There are very few directors in the world who can imbue a dollop of cream and a plate of apple strudel with the sort of pulsating, vivacious energy that Quentin Tarantino can. And there are very few directors who can make twenty minutes of table talk as utterly engrossing and tension building as Tarantino can. But the Pulp Fiction auteur has a way of bringing to life the cinema in ways that hardly anyone else even attempts anymore. He doesn’t do it by using CGI or massive budgets. He does it by knowing how to tell a good story and how to tell it cinematically. And he does it by taking risks. He’s an utter master of the craft—a nerdy, fearless, movie nut genius who turns low art pop kitsch into masterful, luxurious moving picture epics. He’s like the Andy Warhol of the post-MTV, videogame era. And his new movie, Inglourious Basterds, might just be his masterpiece.
Tarantino, as you may already know, is a director who traffics in genre revisionism, pop pastiche, and all things irreverent, over-the-top, and anachronistic. Basterds is his “WWII epic” (mixing elements of war, spy, spaghetti western and noir genres), and it’s a film that looks and feels very much at home in his larger body of work. As such, you shouldn’t expect Saving Private Ryan. It’s not as honorable or sober as that film. But it’s no less profound.
Skeptics will dismiss Basterds as a too-far trivializing of a very serious topic (WWII, Nazis, the slaughter of Jews), but make no mistake: this film doesn’t take the subject matter lightly. Quite the contrary. Pay attention to Tarantino’s film (beneath all the ridiculous scalping and bashing of brains) and you’ll see a probing examination of the lasting emotional legacy of WWII. It’s a film about revenge and justice—familiar themes for Tarantino—and a cultural therapy session wherein the traumas of WWII are not debunked or demeaned but rather funneled into a piercing, explosive denouement that is equal parts catharsis and critique.
The end of this film, like the end of all Tarantino films, is a bloodbath. But it’s a bloodbath in the most respectable, glorious, Scorsese-esque sense of the word. It’s a bloodbath that feels almost purifying. Tarantino is an artist who knows how gore and bloodletting can service a film in an operatic, visceral (as opposed to desensitized), meaningful sense, and it’s never as meaningful as it is at the close of this film.
As in all of his films, Tarantino’s objective here is twofold. On one hand (and perhaps of primary import), he wants to make a wildly entertaining movie that indulges his fanboy fetishes and pop art proclivities. But on the other hand, he’s interested in making a point about what the cinema is—what it offers us that real life can’t (nonlinear storytelling, bird’s eye camera perspectives, and in this case, rewritten history and revenge catharsis), how we respond to it, and what its dangers are.
It’s not a coincidence that the final bloodbath scene takes place in a movie theater and features film-as-death imagery everywhere. Nor is it a coincidence that Eli Roth (mastermind of splatterfest movies like Hostel) plays one of the most vicious Nazi-hunting Jew protagonists (the baseball-bat armed “Bear Jew”). And in true form for Tarantino (who often has something subtle to say about race), I don’t think it’s a coincidence that a black man unexpectedly winds up being the biggest thorn in the Nazis’ side. You’ll recognize the scene I’m talking about when you see the film. But suffice it to say, it’s all very Gone With the Wind (incidentally, Josef Goebbels favorite film).
Tarantino’s attention to detail and uncanny ability to create memorable scenes ensures that Basterds will offer cinematic delights for repeat viewings for years to come. Tarantino’s movies are rich, artistic endeavors where every choice has his unique stamp on it, from the music to the vivid coloring to the unexpected casting (this is Tarantino’s best ensemble cast, I’d venture). Among the acting highlights in the film are Michael Fassbender as a demure British spy (with a slightly imperfect German accent), Christoph Waltz as the Austrian Nazi known as “The Jew Hunter” (perhaps Tarantino’s most delectably realized villain), Diane Kruger as 40s bombshell actress Bridget von Hammersmark, and Mélanie Laurent as heroine Shoshanna Dreyfus. And watch out for Mike Myers’ cameo. Tarantino employs his “Austin Powers British” skills in a brief scene that almost steals the whole movie.
My favorite scene in the film concerns a rendezvous of spies and “basterds” in the basement of a French tavern. It’s one of the best examples of Tarantino’s ability to build tension in a prolonged scene. For about 15 minutes, the characters are just talking, but the tension just builds and builds until the scene’s bloody, Reservoir Dogs-inspired climax (which lasts about 15 seconds). Everyone in the theater gasped and released nervous laughter when that scene ended—a sure sign that Tarantino accomplished what he intended to.
But really, the whole film is like this. The opening scene features a similar “rising tension while talking” motif, as do several scenes throughout the film (any scene featured Waltz’s “Jew Hunter,” for example). There isn’t a misstep in the whole grand affair, and it’s all so thoroughly entertaining and disarmingly cinematic. I haven’t even mentioned half of the great stuff in this film (Brad Pitt and his team of Nazi-hunters, for example), but I’ve said enough. This is an epic achievement and I daresay an essential addition to the canon of WWII film classics.