(Warning! This review includes detailed spoilers for the 2009 film Inglourious Basterds.)

I know I haven’t uploaded any Book Thief reviews for a while, but I thought it would be interesting to take a break from that for a moment to review, in contrast, a World War II movie, from one of the modern cinema’s most interesting directors, Quentin Tarantino.

Tarantino is a director that many either love or hate. His films can either celebrate violence or simply portray it in all of its ugliness. His primary influences are a childhood spent watching spaghetti westerns and grindhouse/exploitation fare, and he himself has said in interviews that he feels violence is “very visceral” and that “violence is just one of many things you can do in movies. People ask me, ‘Where does all this violence come from in your movies?’ I say, ‘Where does all this dancing come from in Stanley Donen movies?’ If you ask me how I feel about violence in real life, well, I have a lot of feelings about it. It’s one of the worst aspects of America. In movies, violence is cool. I like it.”

Obviously, there are many who do not agree with this sentiment, and some may wonder how he ever became acclaimed as a director and writer, but the answer is that he usually does portray violence within a fitting context and he typically knows exactly how to use it in a story to manipulate his audience’s emotions, as he himself has said. So for better or for worse, it was only a matter of time before Tarantino directed, wrote, and produced a war movie.

One of the criticisms leveled against Tarantino is that he is a copycat, ripping off any number of earlier films he used for inspiration in the process of building his own. In this case, Inglourious Basterds is clearly inspired by several earlier war movies, even to the point of stealing his title (albeit misspelled) from an Italian 1978 war film. And yet one must admit that there has never been a movie quite like this before.

One of the interesting things about the film is that it is filmed in 3 separate languages: English, French, and German (the latter two with English subtitles). This is a touch of authenticity that can be missed in many movies set in foreign countries, where we simply assume we are listening to a translation. Christoph Waltz’s character in particular is noted for being fluent in at least 4 separate languages (German, French, English, and Italian), and one of the best lines in the film comes at the expense of the Americans, when the German Bridget von Hammersmark asks the Basterds, “I know this is a silly question, but… can you Americans speak any language other than English?” (The answer is obvious.) The only instances where the characters’ bilingual nature seems contrived is when the French peasant in the opening is inexplicably fluent in English for no apparent reason, when we hear German soldiers speaking English to the Basterds, despite the fact that almost none did at that point in real life, or when the character Shosanna’s recorded message to Hitler is in English, despite the fact that she is never shown speaking the language at any other point in the film (although this was only added at Diane Kruger’s request). The beautiful moment when the British Hicox gives his cover up and resolves to “go out speaking the King’s” is also dampened by the fact he then uses “momentarily” in the American sense rather than the British, but this is a small nitpick, as most non-British viewers would never notice.

The film primarily follows 2 sets of characters, the Basterds and (eventually) their allies British Lt. Archie Hicox and German agent Bridget von Hammersmark, and the theater owner Shosanna Dreyfus and her unwanted admirer/stalker, Private Zoller, with the SS Colonel Hans Landa acting as an intermediary character who interacts with both sets and ultimately ties the film together.

The Basterds in question are a (mostly Jewish-American) Nazi resistance group, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt), who make a name for themselves by ambushing German soldiers and scalping and killing them, while leaving a lone survivor alive with a swastika carved into his forehead, to forever mark him as a Nazi and strike fear into the heart of Hitler himself.

The other set of characters is led by Shosanna Dreyfus (played by Mélanie Laurent), a young Jew who escaped the massacre of her entire family in 1941 to become the owner of her own theater in 1944 under a false name. She tries unsuccessfully to discourage the advances of Pvt. Zoller (played by Daniel Brühl), a German sniper who she dislikes primarily due to her distaste for the Nazis as a whole. He is the star of a Nazi propaganda film, and he arranges to have the premiere of the film held at her cinema, which will be attended by the highest German officials up to Hitler himself. So Shosanna decides to assassinate Germany’s political leadership, with the help of her lover and projectionist, Marcel (played by Jacky Ido), by igniting highly flammable nitrate film during the showing, and thus burning the theater to the ground with Hitler, Goebbels, among other Nazi higher-ups, inside.

