“Inglourious Basterds” is a violent fairy tale, an increasingly entertaining fantasia in which the history of World War II is wildly reimagined so that the cinema can play the decisive role in destroying the Third Reich. Quentin Tarantino’s long-gestating war saga invests a long-simmering revenge plot with reworkings of innumerable genre conventions, but only fully finds its tonal footing about halfway through, after which it’s off to the races. By turns surprising, nutty, windy, audacious and a bit caught up in its own cleverness, the picture is a completely distinctive piece of American pop art with a strong Euro flavor that’s new for the director. Several explosive scenes and the names of Tarantino and topliner Brad Pitt promise brawny commercial prospects, especially internationally, as the preponderance of subtitled dialogue might put off a certain slice of the prospective domestic audience.
In no meaningful way based upon Enzo G. Castellari’s schlock 1978 Italian WWII programmer of the same title, Tarantino’s deliberately misspelled namesake has been in the oven for many years, initially as a would-be “The Dirty Dozen”-style bad boys “mission” adventure and until very recently as a massive miniseries-length epic spanning the entire war. The narrow mission focus has prevailed in the end, but not in the way that might have been expected, as the group of Jewish avengers led by Pitt’s Tennessee Lt. Aldo Raine rep only one component of a vast ensemble that feeds into a Nazi-foiling plot only a hardcore film buff could have dreamed up.
In fact, the best characters are non-Yanks, all of whom speak their own languages and one or two others to boot. But this commendable gesture toward linguistic accuracy is virtually the only realistic aspect of the picture, which otherwise soars on its flights of fancy and deliberate anachronisms — the use of David Bowie’s “Putting Out the Fire” at a crucial point is particularly inspired — and flattens out only when Tarantino gets too carried away with over-elaborated dialogue scenes, a problem that could easily be addressed with some slight trimming between now and the skedded August opening.
Never less than enjoyable and more than that in the second half, “Basterds” is divided into five “chapters,” the first being “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France.” Wording not only reflects the Sergio Leone-style nature of the opening scene, in which notorious Nazi “Jew Hunter” Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arrives at a farmhouse to ferret out a hidden Jewish family, but honestly reflects the fantastical nature of the narrative to come.
The long discussion in which Landa engages the nervous farmer establishes, in slightly protracted fashion, Landa’s erudition and his relaxed, self-amused way of leading up to the lethal moment. It also provides Waltz, a good-looking 40ish actor who carries off dialogue in four languages with consummate ease, with an early chance to claim the picture as his own, which he does.
One member of the Jewish family, young Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), escapes the massacre, only to surface three years later, in 1944, as the owner of a cinema in occupied Paris. Now a very quickly grown-up blonde, Shosanna endures the unwelcome advances of Nazi war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), who calls himself “the German Sgt. York” for his exploits at taking out dozens of Allied soldiers singlehandedly, a feat celebrated in a new German movie, “Nation’s Pride,” starring Zoller himself.
In short order, Shosanna is compelled to tolerate the company of the infamous Dr. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) as well that of Landa, who informs her at length that the Nazis want to take over her theater to hold the premiere of Zoller’s film, an event to be attended by Nazidom’s elite. As difficult as it is for Shosanna to bear these monsters, the event does provide the long-suffering woman the opportunity she’s been waiting for to strike back at her family’s killer and other Nazis in the bargain.
A notable continuity issue crops up here, as Shosanna is told the gala screening is to be held that very evening. In the next chapter, “Operation Kino,” a British commando leader (and former film critic), Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), is told by a general (Mike Myers, amusing and greatly made-over) that the opening will take place three days hence. Quite apart from Shosanna’s own plot, the Brits, in league with the Basterds, plan to infiltrate the premiere courtesy of their invaluable secret agent, beauteous German leading lady Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger).
Once this mission is set in motion, pic clicks confidently on all cylinders. Before this point, some scenes feel overly attenuated; the leisurely exchange between Landa and Shosanna in a Paris restaurant features needlessly repetitious dialogue and has a deadened, airless quality due to the almost total absence of ambient sound and surrounding activity. The Basterds’ first appearance, in which they gleefully display their grisly Nazi-scalping technique and which features much twangy, down-home speechifying by Pitt, also proves less amusing than was no doubt intended.
By contrast, a long tavern sequence in which the group of reveling spies — including Bridget, Hicox, Til Schweiger’s renegade German and Gedeon Burkhard’s undercover corporal — party on until coming under the suspicion of a Gestapo officer (August Diehl, excellent), is vintage Tarantino, brimming with delicious dialogue, wonderful linguistic mixing, lively group interplay and tension slowly built to a convulsive climax. Scene vaults the picture straight into its grand climax, in which all the top Nazis, including Goebbels, Goerring and, crazily enough, Hitler himself, conveniently place themselves under one roof awaiting the madly inventive fate devised for them by Shosanna.
While World War II has probably inspired as much fiction as any other single topic in film history, “Inglourious Basterds” is one of the few to have brazenly altered history to such an extent. Because he carefully sets up the approach at the outset, as well as through his sense of style, Tarantino gets away with it, and is in a position to fine-tune the picture before locking a final cut. Other scenes ripe for pruning are all those featuring Hitler prior to the grand finale, interludes that come off as cartoony, unconvincing and unnecessary.
In a true ensemble picture, Waltz stands head and shoulders above the rest with a lusty performance in the juiciest role. Laurent is appealingly thoughtful and observant as the young lady awaiting her chance, Fassbender cuts a dashing figure, speaks with a wonderfully clipped accent and rather resembles Daniel Day-Lewis here, and Kruger is far more engaging and animated than she’s heretofore been in her big international pictures. Pitt clearly enjoys rolling his former moonshine runner’s accent around in his mouth, although his performance is overly defined by constantly jutting jaw and furrowed brow. Inferring a measure of self-evaluation by Tarantino, some viewers will take exception to the film’s final line, in which Aldo admires his climactic bit of brutal handiwork: “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
Shot almost entirely at Babelsberg Studio outside Berlin, with brief location work in Paris, pic features terrific production values across the boards, from David Wasco’s rich production design and Anna Sheppard’s fine costumes to Robert Richardson’s clear-eyed, beautifully framed lensing and Sally Menke’s sharply timed editing. Tarantino eschews a traditional score in favor of a crazy stew of source music, ranging eclectically from Dimitri Tiomkin’s “The Green Leaves of Summer” from “The Alamo” and some Mike Curb motorcycle movie music to eight selections from the Ennio Morricone library.
Basterd Eli Roth shot the black-and-white battle footage from the “Nation’s Pride” film-within-a-film, which features glimpses of original “Inglorious Bastards” star Bo Swenson.