By David Edelstein (New York Magazine)
The common view of Quentin Tarantino as a sicko gore freak (largely due to the ear-slicing scene in Reservoir Dogs, geysers of blood in Kill Bill, and sundry splashy slo-mo dismemberments-via-automobile in Death Proof) overlooks his real gift, which is for long and fraught and winding dialogues before the carnage erupts. Watching his World War II action thriller Inglourious Basterds [sic], you might wish the blood would never come: The payoffs are common, but the foreplay is killer. Even more than his other genre mash-ups, this is a switchback journey through Tarantino’s twisted inner landscape, where cinema and history, misogyny and feminism, sadism and romanticism collide and split and re-bond in bizarre new hybrids. The movie is an ungainly pastiche, yet on some wacked-out Jungian level it’s all of a piece.
The movie centers -no, that’s wrong, it has no center, it’s all over the damn map- it features a squad of American Jews in German-occupied France led by non-Jewish, part-Apache Southerner Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt puffing out his jaw to look (in his dreams) like Marlon Brando. The Basterds are famous throughout the Third Reich for scalping and/or bludgeoning Nazis. Of course, it never happened: It’s an unabashed wet dream of vengeance. Yet watching Raine grill a kneeling commandant astride scalped Nazis while a nearby Jew (filmmaker Eli Roth) with a baseball bat takes scary practice swings, you so wish it had. What’s not to love?
The interrogation (and brain-bashing) is a much-needed emotional release following the overture, which grounds Inglourious Basterds in the real world -at least through the prism of cinema. To the twang of Ennio Morricone spaghetti Western music (appropriated, like most of the score, from another film), a French farmer watches a jeep filled with Nazis travel the road to his house, close-ups of his anxious face alternating with long shots of the vehicle coming nearer and nearer, his eyes meeting those of his three terrified daughters -the sequence comparing favorably to both Leone and Hitchcock. What follows is an unnervingly polite interrogation over a kitchen table by Nazi Jew-hunter Hans Landa, played by the elegant and insinuating Christoph Waltz. As the camera begins to circle and Landa moves in for the kill and this good farmer edges ever closer to betraying the family he has bravely hidden, each dramatic beat is another turn of the screw.
Inglourious Basterds has two major arcs and many entertaining digressions, one of which is the movie’s pièce de résistance: a furtive meeting in a cellar full of Nazis that builds and builds and builds until your head feels about to explode. The film’s most emotional thread features Mélanie Laurent as Shosanna, the lone Jewish escapee of that farm, who forges a new identity managing a Paris cinema. That puts a movie marquee at the action’s heart, with additional chambers for Diane Kruger as a German leading lady who’s the Basterds’ chief contact (and so much sexier than she was as Helen of Troy) and Michael Fassbender (who starved himself as Bobby Sands in Hunger) as a British commando who’s also a Weimar cinema scholar and (glory be) film critic. (He’s briefed on his Paris mission by Mike Myers as a pip-pip English general and a gnomish Rod Taylor as Churchill.) As Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) attempts to finance his own nationalist German cinema, the Basterds and Shosanna (on separate tracks) scheme to use his delusions of David O. Selznick grandeur to send him and Hitler (Martin Wuttke) to that Leni Riefenstahl mountain in the sky.
I won’t attempt to diagram the narrative, which Tarantino devised over the course of a decade and has the where-the-fuck-did-that-come-from aspect of David Lynch’s mystifying but great Mulholland Drive. (It’s not based on the 1978 war film from which Tarantino borrowed -and cheekily misspelled- the title.) I will say that Inglourious Basterds builds to a hectic movie-premiere climax in which Shosanna plans to substitute her own film for a Goebbels-produced one starring Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a real Nazi hero recreating onscreen his valorous feat. So you have a Nazi myth exploded by a subversive Jewish countermyth contained within a Tarantino revenge myth that rewrites history in ways that make your jaw drop.
Sadly, Tarantino isn’t up to that phantasmagorical finale, which carries the onscreen title --Revenge of the Giant Face.-- It’s choppy and labored, and both the action and Pitt’s performance drift into camp. Yet it gets by (just) on sheer audacity. Tarantino is nutty enough to believe myth can trump history -that no Führer can survive the bloody onslaught of an exploitation auteur. Inglourious Basterds is a revenge movie in which the movie itself is the best revenge.
