It's also quintessential Tarantino — even more drenched in film references than in gore, with a proudly misspelled title (lifted from Italian genre-meister Enzo Castellari's 1978 Dirty Dozen knockoff) to underscore the movie's cinematic hyperliteracy. Tepidly received in Cannes and thereafter tweaked, Inglourious Basterds may still be a tad long, at two and a half hours, and a little too pleased with itself, but it's tough to resist the enthusiastic performances and terrific dialogue — if you're not put off by the juvenile premise or cartoonish savagery.
Not the year's preeminent genre exercise (The Hurt Locker is a superior war film, as well as a serious reworking of the Hawksian group drama), Inglourious Basterds is something sui generis — a two-fisted Hollywood occupation romance, in which a Jewish special unit wreaks vengeance on the Nazis. It also has the best Western opener in decades: The first of five chapters nods to Sergio Leone with the title "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France" and to the genre in general with a shot of a French farm family hanging their laundry as a Nazi convoy approaches in the distance like a Comanche band. Violence is not immediately forthcoming — Inglourious Basterds is as much talk-talk as bang-bang. Or rather, as Andrew Sarris described the characteristic Budd Boetticher Western, it's a "floating poker game," in which characters, many of whom have assumed false identities, take turns bluffing for their lives.
The first of a half-dozen one-on-one verbal jousts pits a taciturn salt-of-the-earth peasant against the loquacious Nazi colonel, Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who, humorously officious, hypnotizes his prey with a twinkling eye, giant grin, and steady stream of civilized chatter. Landa, the SS functionary assigned to rid France of Jews, is not only the movie's villain but also its master of revels. Waltz's turn isn't the lone showy performance — Mike Myers has a ripe cameo as the British general who conceives the film's convoluted Operation Kino, and Diane Kruger is convincingly unconvincing as a German movie diva channeling Mata Hari. (Her exasperated "Can you Americans speak any other language except English?" brought down the house at Cannes.)
But there's a reason why the hitherto unknown Waltz was named Best Actor at Cannes, appears on the current Film Comment cover, and is the subject of a New York Times profile. Waltz's elegant and clever SS man is the movie's most crowd-pleasing creation — another in the long line of glamorous Hollywood Nazis. (See Tom Cruise in Valkyrie for a recent example.) Indeed, this smooth operator is Eichmann as fun guy! He's also a European sissy whose "barbaric" antagonists are a squad of Jewish-American commandos led by wily hillbilly Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). The Jews are out for blood, and Raine promises his eponymous Basterds that, under his leadership, they will terrorize the Germans with "Apache tactics," demanding only that each contribute 100 Nazi scalps.
Given its subject and the director's track record, Inglourious Basterds has less mayhem than one might expect. There's nothing comparable here — either as choreographed violence or virtuoso filmmaking — to the D-Day landing that opens Saving Private Ryan. (But neither is there anything as false, sanctimonious, and emotionally manipulative as the rest of Spielberg's movie.) Inglourious Basterds is essentially conceptual and, as with any Western, all about determining the nature of permissible aggression. Operating like a cross between the Dirty Dozen and a Nazi death squad, the Basterds take no prisoners — designated "survivors" are shipped back to Germany, swastikas carved in their foreheads to spook the brass. The rest are sent to Valhalla, most spectacularly by Sgt. Donny Donowitz (exploitation director Eli Roth), who uses a Louisville slugger to bash German brains. "Watching Donny beat Nazis to death is as close as we get to the movies," one of the Basterds exults, tipping Tarantino's hand.
The heroine of, and most artificial construct in, Inglourious Basterds is Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), Jewish survivor of a Nazi massacre, hiding in plain sight as the proprietress of a Paris movie theater. "We have respect for directors in this country," she curtly tells the flirtatious German soldier who wonders why she includes G.W. Pabst's name on her marquee. Shosanna articulates Tarantino's own cinephile credo: His characters live and die in (and sometimes at) the movies, and only there. Tarantino can't resist dispatching two characters in a John Woo–style slow-mo double shootout staged in a projection booth or taunting Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Goebbels (Sylvester Groth, re-creating his role in Dani Levy's recently released My Führer) by forcing them to witness an allusion to their supposed favorite movie — Metropolis — in what could be their final moments on earth.
In a sense, Inglourious Basterds is a form of science fiction. Everything unfolds in and maps an alternate universe: The Movies. Even Shosanna's Parisian neighborhood has a marked resemblance to a Cannes back alley, complete with a club named for a notorious local dive. Inflammable nitrate film is a secret weapon. Goebbels is an evil producer; the German war hero who pursues Shosanna has (like America's real-life Audie Murphy) become a movie star. Set to David Bowie's Cat People title song, the scene in which Shosanna — who is, of course, also an actor — applies her war paint to become the glamorous "face of Jewish vengeance," is an interpolated music video. Actresses give autographs at their peril. The spectacular climax has the newly dead address those about to die from the silver screen. Operation Kino not only depends on Shosanna's movie house and the German movie diva's complicity, but a heroic film critic (!), played by Michael Fassbender.
Inglourious Basterds is hardly the first movie to place World War II in the context of American show business. (Each in his way, movie stars John Wayne and Ronald Reagan made a career out of playing soldier while the war was actually on.) Basterds' coarse, ranting, ridiculously caped Hitler certainly contributes to the war's vaudevillization, but the notion of Hitler as screaming infant was more eloquently demonstrated several years ago when a hilarious meme swept the Internet, subtitling a key tantrum from Downfall, the 2005 German drama of Hitler in the bunker: Bruno Ganz's disheveled führer was made to browbeat his generals about everything from his lost Xbox to the Super Bowl upset to Obama's victory (in the guise of Hillary Clinton). With the evil genius of the 20th century already a joke everywhere outside of Germany — and perhaps even there — Tarantino's particular genius has been to provide a suitably regressive scenario for the sandbox war that cost 50 million lives.
The Producers might seem an obvious precursor, but there's a difference between victim and victor mocking Hitler. European Jews were losers; decimated by the war, their only victory was in individual survival. Where the Brooks scenario involves dancing on the monster's grave (a contemporary Purim play), the Tarantino scenario is less cathartic than bizarrely triumphalist. Even something as untalented as Levy's My Führer has a modicum of therapeutic value — if only for being created by a German Jew in Germany. Levy's fantasy conceives Hitler as a grotesque brat, and his Jewish protagonist, plucked from the Auschwitz death mills for the express purpose of bolstering the Führer's confidence, as the lone adult in a world of Nazi buffoons. By contrast, Inglorious Basterds basically enables Jews to act like Nazis, engaging in cold-blooded massacres and mass incineration, pushing wish fulfillment to a near-psychotic break with reality.
Tarantino's movie ends with its corniest character (Pitt) proclaiming that a particular Old Testament barbarism just might be his masterpiece. As I wrote from Cannes, this movie could well be Tarantino's masterpiece — if masterpiece is taken to mean the fullest expression of a particular artist's worldview. At Cannes, Roth characterized the movie as "kosher porn." Tarantino was less provocative and more grandiose — "The power of cinema is going to bring down the Third Reich . . . I get a kick out of that!" — but he, too, was reveling in the compensatory, reductive aspect of the movies.
Here is an alternate World War II, in which Jews terrorize and slaughter Nazis — a just Holocaust. Schindler's List comforted audiences with similar, albeit less outrageous reversals (the list is life, not death; concentration camp showers gush water, not gas). However devoted to movie magic, however, Spielberg would never be so tasteless as to admit the excitement he experienced in asserting his will over history.