Inglourious Basterds

Posted on December 15, 2009 at 8:10 am

There is no question that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant film-maker. But there is some question about whether he has yet made a brilliant film. No one takes a more visceral pleasure in movies than he does but there is always a chilly irony and a look-at-me distance. Movies are more Tarantino’s mirror than his window.

This film takes its title from a little-seen Italian movie made in 1978, but starting with the intentional misspelling, it has little in common with the original except for a WWII setting and a Tarantino’s characteristic pulpish sensibility. It shares even less in common with history. About the only thing it gets accurately is that the Nazis spoke German and the Americans spoke English.

Tarantino calls the movie a revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who assembles a squadron of Jewish soldiers with one goal, to kill as many Nazis as possible, in as horrifying a manner as possible. “We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are,” he tells them. One of his men is a former German soldier they rescued from prison after he killed his superior officers. Another is nicknamed “The Jew Bear” (played by horror director Eli Roth), and he kills Nazis with a baseball bat.

Meanwhile, a Jewish woman named Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) owns a movie theater in Paris. She escaped from the Nazis and has a new identity. A handsome German war hero who is interested in getting to know her better arranges for the premiere of the new movie about his triumph in battle to take place at her theater, putting her in danger, but giving her the opportunity to put the Nazi dignitaries who will be attending in danger as well. Tarantino’s almost fetishistic fascination with movies, from the fine points of the auteur theory down to the combustibility of the film stock, gives this section of the film an extra charge.

Tarantino’s opening scene is brilliantly staged, as a German officer (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) visits a French dairy farmer in search of Jews who may have escaped his predecessor. Waltz, winner of the Cannes prize for acting, instantly joins Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West as one of the all-time great movie villains with a mesmerizing performance that shows off his fluency in English, German, French, Italian…and evil. Like Lecter, his venom is even more disturbing because of his urbanity and courtliness. Other scenes are also masterfully shot, especially an extended scene in a bar, when a critical meeting of Allied forces working undercover find themselves among a drunken party of German soldiers celebrating a new baby. Others, like the viscious killing of a group of what Raine calls Nah-sies, suffer from Tarantino’s tendency to go for showmanship over substance.

And that is the problem at the core of the film. If the misspelling of the words in the title was a signal of some kind, like the backwards letter intended as a warning and a small sign of protest in the sign over the gate at Auschwitz, then we could look for meaning in the reworking of historical events and the actions taken by real people. But Tarantino does not care about that. He is still about sensation, not sense. He appropriates the signifiers of WWII because they are easy, and because they are both scary and safe. His Nah-sies are like dinosaurs, unquestionably dangerous and unquestionably vanquished. Tarantino is a film savant. He knows and understands and loves the language of film. He just doesn’t have much to say.

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Action/Adventure Epic/Historical Fantasy War

28 Replies to “Inglourious Basterds”

  1. I was hoping you would review this, Nell.
    I will see this film, even though I think this may be a case where Tarantino has crossed the line (in making an ultraviolent revenge fantasy about real historic events, especially about the Nazis). But, “Pulp Fiction” and “Kill Bill” were both masterfully done films, and after watching them, I will see practically anything Tarantino directs.
    I’m not a fan of kung fu movies, and I thought “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a beautiful bore, but I loved the big kung fu fight sequence in “Kill Bill Pt. 1.” Visually, Tarantino is so brilliant and reminds me of Hitchcock in the way he constructs scenes with so much care and precision.
    I’ll let you know what I think of “Inglourious Basterds” after I see it.

  2. “He knows and understands and loves the language of film. He just doesn’t have much to say.” Wow and wow, I never thought of Quentin Tarantino in that way. I’m a huge Quentin fan and I gotta say I agree with you, moviemom. thanks for the insight and can’t wait to see this movie. Godbless,

  3. Thanks so much, Luke. I consider myself a fan, too. I have to admit, I am still working through my thoughts on this one and may post some further thoughts. Please let me know what you think of the movie after you see it!

