The amusingly paradoxical thing about Quentin Tarantino is that his movies constantly reference other ones—a blizzard of allusions and homages and old-fashioned knock-offs—and yet a Tarantino movie is instantly recognizable as a Tarantino movie. He’s a magpie but somehow a unique magpie—distinct even from those whose work he has appropriated.
And what is that—the ability to take something old and transmute it into something new—if not art? As aggravating as Tarantino can be, there is true virtuosity about his work that I always enjoy, sometimes despite myself. I might be in two minds about Inglourious Basterds, but in my gut, I love it in all its messy, bloody, problematic glory. No one makes movies like Quentin Tarantino.
The gleefully ahistorical period piece takes its (egregiously misspelled) name from a small band of American soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). Raine is not a Jew, but he specifically recruits Jewish soldiers for the fervor they will bring to a dangerous mission: dropping into France ahead of D-Day and terrorizing the occupying Nazi troops by ambushing, torturing, and scalping anyone they can catch in a German uniform. Meanwhile, Shosanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent)—a young French Jew, the sole survivor of the massacre of her family by the coolly urbane Col. Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz)—lucks into an opportunity to wage her own deadly campaign when the Parisian movie house she runs under an assumed identity is selected to host the premiere of a new Nazi propaganda piece about Pvt. Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a heroic sniper. The Basterds, now allied with Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German movie star and British spy, also see the premiere as an opportunity for Nazi-slaughtering mayhem, and though no one is aware of all the other players, they all converge on the event.
Despite the Basterds being the titular characters, the heart of the movie is Shosanna—which shouldn’t be surprising, actually, considering how much Tarantino loves his smart, steely heroines. There’s more than a little of the vengeful Bride of Kill Bill in the similarly motivated Shosanna, but Laurent gives her a unflinching grace all her own. No doubt it helps that Tarantino has given Laurent the most fully developed character in the movie—and filmed her with a beautifully refined eye—but the young French actress deserves credit for giving the woman such will and dignity. There were a few moments that could have tilted into campiness, but Laurent’s subtle shadings and magnetic presence easily lift her scenes above kitsch.
Other scenes, on the other hand, are considerably lighter. Tarantino indulges in cutesy cuts and a red-faced Hitler shouting “Nein, nein, nein, nein, nein, nein!” as though he’s just escaped from a Mel Brooks comedy. Yet even when Basterds is at its most goofy, the constant tension holds everything together. With this movie, Tarantino reaches almost Hitchcockian heights of suspense, with long, clever set pieces strung tight with the agonizing pleasure of waiting for the mask to fall, the gun to go off, the shoe to drop. He makes great use of small spaces—a simple farmhouse, a basement café, a projection room—by finding the thrill in claustrophobia without letting the setting grow stale.
In short, Inglourious Basterds is tremendously fun to watch, especially in a large crowd, with everyone gasping and laughing and shrieking together—which is why it’s also uncomfortable. There are no fig leaves covering the Basterds’ actions—no ticking time bombs, no vital information to be had, just rage and brutality and relish. The Basterds torture people to inspire fear, and that is, after all, the very definition of terrorism, a word Tarantino doesn’t shy away from.
Of course, we can console ourselves with the fact that these are Nazis, bad people, and Tarantino doesn’t shy away from that either. In the opening sequence, Landa has a French-Jewish family slaughtered before the eyes of friends who had tried to protect them. Bad people. And yet, in the key torture scene, when a German officer refuses to tell Raine where he can find his next victims and ends up being bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat, that man has more dignity than the sniggering company of Basterds—and, by extension, the sniggering audience. However righteous their actions might be, and however bad the Nazis are, the Basterds lose some of their own humanity when they dehumanize their enemy to such a degree that can cheer like they’re at a sporting event when the officer’s life and scalp are so savagely stripped away.
And then there’s the Nazis’ movie, with the young hero soldier reenacting his exploits on film as entertainment. Meaning no disrespect to American soldier-turned-movie star Audie Murphy, the parallels here are rather obvious. For as creepy as Zoller’s entitled pursuit of Shosanna is (and in all sincerity, bless Quentin Tarantino for overturning the twisted rom-com conventions on that front), he’s just a lowly soldier, not a commander, no one powerful. Other soldiers were trying to kill him, he was trying to kill them, and he won, simple as that. We might sneer at Goebbels’s appropriation of Zoller’s actions, the way he so callously turns violence into theater to generate vicarious thrills, cheap wish fulfillment—but aren’t we doing the same thing? Is there any moral difference? The question hangs in the background, unanswered and perhaps unanswerable, lingering even after Inglourious Basterds reaches its marvelous, endlessly meta climax.