Inglourious Basterds (2009, Quentin Tarantino)

Film Title: Inglourious Basterds

Spoiler alert: these reviews reveal plot twists.

In France during the Second World War, two plans to assassinate the Nazi high command are put into place…

What does QT do? Writer/director Quentin Tarantino had been mooting this project for over a decade, and it seems he had a few failed attempts at finishing the script. It started off as a loose remake of the 1978 Italian movie Quel maledetto treno blindato, which was released in America under the name The Inglorious Bastards. (An exploitation rip-off of The Dirty Dozen, it’s a gung-ho men-on-a-mission film. Bits of it are fun.) But the more Tarantino wrote, the more his script moved away from the original. The Brad Pitt subplot has an echo of the 70s film, but this is certainly not a remake. Tarantino claims his misspelt title is just an affectation. He also has a cameo as a dead German soldier who’s being scalped.

Notable characters:
* Perrier LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) is a French farmer who’s visited one day by an SS officer hunting for Jews. LaPadite’s conversation with the officer, Landa, is the film’s opening salvo and is a scene loaded with menace. One of LaPadite’s briefly seen daughters is played by Léa Seydoux, who later stared with Landa actor Christoph Waltz in Spectre (2015).
* SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) has gained the nickname The Jew Hunter because he combs war-torn France looking for them. It’s an astonishing performance, for which Waltz won an Oscar, a Bafta and a Golden Globe. Landa is unspeakably evil – if all the cunts in the world got together to vote for the biggest cunt, he’d stand a chance of winning – but you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s polite, seemingly easy-going and has a childlike and formal manner, yet has ultimate power in almost every scene. Because of the story’s chapter-like structure, the character actually goes away for long stretches. But he still dominates the film.
* Shosanna Dreyfus aka Emmanuelle Mimieux (Mélanie Laurent) flees LaPadite’s farmhouse when Landa kills her family. Four years later, she’s living under an assumed name in Paris and managing a cinema. When the Nazis plan to use her establishment for a film premiere, she sees an opportunity to kill the top brass. Laurent gives a brilliant performance of strength and quiet turmoil.
* First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is a showboating army officer who leads a small platoon of Jewish-American soldiers. They call themselves the Basterds and their mission is to hunt down and kill Nazis. (Raine insists on scalping the victims.) Pitt is as broad as his Tennessee accent, but it’s quite entertaining.
* Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is Raine’s second in command. He’s acquired the nickname The Bear Jew and enjoys killing Nazis with a baseball bat. Eli Roth is billed fourth in the opening credits. FOURTH. It pays to be Quentin Tarantino’s mate, it seems.
* Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke)… oh, you know.
* Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is an Austrian member of the Basterds. They recruited him after he killed 13 members of the Gestapo.
* A narrator (Samuel L Jackson) twice provides some exposition. He tells us Stiglitz’s backstory then later explains why cans of nitrate film are so dangerous.
* Private First Class Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) is a young German who has risen to fame because he killed 250 Allies in three days from a sniper’s position. A movie called Nation’s Pride has been made about his exploits, with Zoller playing himself. He meets Shosanna/Emmanuelle and flirts with her. But she isn’t interested because he’s, you know, a fascist fuck-stain. Brühl is really good at playing a cocky little twerp who can, and does, turn nasty at a moment’s notice.
* Marcel (Jacky Ido) is Shosanna’s lover, a black man who works at the cinema. He’s an oddly minor character who we sadly never focus on.
* Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) appears twice, firstly when he delivers Shosanna to a meeting with Goebbels, then later in an underground tavern when he suspects some German officers of being spies.
* Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and aide (ie, mistress) Francesca Mondino (Julie Dreyfus) are in Paris to oversee the premiere of Nation’s Pride.
* Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British Army officer who used to be a film critic and is an expert on German cinema. He’s handpicked for a mission to go behind enemy lines, hook up with the Basterds, and assassinate some Nazis. However, once he and the Basterds have met a double agent in a local tavern, Hicox gives the game away by using a non-German hand gesture (very Red-Grant-ordering-the-wrong-wine-in-From-Russia-With-Love, this). Fassbender is terrific, clipped accent and all. (Simon Pegg was considered for the role but was busy on The Adventures of Tintin.)
* General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) gives Hicox his assignment. Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) watches from afar.
* Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is a famed German movie star and also a double agent for the Allies. She arranged to meet Hicox once he’s in France, but chooses a location that brings a whole heap of problems… Kruger’s is another excellent performance.
* An OSS Commander (Harvey Keitel) is heard over a radio when Landa wants to make a deal for his surrender.