However, little does she know that a British Lt. Archie Hicox (played by Michael Fassbender) has been assigned to just the same mission in cooperation with the Basterds and an undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (played by Diane Kruger). They meet at a tavern in Germany, where in a very tense and drawn-out scene, they ultimately end up attracting the attention of a suspicious Sergeant and Gestapo Major due to Hicox’s unusual accent, and after Hicox unfortunately blows his cover, a shoot-out ensues which results in the death of everyone except Bridget, who Raine rescues and interrogates, and then makes arrangements with to continue the mission.

Surprisingly, the film turns out to be an alternate history in which both plans culminate in success, though Zoller forces his way into the projection room to talk to Shosanna during the screening, refusing to leave after she again rebuffs his advances. Shosanna eventually decides to shoot him when his back is turned, but with his dying breath, he manages to shoot and kill her, as well. Two of the Basterds then kill Hitler, Goebbels, and the rest of the Nazi high command, then shoot up the theater before dying themselves when the bombs they set up in the theater go off and they are unable to escape, due to Shosanna and Marcel having locked the doors of the cinema.

The intermediary character is SS Col. Hans Landa (played by Christoph Waltz), otherwise known as the “Jew Hunter,” a very charismatic, cunning, and seemingly cultured man who is introduced in another tense, drawn-out scene that opens the film, interrogating a French dairy farmer as to the whereabouts of a Jewish family that went missing in the area. Eventually, so that his own family will be allowed to live in peace, the farmer reveals that they are hidden beneath his floorboards, and they are all killed except Shosanna, who escapes. Landa turns up again as one of the Nazi officials attending the film premiere, where he discovers the Basterds’ plot, strangles Bridget to death, and then holds Raine and his Private Utivich in custody where he tells them he will allow their plan to succeed only if he is given full rewards and immunity from any and all war crimes he may have committed. The Basterds agree, but later double-cross him after the assassination attempt succeeds and Landa drives them into Allied territory. They kill Landa’s radio operator, and then carve a swastika into Landa’s forehead to show they still regard him as being little better than Hitler, even though he helped them end the war. The final line of the film comes from Raine, in what has been speculated to be Tarantino’s self-aware wink at the camera about his own work: “You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”

If this is in fact an expression of Tarantino’s own feelings about the film, how is the audience to determine whether this boast is well-founded or not? I am reminded of a quote from another great director, Howard Hawks, given when asked to define a great film: “Three great scenes, no bad ones.”

Inglourious Basterds is a film that contains many great scenes. The opening scene in and of itself is a masterpiece, opening so quietly and unassumingly we could almost forget we were watching a Tarantino movie. Christoph Waltz plays Landa masterfully, as a man who appears gentlemanly and companionable on the surface, but whose true self-serving, cruel nature is always evident. The actor who played the French farmer, Denis Ménochet, spoke almost no English, which is why most of his dialogue is made up of short sentences, but he still carries most of his performance simply through the look in his eyes and the expressions of fear, misery, and uncertainty that go through his face. Thus the tension is ratcheted up very slowly and carefully, and when we reach the payoff it is unsurprising and deeply sad.

The scene in the French bar is also a master-class in tension, executed differently as the conversation that begins it is so seemingly innocuous that it is not clear from the beginning where the scene is actually going. As it went on, however, my eyes were glued to the screen and my adrenaline was pumped up, yearning for a release. When said release finally comes, it is cathartic and shocking to watch. One feels few directors other than Tarantino would have had the audacity to massacre the entire bar, but so much tension has been building beneath the surface and for so long, that it feels like an effective way to resolve that. The real issue with this pay-off, though, is that it feels like pulp violence being played out, while the scene building up to it seems to come from a different movie altogether. I became so invested in the situation it is easy to forget we are reading subtitles, and when Hicox finally realizes and accepts he will never get out of this situation alive, lights a cigarette, and calmly lapses into English, it is a beautiful moment, and one feels so much respect for his courage that seeing him mowed down in the following wave of cartoony violence with the rest is a bit unsatisfying.

