(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Brad Pitt takes no prisoners in Quentin Tarantino’s high-octane WWII revenge fantasy, Inglourious Basterds. As war rages in Europe, a Nazi-scalping squad of American Soldiers, known to their enemy as “The Basterds,” are on a daring mission to take down the leaders of the Third Reich.
– From DVD Production Notes
As already stated, Inglourious Basterds is a revenge fantasy. It might be one of the most highly regarded of that genre. But not only that- it’s a revenge fantasy the world can be universally comfortable with. Unlike its successor, Django Unchained (2012), this films deals with punishing a group of people who are hated across the board.
I’m talking about Nazis. Think about it- there are two kinds of people you can do anything or everything to onscreen and people won’t bat an eye: Nazis and pedophiles. The day there is a film released about the brutal torture and murder of Nazi pedophiles it will be the least controversial day in cinema history.
Regardless, Basterds is an amazing piece of writing and filmmaking- perhaps the most polished thing Tarantino has ever done- and its machinations are what intrigue me. Watching certain parts of it never get old or wear through. They are as mischievous as they are mysterious. I’m stunned by the way things unravel every time.
In a way it’s because this film veers away from what an audience expects. A continuing thread through its plot and Django‘s is plans going awry, plans that are often miscalculated, reckless and absolutely horrible. It’s easy to buy into whatever characters are doing onscreen because we’re used to heroes winning and villains losing no matter what.
Tarantino has fun destroying that notion in this one. The Basterds’ infiltration of the Nazi film premiere may be one of the biggest “You’ve Got To Be Fucking Kidding Me” moments in recent memory.
Are things going to go down with a hitch? OF COURSE NOT. These guys have the worst Italian accents on Earth and Basterds‘ main villain, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) sees through it immediately. In fact, he almost has a heartattack from laughter.
This is a pattern repeated earlier in the film. At the end of one of Tarantino’s classic slow-wind to bloodshed sequences The Basterds lose three men during a basement shootout. The reason why? Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) fails at being German enough, no matter how smooth he is at bullshitting people.
An aside: is it just me or is Fassbender unintentionally hilarious in this? This was the first thing I saw him in and I didn’t register him at all. Watching it again I was floored with just how funny he was while fucking everything up.
But I digress. This is one moment out of many. As much as people would assume the film is a vehicle for Brad Pitt, it’s a straight-up ensemble piece. In fact, I’d argue that Lt. Aldo Raine is one of Pitt’s least referenced or quotable characters. Upon leaving the screening I said, “Man, anyone could have played that character. I could have played him. It wasn’t hard to do. It wasn’t even memorable.”
But by then Pitt’s performance was a moot point. Everyone who saw this film became aware it belonged to a virtually unknown Austrian actor named Christoph Waltz. His portrayal of Landa is one of those magnetic, terrifying, off-kilter and occasionally hysterical performances you never forget.
Others populate the landscape: Mélanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl and an unrecognizable Mike Myers (doing his best work in years). Eli Roth and B.J. Novak make appearances as well and they must be the luckiest bastards in the business. I regard neither as actors but yet here they are… in a Tarantino film. It gives the rest of us hope.
The endgame of Basterds goes without saying: a lot of these characters die, some of them in a spectacular fashion, one in the most grueling strangulation scene I have ever seen. Hundreds more die at the hands of Shoshanna Dreyfus (Laurent) and Marcel (Jacky Ido) as well as Basterds Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Roth) and Pvt. Omar Ulmer (Omar Doom) in the penultimate scene of the film. This is initiated by a film within ahortly before going to (literal) hell.
This is why I found my reaction to Basterds so surprising when I saw it nearly five years ago. It was a midnight screening and afterwards my friends and I wandered out into the dark. One of them said he loved it and that it was absolutely incredible. I was still reeling from the movie theater massacre and found myself replying, “I think that was too much. Just too much. Too much.” In the days after I wasn’t sure if I liked the film and kept thinking to myself, Jesus, Nazis are people too.
That isn’t easy for me to say. Members of my family have been arrested, interrogated, tortured and murdered by Nazis. They have directly effected my personal history. So why should I care?
To be honest I still don’t know where I stand on this issue, despite having Basterds in my collection. What keeps it there is it’s undeniably strong and subverts the usual audience expectations, which continues through Django (in fact, I think my friends may have found the latter weaker for that very reason). But I’ll get to that some other day.
I would venture to say that Tarantino’s feelings about it are plainly stated. It’s most likely the best writing he has ever done.
And of course that’s addressed in the most meta way possible. Still, I find it hard to disagree.