  4. This film is the most deplorable and atrocious piece of garbage ever to be made in the history of all film. The Germans are not only demonized but mocked with great fervor and shown as scrawny, weak, and incompetent. They are tortured and murdered with such prejudice and cruelty that only a complete animal would find pleasure in watching such scenes. It is a revolting and sadistic propaganda piece that bears mute witness to the inhumanity and barbarism of the Hollywood Jew’s wet dream. Any man that can watch this film in peace is bereft of heart and soul and walks with the devil.

  5. There could never be anything as offensive in the film as your comment, which is profoundly offensive in its virulent antisemitism. For the record, writer/director Quentin Tarantino is Italian-American and not Jewish, and the film is very much his singular artistic vision. Are you similarly disturbed by his portrayals of other ethnic groups in his previous films? Do you know the difference between Germans and Nazis? Tarantino does. Some of the Germans are portrayed in the film as well-meaning, generous, honorable, courageous, and dedicated. Even some of the Nazis.
    The premise of the movie is that the fantasy revenge against the Nazis is in response to the barbaric atrocities they were committing as a matter of historical fact. Those real-life actions were committed with a level of sadism and cruelty that will always be a permanent reminder of the worst that humans are capable of. It is hard to imagine whether it would be more flattering to the Nazis to portray them as competent (their efficiency is also a matter of historical fact) or incompetent (which would at least have some mitigating effect on culpability).
    What portrayals of Nazis do you think are appropriate? “Schindler’s List?” “Raiders of the Lost Ark?” “Shoah?” “Hogan’s Heroes?”
    I have some problems with the film, as I noted in my review. But I never imagined it could spark this fervent defense of Nazis, asking that they be portrayed on screen as strong and capable, and this perpetuation of their unfounded and unforgivable bigotry. No wonder you were ashamed to give your name.

  6. I haven’t seen the movie, but I read the conveniently “leaked” script that came out last year, and if it’s anything like the finished movie it’s profoundly disturbing. I think that the idea of revenge is a fine idea for a movie, but it doesn’t make for a sane view of history.
    I have no desire, like the above poster, to defend Nazis, but I think we need to fight against dehumanization of our enemies, which I’m afraid “Basterds” leads to. Tarantino has been quoted as saying something very dangerous, which is that (I’m paraphrasing) this is how the war would have ended if his heroes were fighting. That’s a valid opinion, but he’s presenting this at a time when we’re fighting two wars against enemies who are all too easily dehumanized already. Not to mention a political climate in which the most innocuous of political philosophies are compared with National Socialism…
    What troubles me the most is that I get the impression that Tarantino chose the idea not out of any great reverence for the Holocaust but because revenge against genocide is an easy sell. In the future, will we see “Inglourious Tutsis” that rewrites Rwandan history, or “Inglourious Bosnians,” in which the Serbs are set up as targets for torture? I know it’s “only a movie,” but movies are very powerful at stirring emotions.

  7. Thanks for a thoughtful comment, D. If you do see the movie, I would really like to hear what you think of it.
    I agree with you entirely on the issue of dehumanizing the enemy, which comes up often. Some people objected to the fictionalized story of Hitler’s early years, “Max,” and the documentary “Hitler’s Secretary” on that basis. But the sad fact is that the bad guys are human and we do not do ourselves, history, or the future any favors by encapsulating evil as “other” and demonizing whomever is on the other side to distance ourselves from the temptations that challenge us all. I also agree with you that it is too often convenient to use Nazis as the go-to representatives of ultimate evil. My biggest problem with this film is the appropriation of the signifiers of evil without doing any of the work necessary to get the audience on the side of the movie’s heroes. It’s the same kind of lazy short-cut as in romantic comedies, where they play a pop song over a montage to show the couple falling in love instead of having them have the kinds of conversations and experiences that will illuminate for us something about human connection.
    As I said in my response to the other comment, this film has Germans (and Nazis) who are not caricatures, even in the context of this heightened, even arch, fantasy version of the events. In fact, the Americans are more caricatured than the Germans, Brits, and French characters. But Tarantino writes speeches, not characters. He gives no more thought to the events that set his set-pieces (I won’t say plot) in motion than he did in the movie I consider his purest, “Kill Bill,” which efficiently set up the revenge motivation and then just unspooled it from there.

