Over the weekend, I saw Inglorious Basterds and keep thinking about it. I think it’s best of Tarantino’s films and would be a perfect film except for one minor detail.
The film concerns, as you’ll see in the trailer, a special “Apache”-style military unit headed by Brad Pitt who drop into occupied France to kill and terrorize the Nazis behind enemy lines. Most of these scenes feature Tarantino’s trademarks: extensive expositional dialogue that borders on dadaist; scenes of sudden and intense violence; film genre shorthand like regional dialect tics, racial and ethnic profiling, etc. All this is to say it’s very entertaining.
But this film is really two films at the least–maybe three. A parallel story concerns Jewish refugee Shoshannah, sole survivor of a massacre in which her family died in front of her at the hands of German SS officer Hans Landa. Shoshannah resurfaces in France as Emmanuelle Mimieux, owner of a Paris cinemateque that, through the amorous intents of an ardent Nazi hero, becomes the site of a German propoaganda film premiere drawing the highest ranking members of the Nazi party.
Mélanie Laurent as Shoshannah is amazing. She is cold, heartless–a crowd-pleasing femme fatale, almost–but she has not completely abandoned her humanity. As Frederick Zoller, the Nazi hero who wants to get with Shoshannah-as-Emanuelle, becomes more and more intent on seducing her, she finds herself seated at a lunch table with Joseph Goebbels and–yes–Hans Landa. Tarantino has really refined what makes a situation tense and suspenseful for an audience, and this is one example. And when Shoshannah takes her revenge, splicing into the German film a close-up of herself telling the Nazis she’s about to kill them, Tarantino achieves a kind of artistry his prior movies have really lacked. As the cinema burns, Shoshannah’s face flickers over the smoke at the front of the house, ghostlike and eerie.
The other standout is Diane Kruger as double agent and German film star Bridge von Hammersmark. Although her role in the film is brief, she makes a lasting impact through her convincing duplicity–even the audience wonders if she’s truly a double agent or not throughout her scenes, up until the very end. Oddly, she reminded me of Kate Winslet in this role, a comparison I liked but that isn’t 100% accurate. Her cross-cutting between effusive and self-possessed starlet and cunning double agent is done deftly and beleiveably, giving even more credence to her character’s success in the film industry.
Chrisopher Waltz’s portrayal of Hans Landa was also fantastic. He was one of the few truly horrifying characters in the entire film, menacing mostly because of his affability and openness to getting the job done with everyone’s support. Nicknamed “The Jew Hunter” for his ability to seek out and destroy hidden Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe, he could easily have been a charicature of an evil, mindless killing machine. But he is not. Probably made even more evil for his ability to draft and redraft the “truth,” so to speak, he discovers a way even to rewrite history.
Til Schweiger as Hugo Stiglitz was another enjoyable performance. Quiet and merciless, Stiglitz looms in his scenes with menace and hatred for the Nazis, erupting in sudden fits of violence that are as justified as they are horrifying.
If you’ve read about the film at all, you’ve probably caught wind of some kind of big risk Tarantino took with the script–and with history. While Hitler does attend the film premiere and, like the rest of the guests, is locked inside, the audience can’t help but believe he is going to escape somehow. That Tarantino is tackling his first true story leads us to this. And then Hitler is machine-gunned to pieces by one of the Basterds, ending the war. It’s an odd moment. Logically, we know this isn’t true or possible, and so our suspension of disbelief is broken. But honestly, was it even there? Going into a Tarantino film, we’re expecting things to be offkilter, but I think Tarantino’s only mistake is crafting stuch a stunning, classic film that is truly powerful and moving–then undercutting it with its cartoonish redraft of history.
One article I saw wondered if Tarantino had the “right to rewrite history.” I don’t know if that’s fair. Steven Spielberg used Nazi villains over and over in the Indiana Jones movies, technically rewriting history, you’d suppose. Hitler even shows up in the first Jones film, signs and autograph, and then moves on. Certainly that’s a rewrite of history, yes? So why is killing Hitler, which most Americans living at the time would have liked to have done, seen as a faulty narrative device?
Totally recommend seeing this if you haven’t.