Vengeance is theirs: In Tarantino’s outrageous Holocaust history, the ‘Inglourious Basterds’ fight back
If the title weren’t already taken, it’d be tempting to think of Quentin Tarantino’s new movie - indeed, his entire career - as “Infinite Jest.’’ Inside the fevered junk-pop particle accelerator that is this director’s brain, moments of power and banality, meaning and absurdity, all collide into each other, creating movie mash-ups as brilliant as they are pointless. You take a Tarantino film seriously at your risk, which is why “Inglourious Basterds’’ is his greatest risk yet: a rollicking action-comedy about - wait for it - the Holocaust.
This isn’t new ground, really. As with any historical calamity, the urge to view it from all sides - including farce - grows with time, and World War II has been mined for shock-comedy since at least “The Producers’’ in 1968. There’s a tiny germ of an idea in “Basterds’’ and it’s the same one that propelled last year’s “Defiance’’: How about a movie where the Jews fight back?
Where “Defiance’’ was a dramatic slog hamstrung by its faithfulness to history, though, “Inglourious Basterds’’ is just the opposite: a manically playful revenge fantasia made from the spare parts of Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns and strapping World War II action flicks like “The Great Escape’’ and Enzo Castellari’s 1978 “The Inglorious Bastards,’’ from which Tarantino has mangled his title and much of his plot.
Does it work? On a scene-by-scene basis, “Inglourious Basterds’’ is prime, if well-worn, Tarantino - the hard-boiled men and women, the tense, smart dialogue scenes that go on forever, the spurts of violence that erupt to wipe the board clean so the cycle can start again. Yet it’s also his weakest film yet, in part because the director’s playing close to the fire this time, and he’s scared of getting burnt.
The nominal star is Brad Pitt as Lieutenant Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds, a (mostly) American squadron of Jewish GIs in occupied France whose mandate is to kill, scalp, and sow terror into as many Nazis as possible. Pitt’s doing one of his comic character turns here - he plays Raine as a macho hillbilly who wouldn’t be out of place in a Coen brothers movie. It’s fair to say, though, that “Inglourious Basterds’’ is stolen fair and square by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as Colonel Hans Landa of the SS, the Jews’ worst enemy in France.
Waltz is a slender actor with a long, playful face - he makes Landa a lethal imp whose one flaw is his ego. He gives an almost obscenely delightful performance: The colonel has vowed to capture the Basterds but he keeps getting sidetracked by the immense pleasure of watching himself do so. He’s the star of his own movie.
That’s not an idle metaphor: As you’d expect from a cinema-besotted former video store clerk, “Inglourious Basterds’’ is more about the movies made during World War II than about the war itself. Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who has escaped Landa’s clutches in the opening sequence, later turns up running a movie house in Paris; she’s wooed by Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a Nazi war hero whom Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has cast in a film based on Zoller’s exploits. Among the Basterds’ contacts is a German film star/double agent played by Diane Kruger, on loan from the “National Treasure’’ movies.
All this ensures the characters will argue the merits of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1929 “The White Hell of Pitz Palu’’ in long, arch arias of dialogue; that old Ennio Morricone film scores will be merrily repurposed; that obscure movie references will be buried throughout, awaiting future dissection by legions of cinema studies grad students. As with any Tarantino movie, “Basterds’’ ultimately just reflects its maker’s magpie affectations. Why is David Bowie’s “Cat People’’ title song trotted out here - not once but twice? Because QT likes it, that’s why.
The hyperactivity makes the movie bearable while keeping it from connecting. “Inglourious Basterds’’ is divided into five chapters, some of which could serve as stand-alone shorts: A prolonged, outrageously suspenseful showdown in a basement bier-garten may be the film’s high point. Eventually the players converge on Shosanna’s little theater, where Zoller’s movie will premiere to an audience of Nazi brass, including Hitler himself (Martin Wuttke). (If it’s historical accuracy you’re seeking, boy, are you at the wrong movie.) An explosive reception is planned and “Basterds’’ dutifully detonates in style.
Yet you come away amused and unmoved, and that wasn’t the case with, say, “Kill Bill,’’ where by the end Uma Thurman had assumed an exhausted, hard-won majesty. For the first time in a Tarantino movie, the women’s roles feel underwritten, and most of the men don’t get enough screen time. Til Schweiger is briefly wonderful as a hulking ex-Nazi who has joined the Basterds - it’s the old James Coburn part from “The Magnificent Seven’’ - and Hollywood vet Rod Taylor (“The Birds’’) drops in as Winston Churchill. There’s even a deft, Peter Sellers-like cameo by Mike Myers as a British officer - the best work the comedian has done in years.
On the other hand, Tarantino overindulges horror movie director-turned-actor Eli Roth as the most ferocious of the Basterds, doing horrible things to a Boston accent only a kid from the western suburbs would dare. Next to Waltz, the most enjoyable performance in “Basterds’’ comes from British actor Michael Fassbender as the drily capable Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a key player in that beer hall scene. The movie cruelly hangs him out to dry, though.
It’s obviously too much to expect a clever kid - which at 46, Tarantino still is - to grapple with history in any meaningful sense. For all that, the movie’s pop-art shallowness feels forced. “Inglorious Basterds’’ is an entertainment but an uneasy one; it represents 153 minutes of bravura stalling, after which its creator loses interest and walks away. Tarantino may be the most talented filmmaker in America who prides himself on having absolutely nothing to say.