His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.
That’s particularly significant, as I never really got that sense of genuine enthusiasm from the Kill Bills, which always came across first and foremost as formal exercises. Tarantino spent a decade honing the Basterds material, which probably explains how his initial guys-on-a-mission movie ends up repurposed as sporadic appearances by Brad Pitt (Aldo) and a largely forgettable gang of Jewish-American soldiers. And Til Schwieger. Out of them, only Eli Roth as “The Bear Jew” really makes an impression, but he’s about as versatile an actor as he is a director.
The Basterds are largely a subversive conceit on the part of Tarantino by, as Daniel Mendelsohn suggested in Newsweek, “turning Jews into Nazis” through their “taste for vengeful violence”. Mendelsohn’s concern over this is the oft-levelled one of fiction that appropriates and distorts facts (“But these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real and have real-world consequences and implications”).
It’s a conversation that has resurged around Tarantino with the release of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; Basterds announces its “fairy tale” vision at the outset, with a “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France” title preceding an ominous arrival out of Once Upon a Time in the West, and a stand-off that takes the form of words rather than gunplay. I’m not sure Claude Lanzmann, maker of Shoah and outspoken critic of dramatised treatments of the Holocaust from the likes of Spielberg, would have seen the Basterds the same way as Mendelsohn, however (“… he told me that he had enjoyed the movie very much”).
Notably too, the Basterds are basically idiots. Maybe not as much as Michael Fassbender’s cut-glass Englishman for going to a meet in the face of warnings it’s a bad idea, but certainly enough to think they can masquerade as Italians. Pitt, in particular, is playing up such blithe bravado to maximum cartoonish effect, all Clark Gable tache, jutting jaw and superficial swagger. As such, I don’t think you can take the thematic arguments in a movie this self-consciously goofy entirely seriously; they are there, but I doubt it’s Tarantino’s aim to make an internally consistent movie, or that he’d cope well responding to such a self-imposed restriction.
The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw hated the film (and contrastingly, thought it represented a loss of the director’s mojo), while the description “kosher revenge porn” was bandied about a lot, which feels like the most simplistic reading available. One might more forgivingly suggest Inglourious Basterds finds the director making a self-conscious counter-propaganda piece, and again, draped under such a banner, one would be unwise to take all the tics and affectations with a straight face or, indeed, at face value (David Cox, in a blog piece for The Guardian, was unsure about the picture’s daffier qualities – “a mighty star… plays a cardboard cut-out” – and suggested “It lacks the cold seriousness that’s given Tarantino’s brutality so much of its impact in the past. If anything, it seems to be a comedy, but not one that provokes many laughs”).
Cox highlights just how film-centric this exercise is, with its film scholar (of German cinema) turned British agent and starlet turned spy, and a climax in which film (stock) and cinema (an actual cinema) themselves are destroyed; essentially, however, I suspect many who don’t like the film arrived at such a position because they find something essentially tasteless about it, that it it’s “going too far” in changing the facts of how WWII played out.
Aside from the personal taste element, there are two observations arising; the narrative choice was decisive in making transparent Tarantino’s whole schtick, as the creator of hermetic universes where he gets to play God. And also that, if you rely on such a device, you eventually run the risk of it becoming a tired prop. I’m a little surprised by the flagrant manner in which he went back to the well with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but then, it’s a picture that is even less apologetic, if that’s possible, about immersing itself in the paraphernalia of cinema itself.
Even disregarding that aspect, though, it’s strange to read Bradshaw, who is otherwise a Tarantino acolyte of the highest order, including of long-winded dud Kill Bill, label the film a long-winded dud and describe the standout scene in the beer cellar as “unendurably, unbelievably tedious” (Bradshaw’s takes often don’t wash, but calling that expertly structured sequence tedious beggars belief). Rather, it exemplifies the manner in which Inglourious Basterds is carefully built on reveals or withheld knowledge in a very Hitchcockian manner, whereby one character knows what another does not and turns the tables.
We see this with the supremely confident opening in which we realise Landa (Christophe Waltz winning his first Tarantino Oscar) has requested of Denis Menochet’s dairy farmer that they speak in English so as not to tip off the Jewish family hiding out in the cellar. Later, it’s Landa joining a surprised Melanie Laurent at the restaurant (culminating in the To Catch a Thief-inspired stubbing a cigarette out in a strudel). And then, the cinema climax taking place with the knowledge that Landa knows Diane Kruger’s movie star is a spy.
The killing of Laurent’s Jewish resistance fighter Shosanna shouldn’t be a shock from the director who offed Travolta, but it comes at a point in the picture that won’t allow for playful reframing (albeit, we do see her rendered immortal in the form of celluloid following her death, hence the absurdly titled fifth chapter Revenge of the Giant Face). Consequently, it carries with it a sense of almost De Palma-esque nihilism. For all that Tarantino says “In this story, cinema changes the world, and I fucking love that idea!” (of course, he does), he resists allowing his characters happy endings (unless we’re talking Aldo, and as others have noted, he hardly constitutes a rounded character). Which is a contrast to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, at any rate.
Tarantino’s typically eclectic cast includes some aberrations – Roth just gurns, and Mike Myers is indulgent – but also some great picks. Fassbender is mesmerising, and also notable are Daniel Bruhl’s war-hero private, turning from shrewishly shunned to would-be-rapist, and Richard Sammel’s unrepentant soldier, refusing to squeal and so having his head bashed in by Roth as payment. Both Laurent and Kruger make the most of roles that are all about putting on a performance and withholding.
I should emphasise, though, that while I think Inglourious Basterds is a return to form, it’s by no means without fault. There are longueurs (although nothing on the level Bradshaw suggests), part and parcel of Tarantino’s cineaste inter-referential indulgence. His foot fetish is also alive and well (Diane Kruger is his latest #MeTootsiesToo victim). And while his overpowering need to drop Morricone into scenes feels more germane here than in Kill Bill, it’s still a lazy crutch. In general, though, as one who tends to the side of regarding the director as overrated, I admire the way in which Inglourious Basterds is simultaneously about something and as shallow as it gets. There are times when that kind of approach can simply be indulgent or tiresome, but here the director’s enthusiasm is infectious.