Quentin Tarantino has been talking about Inglourious Basterds for almost 10 years; over time, it grew, changed shape and medium – from television mini series to novel, and back to film. After Grindhouse, he stepped into gear, reportedly writing a screenplay that took a lean approach to his bedraggled epic. Then he shot it, gathering momentum and getting the film finished, in under a year, for exhibition at Cannes in May.
With a final edit, it is now released to the international audience – and is being greeted with the anticipation and scrutiny to be expected of any new work from such a household name auteur. The result is probably Tarantino’s most ambitious and provocative film – and is in equal parts his most underwhelming, and fractured work to date.
The film progresses in a heavy-handed, chapter-based structure, something that Tarantino has toyed with before, in both Kill Bill and, to a certain extent, Death Proof. However, whereas the latter had a mirrored, two act approach, and the former was pulled along by its lead character’s pursuit of revenge, Inglourious Basterds feels jarring and unfocused – showing traces of its periods of inflation and revision. Worse, these chapters shift in tone drastically, taking in pastiche-laden irony, gung-ho posturing, pantomimic caricature and, well, straight-faced drama (how can one really turn an ironic eye on the holocaust?).
The opening chapter, ‘Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France’, is a slow-burning crawl; World War II as Spaghetti Western – as dairy farmer Monsieur LaPidite (Denis Menochet) is visited by Jew-hunting German officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), on the look out for those hiding Jewish refugees. The scene is downbeat, and all talk, but Tarantino proves he is a student of tension-building cinema, as he draws out the silences and stares between the actors, and uses the space of LaPidite’s farmhouse to create a sense of claustrophobia, before, halfway through, gracefully panning under the floorboards, revealing the farmer’s hidden lodgers. It is, for the most part, restrained, cerebral stuff, no doubt one of the best scenes in the director’s oeuvre.
But it is over too soon. The second and third chapters oscillate between kick-ass, Nazi-slaying action (‘Inglourious Basterds’), and a quirky, WW2-inflected pseudo-romcom featuring the German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), pursuing Jewish cinema owner Shosanna, played by Melanie Laurent (‘German Night in Paris’). By nature, the more comedic, silly moments rub up against the moments of sincere drama, giving Inglourious Basterds an awkward shuffle, where it should strut with confidence.
From its protracted genesis, years of teasing, and recent heavy promotion, Inglourious Basterds has attracted the expectation that it is going to be QT’s take on the men-on-a-mission style of war movie – doing for the likes of The Dirty Dozen what he has done in the past for blaxploitation and samurai revenge flicks. However, the story of the Basterds, a crack outfit of Jewish soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo ‘The Apache’ Raine (Brad Pitt), who are sent deep into continental Europe with the intention of hunting, killing, and scalping Nazis, is laid alongside the other plotlines. These stories converge as it is revealed that a Nazi propaganda film, inspired by and starring Zoller, will be premiered at Shosanna’s cinema – an event to be attended by some of the most notable members of the Party – causing both Shosanna and the Basterds to concoct separate plots to, potentially, end the war in one evening.
The choppy chapter structure, and scattershot approach, leaves whole plotlines badly-served, and characters – usually Tarantino’s strong point – are sometimes short-changed. The Basterds, in particular, are shallow heroes, with hardly any back story and, in some cases, few actual lines of dialogue. Only Brad Pitt, who savours every one of Aldo’s smug, southern fried lines, gets significant, distinctive screentime – and he is a joy to watch. Eli Roth, Tarantino chum and by-no-stretch-of-the-imagination actor, turns up as a Basterd that goes by the name of The Bear Jew: a hulk of a man, who particularly enjoys bashing in Nazi skulls with a baseball bat. With little in the way of background for the characters, apart from their Jewish heritage, the Basterds seem like warped versions of idealised action heroes – avenging anti-Semitism with their own mix of terror, maiming and destruction.
What holds Inglourious Basterds back from being a rollicking ride of revenge and revisionism is this collision of gravity and history-bucking cheekiness. Shosanna’s story of escape, disguise and fear of discovery is quite moving and gripping; Melanie Laurent manages to channel, as the film requires, a slideshow of classic European cinema archetypes, from the down-to-earth modesty of a Jean Seberg, to the more stylish artiness of a Natassja Kinski or Catherine Deneuve.