  8. Thank you for your thoughtful response. I think that what bothers me is that I’ve seen this tendency in Tarantino ever since Kill Bill, which I loved. Even Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction didn’t glamourize the violence, instead making it a part of the characters’ milieu. Kill Bill, otoh, valourized The Bride for her violence, and what’s more troubling is that it focused on her pain but not the pain she inflicts. In a sense, I think that that is a sort of fascist aesthetic, a term I don’t use lightly. I hope that it isn’t a permanent part of Tarantino’s oeuvre from now on.

  9. I guess what I’m saying is that there doesn’t seem to be any kind of moral centre in Tarantino’s movies, and maybe in Tarantino himself. I find that more than a little disturbing.

  10. I think this was very close to his best film, but I think it would have been even better without any of the titular “basterds” … With a little editing, they could have easily tied together Shoshanna’s story with Operation Kino, and it would have made an even better movie .. that said, I still loved this movie, especially that scene at the bar, which I thought was even better than the opener

  11. I don’t know if it’s true, but the misspelling in the title might be a copyright issue. If the studio that owns the original film (from the 1970s, I believe?) still has the rights, no one can make a film with that same title. It happened with the Juliette Binoche/Ralph Fiennes Wuthering Heights– the copyright to the title of the 1939 film was still active, so they had to title it “Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights” instead (as if there’s another).

  12. Thanks, Keith, great to hear from you as always. The opener and the scene in the bar are the two best scenes. It is interesting, given Tarantino’s stated objective of fantasy revenge, that the Jewish characters are virtually interchangeable while the German characters are much more detailed and layered. I am still working my way through some of the issues of the movie, but there is no questioning Tarantino’s ability to tell a story with film or his love for doing so.

  13. Titles do not get copyright protection, Tracy. But studios often give movies different titles like “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” to differentiate them. In this case, I think Tarantino did it because he thought it was cool and memorable.

  14. Ms. Minow – the B+ rating does not jive with the summary provided. This sounds like a slick (but one dimensional), well acted (at least one character), violence exposition. Does the historical distortion etc. argue that the ends justify the means? Is this an endorsement of propoganda, part of the very battle aganst the Nazi regime? Why does it have to be specifically Jews? Jews were only half of those killed in death camps. 20,000 Polish Jews rose up in 1943 (and were slaughtered)and had a movie made to acknowledge their plight and effort. 250,000 non-Jewish Poles were killed in the 1944 Warsaw uprising, supposedly signalled by the Soviets to start a diversion and confusion to help a Saviet attack. The Soviet attack did not come months later and Warsaw was reduced to rubble – but who knows? Although now there is a good PBS series that incorporates this event. There is so much history and reality that people don’t know about the real human condition and all we get is another gore fest that kicks around the Nazis again. Sad.

  15. I haven’t seen the movie. Here’s my understanding. The film is a FANTASY based on fact. This is not meant to be taken as fact. Other films and television shows have done this, even wirh comedy. Mel Brooks did this with To Be or Not to be. Let’s not forget the fabulous musical The Produucers, which makes fun of the nazis big time!
    Films like these are having fun with history, It’s NOT meant to be taken literally from a historical point of view.
    What I enjoy about directors like Quentin Tarantino is that he’s making a personal statement, that reflexs his personal view and is not being told by sthe studio what should be done in a film. His films are personal. This actually reflexs the period of the 1970’s, which is an era that has influenced Tarantinos choice of themes. I havwe no doubt that one of the influences to making this film is from the series Hogan’s Heroes, which I believe was even a film, if I’m not mistaken.
    Is it ok to make films like these? I think that it’s one of the reasons why we have such a good nation such as the USA! The freedom to express oneself is a wonderful thing. That’s ultimately what film, theater and music is all about.
    You can either choose to see the film or not. We can even disagree with the content of a film, play or song. What’s important to remember is that all of these forms of art are personal. That’s when the art is best!