By David Denby (New Yorker)
In Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds”—an extravagant jest about the Second World War—Joseph Goebbels commissions a propaganda combat film and assembles the Nazi leaders in occupied Paris, in 1944, for its première at a lovely Art Deco theatre. As the big night approaches, groups of European movie people and Jewish American soldiers plot to use the occasion to eliminate the Nazi command and bring an end to the Third Reich. (Some plan to set fire to the theatre, others to blow it up.) The anti-Nazi cinemaphiles include the female theatre owner; her black lover and projectionist; a leading German actress who spies for the British; and, of all people, a critic—an English expert on German cinema who attempts to pass himself off as an S.S. officer. The Americans are themselves right out of the movies: the Inglourious Basterds, as they are known, are a kind of Jewish Dirty Dozen, led by a Gentile, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a blunt, jawjutting tough guy from Tennessee (which is where Tarantino is from). In brief, Tarantino has gone past his usual practice of decorating his movies with homages to others. This time, he has pulled the film-archive door shut behind him—there’s hardly a flash of light indicating that the world exists outside the cinema except as the basis of a nutbrain fable.
Since 1941, the Basterds have been killing German soldiers in occupied France, sometimes by beating them with a baseball bat. Then they scalp them (the explanation: Raine has Native American blood). The lieutenant also carves swastikas into Nazi foreheads. Whether the Basterds are Tarantino’s ideal of an all-American killing team or his parody of one is hard to know. Very little in “Basterds” is meant to be taken straight, but the movie isn’t quite farce, either. It’s lodged in an uneasy nowheresville between counterfactual pop wish fulfillment and trashy exploitation, between exuberant nonsense and cinema scholasticism. In the middle of this crazy narrative, Tarantino pauses to pay his respects, like an unctuous film professor, to the immortals of German cinema. The great G. W. Pabst! Emil Jannings! (They are brought to Paris for the première.) The cinema, it seems, is both innocent and heroic; it creates great art, and it will end the war. The fire is started by the burning of old nitrate-based movies behind the screen.
“Inglourious Basterds” is not boring, but it’s ridiculous and appallingly insensitive—a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously. Not that Tarantino intends any malice toward such earnest people. The Nazis, for him, are merely available movie tropes—articulate monsters with a talent for sadism. By making the Americans cruel, too, he escapes the customary division of good and evil along national lines, but he escapes any sense of moral accountability as well. In a Tarantino war, everyone commits atrocities. Like all the director’s work after “Jackie Brown,” the movie is pure sensation. It’s disconnected from feeling, and an eerie blankness—it’s too shallow to be called nihilism—undermines even the best scenes. At the beginning, for example, in 1941, an S.S. patrol, led by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), questions a French farmer about a family of Jews who may be hiding on his property. The scene is methodically staged. Colonel Landa is polite, even flirtatious, and Tarantino increases the tension gradually, shooting and editing the confrontation with classical rigor. Landa promises the farmer—a man of great dignity—that he will protect his family if he turns over the Jews, which he finally does, though unwillingly. They are hiding under the floorboards, and Landa’s men shoot all of them, except for a young woman, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), who disappears into the countryside. (We meet her again later, as the owner of the Paris theatre.) Does Landa keep his promise and allow the farmer’s family to survive? The scene ends, and Tarantino doesn’t say. His refusal to show us how events play out comes across as sheer negligence, or indifference.
Moral callousness has been part of Tarantino’s style in the past. In “Pulp Fiction,” his merry roundelay set among Los Angeles lowlifes, the aggressive acts that the characters commit against one another are so abrupt and extreme that they become funny. The movie’s outrageous panache gave the audience license to enjoy the violence as lawless entertainment. But, in “Basterds,” Tarantino is mucking about with a tragic moment of history. Chaplin and Lubitsch played with Nazis, too, but they worked as farceurs, using comedy to warn of catastrophe; they didn’t carve up Nazis using horror-film flourishes. Tarantino’s hyper-violent narrative reveals merely that he still daydreams like a teen-ager. It should be said, however, that the scenes set in Paris, in which Tarantino imagines the formal but abrasive nature of social life among the Nazi élite, are all beautifully designed (by David and Sandy Wasco) and photographed (by Robert Richardson). The director has also given prominence to a good actor new to American audiences: the Austrian-born Christoph Waltz, who, as Landa, exudes the kind of insinuating menace characteristic of Nazis in old Warner Bros. movies. The role may be a cliché, but Waltz is brilliant in it; he takes an intellectual pleasure in devilry.
The film is skillfully made, but it’s too silly to be enjoyed, even as a joke. Tarantino may think that he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working-class Jewish boys get to pump Hitler and Göring full of lead), but somehow I doubt that the gesture will be appreciated. Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque. “Inglourious Basterds” is a hundred and fifty-two minutes long, but Tarantino’s fans will wait for the director’s cut, which no doubt shows Shirley Temple arriving at Treblinka with the Glenn Miller band and performing a special rendition of “Baby Take a Bow,” from the immortal 1934 movie of the same name, before she fetchingly leads the S.S. guards to the gas chamber.