Returning actors: Brad Pitt had an enjoyable cameo in True Romance. Eli Roth and Omar Doom (one of the Basterds) had been in Death Proof. Julie Dreyfus was in Kill Bill Vol. 1. Michael Bacall was in Tarantino’s CSI episode and Death Proof. Bo Svenson, who’s glimpsed in the Nation’s Pride film, had a small role in Kill Bill Vol. 2 and was also the lead actor in 1978’s The Inglorious Bastards. Although only providing voice parts, Samuel L Jackson is in his fifth Tarantino film, Harvey Keitel his fourth.

Music: Tarantino wanted the great Ennio Morricone to score the film – and it would have been the first purpose-written score for one of his movies – but the composer was busy. So some archive cues by Morricone and others have been employed. David Bowie’s 1982 song Cat People (Putting Out Fire) is used to great effect when Shosanna is preparing for the premiere. She’s also surrounded by the colour red, symbolising her murderous intent.

Time shifts and chapters: The film is divided into five chapters with on-screen titles: ‘Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France’ (which lasts around 20 minutes), ‘Inglourious Basterds’ (16 minutes), ‘German night in Paris’ (25 minutes), ‘Operation Kino’ (40 minutes) and ‘Revenge of the Giant Face’ (42 minutes). They play in chronological order, but the second has fun with flashbacks within flashbacks, while the finale also features brief flashbacks.

Connections: Tarantino has said that Eli Roth’s character, Donny Donowitz, is the father of Lee Donowitz, the coke-head movie producer in True Romance.

Review: Inglourious Basterds is a film made up of great scenes rather than a wholly great film. There is a through-line and the subplots build to a shared climax, but the episodic structure means that characters often go absent and the tone varies quite a bit. (We switch from scenes of unbearable tension to sections played for laughs.) So as a piece of storytelling it’s a bit fragmented. Despite all this, though, it’s still very impressive and is headlined by a tremendous cast with some electrifying dialogue. Some of the individual chapters are also mini-masterpieces in their own right, such as the opening scene at the farm. Here, Tarantino shows a *masterful* control of time and space. The build-up of anxiety is palpable, as is the creeping horror, and there’s a constant threat of violence and catastrophe underneath the surface. The camerawork is also thrilling in its clarity and precision: it’s always telling story, always adding meaning and subtext. You find yourself holding your breath while Landa gently (ie, menacingly) questions LaPadite. The scene is reminiscent of the Westerns of director Sergio Leone, which favoured long, slow, deliberate preludes to violence and revelations. In fact, the chapter title is a pun on Leone’s best film: Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). This buttock-clenching fear is generated elsewhere in the film too. Landa’s meeting with Shosanna in Paris (the strudel scene) is equally nerve-shredding – despite a few hints, you’re never quite sure if he knows who she is – and the sequence in the tavern, while a superficially light-hearted conversation, has real edginess and danger once a Gestapo officer sits at the table. On the other hand, despite giving the movie its title, the Basterds’ scenes tend to be a bit cartoony. Cartoons with horrific bursts of violence, that is. Other notable aspects of this marvellous movie include the fact it’s Tarantino’s first period film (he revels in the culturally arrested Paris of 1944), the extensive use of subtitles (there are entire conversations in French and German), a gleeful disregard for historical accuracy (THEY KILL OFF HITLER!), and a motif built around the power of cinema (which is evident in Shosanna’s job, Zoller’s fame, the nitrate film, Hicox’s career, the premiere…). It might be damning with faint praise to say that Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s fourth best movie. But given the strength of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, that’s still an accolade worth having.

Nine pages of history out of 10

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