  16. Well, I saw “Inglourious Basterds” yesterday, and I pretty much agree with your review, Nell. While nearly every scene in the film was meticulously staged (and well cast) the film didn’t add up to much of anything, and shouldn’t even be controversial, in my opinion.
    With due respect to Tarantino’s talent, I think he needs a co-writer to keep him from meandering and to help give his work more shape. Particularily in the very entertaining “basement pub” scene, we didn’t see anything we haven’t seen in other Tarantino films. Even within the context of a revenge fantasy, events have to make sense, and the film’s events were preposterous, especially in the climax.
    For myself, I wish he had developed Shoshanna/Emmanuelle’s story more, as I thought hers was the most intriguing story thread. The “Basterds” themselves were burdened with an undeveloped story, and don’t hold a candle to “The Dirty Dozen.” Brad Pitt was amusing, but miscast, in my opinion. Forgettable – and I wouldn’t see it again.

  17. P.S. What did others think of the casting of sweet-faced Daniel Bruhl from “Goodbye Lenin” as the Nazi war hero? Disarming, wasn’t he?

  18. Always good to hear from you, Andreas! And I would like to know what you think when you see the movie. I am still thinking about it. In general, I do not mind it when a movie like “Saving Private Ryan” or “To Have and Have Not” (I prefer the original Ernst Lubitsch version to the Mel Brooks remake) creates fictional characters in a historical context. In one sense, that is what all fiction does, even the most elaborately imaginative. But this movie appropriates powerful signifiers without, if I may use this word, “earning” them. It makes extreme changes without an underlying purpose beyond sensation. I am a passionate defender (and beneficiary) of the First Amendment, but part of my rights and obligations under that clause of the Bill of Rights is to respond to others’ speech with my own.

  19. Yes, and from “Ladies in Lavender,” too! I thought his character was especially well handled. But next time, I’d like to see him as a nice guy again! Thanks, Alicia.

  20. Thanks for the comment, Your Name. I had some problems with the film, as I said, but I also said that scenes were brilliantly staged and, as you noted, praised the performance of Christoph Waltz. A B+ means that fans of this director or this genre will be likely to be satisfied with the movie, and I think that is the appropriate grade.
    Your comments underscore the importance of not confusing entertainment with history. And the importance of recognizing the true stories of the war with dramatic re-enactments as well.

  21. Nell,
    It is hard to sort through this movie. I’ll say that some of the scenes are so well shot, well written, and well timed in the editing, that I’m not sure (at times like that) that anyone in the world is better– like the French farm house scene that opens the movie. You can rightly credit Waltz for his amazing performance, but it is Tarantino who crafted the scene from beginning to end. And the same for the scene in the Paris cafe after the others leave Shoshanna with the man who murdered her family, but didn’t bother to chase her after she ran. This is, I think, the thing that mystifies and frustrates many viewers– here is a supremely talented fool, a man who could if he felt like it, write and direct a first class thriller, wedded to… what? A comic-book, infantile violence-freak? This is the first of his films where he drops the hipster speak, but he’s not really ready to “grow up.”
    We know that Tarantino has swallowed genres whole (blaxploitation, kung-fu, grindhouse) and then reprocesses them in his comic book brain, with a touch of Godard thrown in (like the chapter headings), and applies them to whatever project he’s working on. Are we saying that that approach can’t work with so serious a subject as the holocaust? Why then does it work in the other violent movies? Perhaps, in IB the youth and innocence of the victims takes us out of territory where we can keep the material at arm’s length, like in Death Proof.
    Anyway, I want to say that I first wrote to you in 2005, to applaud your gutsy review of Sin City, and once more you’ve written a gutsy review in which you’re willing to take the movie on its own terms, one that in this case wasn’t perfect, but merits some praise. Any criticisms are, as always, reflections of your honest disappointment in a cinematic experiance that might have been.