The whole storyline involving Shosanna and Zoller’s relationship suffers from the same issues, as well, but particularly in the payoff. For most of their interactions, it’s difficult to classify what genre their scenes seem to belong to. It cannot be romance, since Shosanna has nothing but contempt for Zoller and discourages his advances right from their first meeting, but Tarantino himself has said of their relationship: “…..there was something about Zoller. He really liked her. Everything Zoller did that ended up fucking her up and putting her in this situation, he did with good intentions. His biggest crime was liking her. I think of that scene as a romantic scene. It’s Romeo and Juliet. Those bullets? That’s them consummating their relationship. In any other time in the 20th century, they could have been in love. Except for that one time.”

Though by modern standards Zoller is certainly a stalker, it is difficult to truly dislike him until his last scene where he breaks into Shosanna’s projection room and tells her off for daring to spurn his affections. There is always something earnest and schoolboyish about him, even after we learn he killed over 200 men in the war, and Tarantino even gives him a moment of real humanity when he confesses to Shosanna: “And in this case, my military exploits consisted of killing many men. Consequently, the part of the film that’s playing now… I don’t like watching this part.”

How rare is it that any character in a Tarantino film expresses true regret for taking another human being’s life? And truly, even though Zoller’s storyline ends with violence, it does not feel like violence in a Tarantino movie, but rather the sad climax of a European opera: as we watch Shosanna’s flailing body blown backwards through the air as it is torn apart by bullets to the notes of Ennio Morricone’s “Un Amico,” there is a real element of tragedy to it. It seems to belong not only to a different film, but to a different dimension from the one the Basterds inhabit, and when we shift back to them preparing their implausible murder of Hitler it is, again, jarring.

Of course, the violence that the Basterds commit against the Germans is worth discussing because it is far more graphic and realistic than in any other Tarantino film I have seen. In the second part of the film (which is divided into 5 chapters), we see multiple scalpings and the throat of a Gestapo guard being slashed, and in the final scene, the camera lingers on Landa’s forehead being slowly carved open as he screams in agony. We know Landa is a selfish, sociopathic murderer, but when one watches this kind of suffering there is still a visceral reaction that no one deserves this.

What is stranger still is the question of whether we are supposed to enjoy any of this brutality. For all the film’s ambitions, all its grand heights of tension and for some of the great characters it does create (Hicox and Landa, for example, or Shosana and Zoller) and for how well the movie does tie all of its disparate groups of characters together (regardless of whether the tone of their stories fit), there is still the fact that all this 2-hour and 33-minute epic war film, Tarantino’s self-proclaimed “masterpiece in the making” amounts to in the end is a pulp revenge fantasy about World War II in which, as Roger Ebert put it, “for once the basterds get what’s coming to them.” Yet there are several strange hints, in fact, that we aren’t even supposed to enjoy the violence at all. One Nazi who is bludgeoned to death by a baseball bat shows genuine bravery, in refusing to give up information to the Basterds and steadfastly resigning himself to his death rather than betray the Nazi cause. There is even a strange scene in the climax where Hitler laughs at soldiers on our side getting killed in the fictional propaganda film right before the moment when he and his followers are killed in a moment Tarantino presumably expects us to be laughing our asses off at. It seems as if Tarantino assumed the audience would enjoy the Nazis getting killed so much that they wouldn’t mind how disturbing and bloody the violent was. Is he trying to suggest that the Basterds are no better than the Nazis for enjoying the slaughter of their side as much as they relished the slaughtering of the Jews? This makes sense, when it comes to the death and scarring of the German soldiers, since many were only soldiers and not even members of the Nazi party themselves, and our rational side knows that killing off random soldiers who were not responsible for the start of the Holocaust themselves will do nothing to save Jews or assuage their suffering, and that’s what keeps the revenge fantasy aspect of the film from working, apart from how disturbing the violence can be – but it’s hard not to get behind the idea of Hitler and Goebbels getting knocked off, since this will have a definite effect in ending the war and thus saving more innocent lives. But the real question is: If we’re not supposed to enjoy the Basterds’ killing after all and we are supposed to see them as no better than Nazis, then well, what the fuck is the point of all this, anyway? To shame us for enjoying movie violence Tarantino himself created? There is a word for that, and it is – bullshit.

