“Inglourious Basterds” is many things, but one thing it is not is a World War II drama. The setting is an alternate version of history, where Nazi-occupied France becomes the wild west for another of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s Sergio Leone-inspired pulp action movies where various Jews can carry out their revenge fantasies on assorted members of the Third Reich.
A true QT film through and through, “Basterds” is smothered in the director’s many trademarks, and calling cards are left at each of its lengthy and dynamically suspenseful scenes. From ’60s-style title cards to narrative digressions to scenes set entirely around a table, fans of the filmmaker who revolutionized the writing and directing of film in the ’90s will find his seventh feature film to completely satisfy their itch.
But does Tarantino’s recklessly violent style have a place in telling a story that circumvents one of history’s darkest chapters? That’s a matter of personal taste. There’s no doubting the filmmaker is in top form — humorous and attention-grabbing, crafting some great characters and even better scenes — but it’s a style that’s seen better applications than WWII.
Broken into chapters, “Basterds” introduces us to a couple main story lines that lead to an ultimate objective of revenge. If not for its pulp groundings, the film could be called “Everbody Wants to Kill Hitler,” for all intents and purposes. First there’s Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a young Jewish girl hiding in France who manages to escape when the farmer hiding her family confesses to the S.S. The scene is one of Tarantino’s best, especially thanks to Christoph Waltz as the charming and delightfully intimidating Nazi Col. Hans Landa (aka “the Jew hunter”), whose beguiling manner clashing with the serious undertones of the plot makes his performance worthy of nothing less than an Oscar nomination.
Then there are the Basterds, Jewish American soldiers under the command of Lt. Aldo Raine, a one-dimensional albeit hysterical character played just so by Brad Pitt. Raine is up for nothing but killing Nazis and making good sport of it, as is Eli Roth’s character Sgt. Donowitz aka “The Bear Jew,” whose weapon of choice is a baseball bat. But no matter how outrageous it all sounds, there’s nothing secretly fulfilling about Jews killing Nazis and that’s part of the film’s problem.
These stories come together in 1944, when Shoshanna is now running a movie theater (another predictable QT move) where the Nazi party hopes to show off its latest propaganda film, “Nation’s Pride,” inviting the biggest names in the Nazi regime including the Fuhrer himself. This happening attracts the Basterds and even sparks vengeful thoughts for Shoshanna.
Of course preparing for such a plot brings need for deception, perfect fodder for these long intense scenes with inevitably violent conclusions along with of course the prowess of Waltz as Landa. Though for every brilliant set up, Tarantino brings it to climax with meaningless pulp. These violent battles and merciless killings send off vibrations that simply deaden upon hitting the air, not resonating through the rest of or after the film ends. That kind of bloody and clever outcome works great in films like “Kill Bill” or “Pulp Fiction,” where there’s no realism to the circumstances of the violence, but it comes off as immature in the context of WWII and the Holocaust.
Perhaps I should have expected no less from the master of climactic deaths, but there’s an unignorable side to “Basterds” and that’s the emotional depth of the Holocaust and the terrible war surrounding it. When this sense of humor is effective, many people may feel guilty being entertained comically by “Basterds,” and at other times they might find it feels stupid and pointless. Then again, many might push the historical context aside and delight in all of the style and excellent craftsmanship.
So despite Tarantino’s brilliance, all of which manifests itself through different scenes and character in “Basterds,” nothing accounts for the rift between how many viewers think about WWII as they watch a film about it (fictional or not) and how viewers watch a Tarantino film, a genre in itself that carries its own set of expectations. It can almost be best described in this way: Either wild west Ennio Morricone music set to Jews killing Germans in WWII works for you or the clash is a bit too unnatural. Either way, you respect the talents of the filmmaker.