  22. Andy, I well remember your note on my review of “Sin City,” which gave me a lot of encouragement. Your assessment of this film and of Tarantino is exactly right. Masterful staging, but for him it’s just a bunch of dollhouses and toy trains. It’s about what’s cool, not what is meaningful.

  23. I saw the film yesterday. I found the “voiceover” portions confusing. Seemed like they came out of nowhere and then disappeared. Seemed to me they were used out of laziness, to move the story along without having to fill some gaps. Or, in the alternate, as a condescension, to explain what Tarentino felt the audience would be too stupid or ignorant to understand otherwise. Same with the scrawled names of Nazi biggies in the theater scene. I felt that the names were scrawled to avoid the need to have a short scene in which the characters were greeted by name… and out of some expectation that even if the characters were greeted by name in the scene, the audience wouldn’t already know, or remember from the previous scenes, that they were high up in the Nazi command.
    I haven’t seen many Tarentino films, so perhaps these cartoonish features are his calling cards and are in all of his films. If so, it explains a bit more about why they were there, but I find it a bit perturbing that he would use such a serious chapter in human history as a mere backdrop for his cinematic fun.
    I am very troubled by the fact that the film plays out an alternate history. I am not much of a fan of books or films that take a particular historical context and then twist and change facts to come up with a different result. Perhaps I am only showing my own limited intelligence here, but I find it challenging enough to try to learn the true history in as accurate and objective a manner as possible. It is intriguing to think “what might have been if this one event had gone another way…” but I don’t think such an experiment should be memorialized into book or film form. I think that a lot of young people will think this movie is factual, despite the subtitle at the beginning and the disclaimer at the end.
    But by far the most disturbing thing about the film was that it did seem to want us to consider the “basterds” as heroes. Didn’t it? But they were utterly without honor or fairness. The “basterds” were no better than the Nazis were.
    I wish I could say that I thought this film was a very timely commentary on the unfolding story of unfair practices by the US military in Iraq, but no, you have said that Tarentino has said it is a revenge film….
    So I find myself agreeing with Keith’s comment above, about the fact that the film would have been better without the “basterds” being the main focus. But that would have been a different film. This one I could do without.

  24. PS re Tarantino (sorry I misspelled his name above) calling the film a “revenge fantasy”– this may even be in the opening credits. I have forgotten. Anyhow, I didn’t mean to say that I doubted that you are accurate in saying that that was Tarantino’s intent.

  25. Great review Nell,
    I thought it was spot on. The one thing I did appreciate though was the care given to the spoken foreign languages, the subtitles etc. Most mainstream American movies (Valkyrie to wit) have about 5 minutes of patience for this before they give up and just switch to English for the remainder of the movie.

  26. Hi there,
    Upon reading that you question whether Quentin Tarantino has made a brilliant film; and especially keeping with the concept of a movie with spiritual value, I must recommend that you watch Pulp Fiction.
    Pulp Fiction is, in my humble opinion, a truly brilliant film, a masterpiece that really is a multi-threaded exploration of a single enduring theme – REDEMPTION.
    I hate to spoil it if you haven’t yet seen it. Please view it before taking a look at my URL for three articles I wrote, discussing various aspects of Tarantino’s treatment on redemption in Pulp Fiction. I would also value your thoughts on it, especially in light of what I saw.
    This is a very accessible movie for those who might not find themselves in a church very frequently – it speaks a real language to real people who are prime candidates for redemption.

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