Classic Film Review: Inglorious Basterds (2009)

“For me, a cup of espresso, and for the mademoiselle… a glass of milk.”

As he stares down at their inviting strudels, sitting awkwardly in a colourfully Parisian café, Colonel Hans Landa of the Schutzstaffel tells the petrified Shosanna to “wait for the cream.” When the icing on the cake promptly arrives, Landa scoffs down his dessert with a childlike enthusiasm that is normally hidden by a stern face and an intimidating, multi-lingual eloquence. It’s these beaming expressions of self-satisfaction that make Landa – commandingly brought to life by the virtuosic performance of Christoph Waltz – one of the scariest, freakiest, most awesome villains ever to grace the big screen. In fact, there couldn’t be a more apt expression than “grace the screen” to describe Landa’s intoxicating presence; his conversational skills, like his scheming plans, are poetically elegant. But there’s an even simpler reason why his deliberations deliver the instinctive O.M.G. reactions that even the most composed filmgoer would fail to suppress: he knows everything. With a cunningly multi-layered story about a World War II, Spaghetti Western-inspired revenge fantasy, Tarantino shows us that knowledge is power. In doing so, he gives us a handful of indelibly charismatic characters that are far from afraid to use it.

Tarantino’s ten-years-in-the-making screenplay is masterful. Alternating between four European languages, its characteristic phraseology is key to the director’s creation of larger-than-life characters and the development of long, drawn-out scenes in special locations. Landa’s introductory monologue in the opening frames, set in the humble home of French farmer Monsieur LaPadite, may just be the best scene that Tarantino has ever shot. A significant portion of this two-hour film is set only in a house, a café, an underground bar and – quite deliberately – a cinema. But this storytelling structure brilliantly manages to capture the sweeping plot’s focus on two intertwining plans to assassinate Hitler. In an alternate WWII reality, the devastated but determined Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) – a young woman whose family was calculatingly murdered in a Landa-directed SS operation – hatches a plan to burn the Führer and his propaganda chief Goebbels to the ground by taking advantage of a smitten German war hero, Fredrick Zoller.

The other, somewhat more haphazard design is carried out by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Jewish-American soldier who leads his team of ‘Basterds’ on a kamikaze Nazi-killing tour of Europe. Raine orders his crack team of Jewish-Americans to pay off their “debit” of “one hundred Nazi scalps” – an instruction the Basterds follow all too literally – while showering their targets with as many machine-gun bullets as possible. When they’re not firing mercilessly at the Nazis, the Basterds are cheering on an infamous colleague, the ‘Bear Jew’ (Eli Roth), while he sportingly belts them to a pulp with a baseball bat, or they’re admiring Raine’s ability to give their victims “a little something [they] can’t ever take off” (it’s a dagger-inflicted inscription of a swastika on their foreheads, in case you’re wondering) as a perpetual reminder of their service to the Third Reich. The Basterds’ brutality is as perfected and rehearsed as their leader’s acerbic wit. It’s violent, colourful and, dare I say, quirkily funny.

The Basterds are seemingly motivated by Raine’s unequivocal description of the Nazis as people who “ain’t got no humanity”. Their wild operations view the Nazis with the same kind of sub-humanity which the Nazis devastatingly cast over the Jews during their sweeping agenda of genocide. We come to learn, though, that Colonel Landa is something quite different from the usual product in the Basterds’ “Nazi-killin’ business”.

I could reel off excerpts from Tarantino’s dynamic script all day, but it would be remiss of me not to mention that this film would be completely unworkable without the performances of a truly outstanding ensemble cast. Waltz was entirely deserving of the unanimous admiration and Oscar-winning success which rewarded his performance as Landa. Diane Kruger delivers another enticing performance as the Allied forces’ inside woman, Bridget von Hammersmark, and Michael Fassbender is quite brilliant as Lieutenant Archie Hicox, who makes a film-defining, and ultimately fatal, gesture when ordering three beers in an unforgettable bar scene. Mike Myers and Rod Taylor join in the fun with immeasurably cool cameos as General Ed Fenench and Winston Churchill respectively.

Tarantino has accurately self-evaluated his films as having an ability to make viewers laugh at things which, really, shouldn’t be funny at all. And with a film that concerns itself with the Holocaust, bloodthirsty revenge and calculated murder, he outdoes himself again. There are few films which manage to achieve a balance between comedy, macabre, drama and action. But there are even fewer that transcend the idea that these genres need to be ‘balanced’ at all. Inglourious Basterds is exactly this type of film; a kind of its own, which you would think utterly impossible to make. It, and Roberto Benigni’s uplifting Life Is Beautiful (1997), are perhaps the only Holocaust movies to extract genuine laughter and surreal feel-good moments from such an earth-shatteringly depressing subject matter. Aldo Raine’s final snide comment, “well that just might be my masterpiece”, spoken measuredly as he scrutineers the carving of a final victim, is another example of Tarantino’s fine self-assessment. Inglourious Basterds remains my favourite film of the twenty-first century and, for me, offers well-founded hope that Hollywood will continue to produce films which we can proudly call classics.

Duncan Wallace

The author Duncan Wallace

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