However, this is completely tangential to the film’s tendency to caricature other characters, namely the Nazis. Indeed, one look at the trailer will reveal the cape-toting, greasy-haired Fuhrer, barking and sleazing and overcompensating. As Landa, however, Waltz bridges the two extremes, with a beguiling, unsettling performance, although, the film’s more subtle moments are blasted into oblivion by its inclination towards ridiculousness. Even the British are played for quirky laughs. Mike Myers’ one-scene cameo, as Commanding Officer to Michael Fassbender’s Archie Hicox, is all prim stereotyping, prosthetics and film-derived parody, like a test drive for a new Austin Powers creation.
But this scene is key to Tarantino’s vision for Inglourious Basterds, as Myers and Rod Taylor – appearing in the background as Winston Churchill – lay out Operation Kino; Hicox is the perfect man for the job, as before the war he was a film critic. References suddenly fly thick and fast, and the familiar enthusiastic, encyclopedic obscurity comes to the forefront. Cut to Diane Kruger, whose actress-and-double-agent Bridget von Hammersmark is an approximation of various pre-war screen idols, who smuggles the Basterds into the film premiere, and it becomes clear – cinema saves the world. This is Tarantino’s full-blown salute to his one true love.
And, in some ways, this is Tarantino’s most beautiful film, prankster tomfoolery aside. Shot at Babelsberg studios in Germany, the set, costume and production design give the proceedings a wonderfully vivid feel – more than ever hammering home the director’s real-world/film-world aesthetic. This stagy approach gives a key setpiece, already dubbed ‘the La Lousiane scene’ – a cat-and-mouse stand-off between undercover Basterds and snooping off-duty Nazis in an underground bar – all the more impact.
However, there is a danger that, in recreating a version of the past – even an admittedly filmic spin – some of the distinctive stylistic quirks of Tarantino’s work gets left behind, and this is true – at points, in still-shot, this could be any of the many WW2-set films shot at Babelsberg. For the director, it is stylistically dull, with only moments of the flair seen in his previous works – one character is heralded by a guitar sting, narrators crop up every now and then (alledgedly, the uncredited Samuel L Jackson and Harvey Keitel) – that, here, seem like minor, momentary indulgences.
With that in mind, it is disappointing that Inglourious Basterds sports Tarantino’s first mediocre soundtrack, padded out with various orchestral cues, mostly from Ennio Morricone, but from others as well, including Charles Bernstein’s White Lightning theme, sadly repeated from its use in Kill Bill Vol.1. This results in a sumptuous, evocative score that, for the first time in Tarantino’s career, doesn’t transcend its pilfered nature. Otherwise the soundtrack is given over to moments of anachronistic posturing, culminating in a jaw-droppingly bizarre musical sequence involving Shosanna, in a beautiful red dress, swanning about to the 1982 David Bowie/Giorgio Moroder synth-pop collaboration Cat People (Putting Out Fire), shot like an early MTV music video. It is a mad, enthralling scene, but it is unlikely to steal the song away from its Paul Schrader-directed source – and the soundtrack itself lacks either the treasure trove of obscure classics, or the iconic re-appropriation of Tarantino’s previous trend setting efforts.
One key question governing the hit-or-miss status of Inglourious Basterds is how prepared are you to laugh at Nazism? It’s not even as simple as that, as in contrast to cock-eyed satire and parody, such as The Great Dictator or The Producers, the majority of Basterds’ humour trades in a weird mix of pantomime and gore-soaked physicality, at times coming off as ‘Allo ‘Allo meets Brain Dead. The last 20 minutes include two contenders for the most brain-breakingly cathartic sequences of recent memory. One features Basterds gunning down German (supposedly Nazi) cinemagoers as they struggle to escape the burning cinema, piling up in front of locked exits – with Shosanna’s face projected on the screen, howling with vengeful laughter. Utterly bonkers, a nightmarish, drug-polluted fever dream.
In fact, even this extreme tendency is just one aspect of this, probably Tarantino’s most multi-faceted, tricky film. There’s plenty of glimmers of his genius and ambition throughout – not least being his staunched, confident use of German, French and Italian dialogue, with English being potentially the third most spoken language in the film. But, equally, it is messy, chaotic, ill-conceived, and at times a little repulsive. It is his first film where the bad, underwhelming points outweigh the good – and his first that cannot be recommended easily.