Nazi’s idea of “rats” is a whole Jewish family, the Dreyfuses, whose daughter, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) escapes the farmhouse on foot as Landa lets her go, seemingly on a whim.
This sets in motion the plot of Inglourious Basterds, which has its characters converge on a Parisian cinema as Shosanna seeks her revenge and the titular Basterds, led by Raine, seek the ultimate Nazi scalp: that of Adolph Hitler.
In the cinema, Landa strangles Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German movie star who, despite her acting fame, can barely keep up pretenses as a spy around him. It’s possible this offends his role-playing sensibilities, or maybe he just needs to eliminate a rival. After all, they’re both up for the same role: that of the double agent who will aid the Allies in assassinating Hitler and ending the war.
If Landa is Tarantino’s best villain — and I take it for granted that we’re all in agreement about The Bride being his best hero — then, in among the usual quotidian conversations punctuated by bursts of violence, Inglorious Basterds also contains the single tensest scene Tarantino’s ever committed to celluloid. It’s the basement tavern scene in Chapter Four (“Operation Kino”), where two of the Basterds and Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender in a breakout role) become involved in a game of “Who Am I?” with a Gestapo Major.
That scene is the Jaws of gesturing. It’s been fifteen summers since I first saw it and it still makes me self-conscious about what fingers I hold up when I want to display a number. You know a movie has inceptioned you when it starts to permeate moments of your life like that.
Before we enter the tavern, Tarantino has already set the stage for what follows by having Raine point out the foolhardy nature of a basement rendezvous. Hicox also has a potential loose cannon on his hands in the form of Hugo Stiglitz (Tig Schweiger), the Basterd who was afforded his own special interlude as a one-man Nazi-killing machine in Chapter Two.
Further complicating matters is the unscheduled table of German soldiers in the tavern. We don’t even see that Gestapo Major, Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl), until the camera reveals that he’s been sitting around the corner the whole time, reading a book in an unseen alcove. Add to this Hicox’s own shaky accent when he’s speaking German and the pieces are all in place for something bad to happen again, as it did in Chapter One.
Tarantino expertly manipulates the mise-en-scene, holding us in suspense with every element until Hicox stoically surrenders to the inevitable and switches to English, preceding his death with the top-shelf movie quote, “Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.” Cue basement tavern shootout, followed by the obligatory Mexican standoff, Tarantino-style.
Where Inglourious Basterds really comes together as a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts is in its last chapter. Chapter Five (“Revenge of the Giant Face”) reframes the movie as the ultimate historical revenge fantasy. The whole film builds toward it in the same way that the compounding parts of Chapter Four build toward to that shootout.
This time, Eli Roth’s bat-wielding “Bear Jew” and one of the other Basterds take to an opera box to mow down Hitler and Goebbels with submachine guns before the entire cinema around them goes up in flames, courtesy of a mound of nitrate film ignited by Shosanna’s lover. What Tarantino is saying here is obvious: cinema is, or once was, at least, quite literally incendiary. It can set the world on fire. It can make the Nazis burn in hell right in front of you.
In the same way that the doomed Shosanna splices her larger-than-life, ghostly “face of Jewish vengeance” into a Nazi propaganda film, Tarantino splices his own madcap, fictional ending into the existing reel of World War II. With this casually enacted twist, his men-on-a-mission film becomes something more: a work of alternate history with an unlikely place in what the Israeli newspaper Haaretz called “the discourse between the cinema and the memory of the Holocaust.”
This is something I touched on last December in an article about Schindler’s List and Shoah — two of the 20th century’s greatest films — but there’s a reason that some intellectuals like the late Claude Lanzmann have actually preferred Tarantino’s film to Steven Spielberg’s. Recognizing, perhaps, that films are fundamentally lies that aim at higher spiritual truths, the movie isn’t bound by what happened or the narrative of Jewish victimhood. Instead, it presents a vision of events where the moral arc of the universe is quicker and splashier as it bends toward justice.
Ranking Tarantino’s films is a bit like prioritizing children in the same family. You love them all and it almost seems unfair to treat them as anything less than equals because, all criticisms aside, he’s never made a bad film. To couch it in terms of ‘70s pop culture references (which are part of Tarantino’s own cinematic language), you wouldn’t ask Alice the housekeeper to play an escalating game of Save or Kill with members of the Brady Bunch.
Or would you? Admit it: you have your own wicked idea about who the last Brady standing would be. (I vote Jan.)
Personally, Reservoir Dogs is my favorite ‘90s Tarantino film. Last year, I called Kill Bill, Vol. 1 “the front-loaded first half of his most ambitious epic.” It and Kill Bill, Vol. 2 remain my overall favorite Tarantino movie (or movies, if you count them as two, which he doesn’t). However, Inglourious Basterds ranks as a close second and objectively, I think it’s Tarantino’s best. May it please the court, I won’t settle for, “best this side of Pulp Fiction,” either.
Inglourious Basterds is a strange beast: it definitely has some undisciplined moments, like the whole impromptu Samuel L. Jackson voiceover explaining Stiglitz’s backstory. At the same time, the broad strokes that might cause some critics to lower their estimation of the film in other Tarantino rankings are what give it a special kind of flair and personality in my book. Considered as a quirky cousin to Pulp Fiction, it’s less mundane and mannerly and more consistently entertaining.
At 153 minutes, it’s not a short movie, but the rise and fall of its chapters gives it a barreling momentum that makes it breeze by quicker than Tarantino’s messier, more bloated follow-up, Django Unchained. One can’t help but wonder if editor Sally Menke might have helped trimmed some of the fat from Django’s flabby first hour. Inglourious Basterds was Menke’s last collaboration with Tarantino before she passed away in 2010.
Jejune, jazzy, irrepressibly personal in style, yet showing control of craft, Inglourious Basterds is perhaps the happiest marriage we’ll ever get between the formal Tarantino that “mature” cinephiles want to see and the freeform creative spirit that he himself wants to be. It’s a film where the auteur melded his own vision with the defining event of the 20th century, using the power of cinema as a godlike reckoning force.
With this movie, Tarantino managed to rein himself in just enough, scaling back his miniseries idea, taking out some of the filler, and presenting us with a chain of chapters that feed forward into each other before they wear out their welcome. Rather than overstay my own welcome here, I’ll just proffer that this is peak Tarantino and leave the rest to the court’s judgment. Auf Wiedersehen.
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