But a lot of the film’s problems are in the characters, as well. As I said before, Tarantino has created some genuinely great characters. Landa in particular Tarantino himself claimed might be “the greatest character he has ever written”, but suspected may have been “unplayable” were it not for the talents of Christoph Waltz. We know now Waltz, though a gifted actor, can fall back on the same performance style, but this was the first film most Americans saw him in, and he truly is impressive. He perfectly captures the contradictions of Landa’s character – his charm, his intelligence, his sophistication, and then his cruelty, brutality, and opportunistic sociopathy. But the script itself betrays Landa’s character in ways that cannot be easily justified. When he murders Bridget in cold blood, it is a moment designed mostly for pure shock value, and to reaffirm that he is a vile, contemptible man who is not to be liked or sympathized with. At first, it appears he is acting to punish her for betraying her country, but when he proceeds to betray his own government in assisting the Basterds’ mission, this obviously is not the case, and in any case the moment seems to come out of nowhere. This could be excused, though. Bridget no longer serves any purpose in the plot, and it could be seen as Landa’s attempt to punish her for attempting to outsmart him in the way he cannot punish the Basterds, since he is about to make a deal with them, but what cannot be excused is the ending. Landa definitely deserves the swastika in the forehead, and it is effective poetic justice, but one thing that has been proven is that, while he is violent and brutal, he is also deeply intelligent in ways the Basterds, though equally brutal, are not. He knows who the Basterds are, says himself that he met and interviewed every survivor they scarred, and sees through their plan in the first place, not to mention he figures out where the Jews are hiding in La Padite’s house before he is ever told. There is simply no way he would not have seen this dirty trick coming and taken some precaution against it, particularly when it came to turning himself and his weapons over to them at the crucial juncture. While it’s satisfying to watch his confidence and control of the situation finally evaporate, it’s not real. Raine is a charming character in his own right, played well by Brad Pitt, but basically brainless, and the Hans Landa we’ve grown to know would never allow himself to be outsmarted and mutilated by some stupid Americans who only speak one language, for God’s sake.

The film originally was intended as a TV mini-series, but a friend convinced Tarantino to change it to a feature film, instead, so much of the story’s plot and backstories were cut, and one can tell. There is a strange inconsistency in how some characters get so much development – for example, Hicox, whose past and character the audience gets to know remarkably well for a character who is introduced midway through the film only so he can be killed off less than half an hour after we meet him – and yet the titular Basterds get next to no personalities at all, only one getting a backstory, and the motivations Raine himself has for leading this group and hating the Nazis so much are only hinted at through vague details such as his scars and comparisons of his battle plan to “an Apache resistance”.

There are things to like about the film, though. In addition to the things I’ve mentioned already, it has an interesting structure and it can be refreshing simply to see a film that is so different, but in the end, I believe the film does not come together as a whole, and while the film may have many great scenes, these scenes do not form a great movie. Inglourious Basterds feels as if it is Tarantino’s attempt to make a great movie that will define his legacy, but in my opinion, Django Unchained is much more skillfully made, simply in its simplicity. The movie has no grand pretense, but tells a story of slavery in a way that had not been done before and that next to no other white directors would dare tell. It is a simple revenge fantasy where we are supposed to root for the black hero and enjoy the slave-owners getting killed, but this is more justified in the movie’s simplicity, how Tarantino creates most of the antagonists as people Django has personal reason to hate and kill in his own right, rather than to somehow avenge the cost of slavery as a whole. True, the movie’s answer to whether we are supposed to enjoy the revenge fantasy-themed violence is a simple one (yes), but at least, it does answer the question well, and makes sure we are where Tarantino wants us to be in regards to enjoying it. It may just be a violent revenge fantasy, but it’s violent revenge fantasy done well and my favorite of Tarantino’s films, as well as being among my all-time favorites.

Inglourious Basterds might be worth watching simply for some of the spell-binding tension and some of the other good things I have mentioned, but in the end, the film is simply pretentious. There is no better word for it than that.


I know it’s been a while, but I will try to return to The Book Thief as soon as possible. In a sidenote: The website IHateFilm.com no longer exists, but Inglourious Basterds and Toy Story 3 were the only two films given five stars by the site’s creator. Really makes me look like an asshole, doesn’t it? 😦