It maybe should have been called Pulp Third Reich. Inglourious Basterds is a fantasy in the B-movie vein, an intentionally subversive (even both words in the title are misspelled!) satire about a group of Nazi hunters, led by First Lieutenant Aldo Paine (Brad Pitt), who exact revenge on Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and his henchmen. Too bad that it’s neither comic nor clever. Overall, it’s really a blood-splattered mess of a film, slaking Tarentino’s fetishistic thirst for graphic gore at the expense of wit or cogency.
Yet it’s not entirely unentertaining.
In fact, the opening scene is brilliantly suspenseful. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), an SS colonel whose epithet is “The Jew Hunter,” arrives at a French farmhouse owned by Perrier Lapadite (Denis Menochet). Genteel small talk between the two men gradually turns to Landa’s comparing Jews to rats. After a crescendo of insinuations, Landa openly accuses Lapadite for harboring a Jewish family beneath his floorboards, whereupon the Nazi commandant orders his team of thugs to machine-gun the cellar, family and all, to kingdom come. But one of them, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), escapes. And bizarrely, Landa lets her go.
This scene capitalizes on the film’s only real strength: Waltz’s nuanced portrayal of Landa, a bipolar, neurotic personality vacillating between charming volubility and cunning sadism. Landa enjoys a good game of cat and mouse. The part of it he enjoys most is watching his victims squirm as he tosses hints of his devilish intentions out to them amid otherwise mindless banter (as when he meets Shosanna again later on).
Alas, the tension of the film’s gripping introduction is rudely interrupted by Brad Pitt’s affected-sounding drawl as Aldo Raine exhorts his motley crew of vengeance-seeking Jewish Nazi hunters to bring back a thousand scalp trophies from their victims. Pitt’s certainly amusing, but not in a good way I’m afraid; he’s like a high school actor feeling the lines for the first time, over-accentuating every syllable because he thinks he needs to impress.
Not that it matters, since, given what Tarentino aims to show us, any ape could have played Raine.
I guess we’re supposed to be simultaneously shocked and titillated by flaps of skin being peeled off heads; baseball bats beating heads into Swiss cheese; and knife blades etching swastikas in foreheads (a turned-on-its-head allusion to the Nazi star-of-David branding of Jews in the ghettos). But I don’t see what depictions of such barbarous cruelty accomplish other than to point out a dark human bloodlust that’s essentially nihilistic. In Tarentino’s vision, morality is denigrated and animalistic desires are exalted. Where’s the food for thought? The higher purpose?
I guess we’re also supposed to see a certain poetic justice in the two ludicrous plots that take shape to end the Third Reich.
The first, as you might expect, is orchestrated by the Inglourious Basterds themselves, who strap timed dynamite to their legs in an attempt to blow up the cinema where Hitler and his entourage are attending a propaganda film lauding the snipership of Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a Vichy-stationed German soldier. To gain entrance, the Basterds masquerade as Italian cameramen—their plan is almost blown out of the water by Landa, whose many skills include a virtuosic command of languages, among them Italian—and are aided by a German movie star who also happens to be a double agent, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
The second is engineered by the cinema’s female owner, Emmanuelle Mimieux, which turns out to be the alias for Shosanna, the very Jew who evaded capture at the film’s outset. Her plan, hatched with her negro projectionist and lover Marcel (Jacky Ido), is to ignite highly flammable nitrate film reels to burn the spectators alive.
Tarentino’s point with these contrived schemes? Well, I’d assume it’s somehow to get us to laugh at the absurdity of it all. But the absurdity of what exactly? Simply put, the entire denouement, however renegade it might be, is stupid and makes no sense. War and violence aren’t absurd; they’re hell on earth, just as Hitler’s Reich was. The fact is, he and the rest of his criminal underlings got their just deserts. Their empire fell and the world remembers them now only as a foul and transient smell. Creating a movie about hypothetically taking revenge on such scum does nothing except flaunt revenge and violence for their own sake.
But what can one say? It’s Tarentino. I think history will best remember him for Pulp Fiction because that film didn’t try to be anything more than a parody of trashy novels. Inglourious Basterds superimposes the same pulp onto history’s canvas. Unfortunately for Tarentino, history didn’t lie any more about Hitler’s fall than it will about the quality of this film.
Joe’s Grade: C+