While spanning across several years, countries, cultures, languages, storylines and sub-genres, Tarantino tells this story the only way it could be told, through personal stories.
We start out with Nazi Col. Hans Landa, portrayed brilliantly by Christoph Waltz. He is proud of his moniker, “The Jew Hunter” and isn’t ashamed to wear it on his sleeve. In the first chapter, practically but not technically the pre-title sequence, Landa interrogates a French farmer who might possibly be hiding Jews on his property. While some may write this chapter off as “too talky,” Tarantino sets up the perfect villain before we’ve even been introduced to the heros, thus their heroism will only be reinforced through Landa’s expertly crafted villainy. You don’t need to set up how evil Nazi’s are…in a standard WWII yarn. In this one you do. Tarantino and Waltz pull it off brilliantly.
Then there’s Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who escapes the Jew Hunter’s assault on her Anne Frank existence, but not without a new found taste for vengeance that will only get realized years later when the opportunity arises. As she escapes the Jew Hunter, those in the audience playing “spot the reference” may notice a beautifully framed shot straight out of John Ford’s “The Searchers.” While that shot in that film signified the end, in this film it is only the beginning.
While this chapter/sequence isn’t technically a pre-title sequence that we’ve come to know as a Tarantinoesque staple, particularly from his first two films, it practically is the pre-title sequence as the next chapter shares its title with the film: Inglourious Basterds.
Probably my favorite chapter, it’s how the film is being sold, as a Guys On A Mission movie that really constitutes only Chapter 2 and few other parts of the film. This is the chapter that introduces Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), as the leader of a Jewish squad of soldiers handpicked to brutalize Nazis across Europe. Aldo Raine, quite possibly the cinematic descendant of the WWII characters of Aldo Ray, leads:
- Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz (father of Hollywood producer Lee Donowitz). Donny, who comes from Boston, is practically a real life Golem, driven by the need to bash Nazi brains in with his baseball bat. Played by Eli Roth, he unleashes a brand of Jewish Vengeance that will never be forgotten. As Eli Roth points out, The Bear Jew enjoys one of the best introductions in the film, set up by Brad Pitt and Hitler, as Tarantino cross cuts via flashbacks/flashforwards between scenes of Raine’s interrogation of a Nazi soldier and Hitler interrogating the Basterds’ lone survivor. Much like their cinematic predecessors, Mickey and Mallory Knox, the Basterds also leave one survivor in their wake, someone to tell their tale.
- Then there’s Hugo Stiglitz, a Nazi serial killer about to be put to death by The Third Reich but recruited by the Basterds at the last minute. With this character we have the most socially acceptable serial killer on film. There’s no guilt when rooting for him. He also provides one of the film’s most hilarious murders.
- Privates First Class Utivich, (B.J. Novak), Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom), Hirschberg (Samm Levine), Basterds straight out of Hebrew school yet unleashing furious Jewish Vengeance that will make the Fuhrer himself quake in his boots. Among others. All the good guys in this movie, if not technically Basterds, are still Basterds in spirit. Even the ones you’d least expect.
These are the Guys. Their mission: terrorize and spread fear throughout The Third Reich.
Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero’s makeup work stands out beautifully. As the Basterds scalp and carve their Nazi enemies, we get some great gore here, gore that makes full grown men in the audience cover their eyes in horror.
Sally Menke’s editing is superb, as it always is when she collaborates with Tarantino. Truly the Thelma Schoonmmaker to Tarantino’s Scorsese, her cutting is such a staple of his films if she’s not editing, it’s not a Tarantino film. It’s a long film, yes, for content. There’s lots of story but it’s paced just right. Even the subtitled scenes, which can be tricky in a situation like this.
While Basterds opens up the scope of Tarantino’s filmography, it brings us back to his earlier films in a way that may not sound complimentary at first but is crucial to keep in mind. Tarantino’s first three films, as great as they were, were an acquired taste. At first glance they were interesting but not as great as they would later become with subsequent viewings. Basterds functions the same way. Having seen it only twice, it gets better the second time. I can’t really say that for Kill Bill and Death Proof. Those films were great the first time around, but much like ResDogs, Pulp and Jackie Brown, Basterds improves with additional viewings.
Lending to the epic feel of the film are the multiple languages. The languages of World War II, German, French, The King’s English and American. When Tarantino says he makes movies for an international audience, he isn’t kidding. Much like The Passion of the Christ, Inglourious Basterds is another foreign language American film, only more accessible. With attention to language and dialect, characters switch tongues based on their objective with respect to the story, but not at the convenience of the audience, apparently. When the Jew Hunter switches from French to English, while it may be to showcase his talents and give an American audience a break from reading subtitles, it is internally motivated as a means to keep his non-English speaking eavesdroppers in the dark. When cards are laid on the table and German is replaced by English, it is for a character’s peace of mind as he makes peace with his upcoming demise, speaking his native tongue when he needs to the most, at his darkest time of life, to feel at home while stuck in a situation that is anything but. The characters of Inglourious Basterds speak their natural languages, when and how they need to, secondary to the audience’s convenience. As it should be.
Unfolding this epic through the personal stories of the three leads, Shosanna, Raine and The Jew Hunter, Tarantino employs personal cinematography through D.P. Robert Richardson. Pay close attention to the shots, particularly the first and last shot of the film, as well as the last shot of Chapter 2. How does Tarantino open his World War II epic, with a long shot of a French farmer chopping wood on his estate. Notice the final shots of Chapter 2 and Chapter 5, framed and blocked the same way, close, tight, personal. It’s the personal/epic storytelling that would make Sergio Leone proud.
While employing the sub-genre conventions of Spaghetti Westerns, French New Wave films, Female Revenge films, British WWII films, Nazi Propoganda films and Guys On A Mission movies, Tarantino bogarts the Jewish Vengeance genre, still in its infancy, completely and makes it his own.
When Judd Apatow pitched us the glory of the Jewish Vengeance film in “Knocked Up,” Spielberg’s “Munich” was the genre leader at the time. Later, Ed Zwick submitted his film “Defiance” into the category and as great a submission as that film was, better things were to come.
With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has delivered the greatest Jewish Vengeance film to date. Between Raine’s Basterds bashing and scalping Nazis and Shosanna exacting revenge on The Third Reich, we have a new genre king.
Rated R. 152 minutes. From The Weinstein Company, A Band Apart and Universal Pictures. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Makeup by Howard Berger and Gregory Nicotero. Production designed by David Wasco, costumes by Anna B. Sheppard. Shot by Robert Richardson, chopped by Sally Menke. MPAA# 45325