Rightly or wrongly, Quentin Tarantino continues to be in the unenviable position of being the one film director simply everyone must have an opinion on, whether it be the most highbrow of the critical oligarchy or the most casually infrequent of film-goers. Drawing a dividing line between his supporters and detractors is not a straightforward matter, since there is no one simple parameter which defines a Tarantino fan; his broad appeal seems to be a reflection of perhaps his greatest merit as a filmmaker: at his best, his work is a seamless marriage of inspired visual technique and pop culture referentiality, a complex patchwork of cinematic magpie-theft from which still emerges a coherent, distinctive whole, and one equally nourishing for both cinephile and mainstream audiences.
Fifteen years after the breakout of Pulp Fiction (1994), his much-imitated style has become so familiar that it is easy to forget that he is essentially still something of an experimental director, just one whose box-office receipts happen to match those of the blockbusters. Easy to forget, since each new film he releases comes under such intense scrutiny as inevitably to disappoint – it would appear that Tarantino’s biggest problem is that he must always work in the shadow cast by his previous artistic heights. By this measure, Inglourious Basterds unquestionably falls some way short of the director’s best, yet to use this as an excuse to dismiss it outright is facile at best; despite its structural flaws there are enough moments of characteristically idiosyncratic flair and invention, and some ideas about the medium of film itself, to raise it above the ordinary.
“Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France” reads the subtitle of the film’s opening chapter, and from this obvious cinematic reference we are thrust pretty well immediately into a very Leone-like fantasia of amorality, the world of World War Two in direct parallel with that of the spaghetti western . Predictably, the universe of Basterds bears as little relationship to actual history as The Producers‘ (1968) Springtime for Hitler, and naturally, this is not the point: this is not a war film – there are scant glimpses of actual combat – but neither is it simply pastiche of war films. At its centre is a film-within-a-film, a blatant piece of propaganda in the mould of Leni Riefenstahl, and illustrating one of the key underlying themes: how popular cinema has been used and abused as a political tool.
The film takes its title from the US title of Enzo G. Castellari’s Nazi exploitation film Quel maledetto treno blindato (1978) and how typical of Tarantino to juxtapose so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ art; Riefenstahl, despite her allegiance to Hitler, is commonly held up as being a major figure in the development of film aesthetics, while Castellari is quickly written off as trash. But there is no doubt where Tarantino’s sympathies lie; here in Inglourious Basterds we are in the realms of exploitation, an alternative view of history where we are clearly not being invited to enter into a moral engagement with the evils of the Holocaust, just smirk with glee as a band of Jewish vigilantes enact revenge on German soldiers. Do people really think there a wider issue at stake here? If so they might want to revisit those Indiana Jones films with the same sobriety.
The title is something of a misnomer, since the vengeance-wreaking Basterds constitute but one part of the film’s multiple narratives, each divided off initially into their own chapter, before they eventually coincide in the denouement. We open with the story of dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite and his slow interrogation by specialist “Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa. It is a magnificent bravura opening: slow, carefully paced, abetting the air of nerve-jangling suspense as Landa’s tries to draw out his cat-and-mouse game to discover LaPadite’s secret. The multiple-language dialogue is exquisite, the camerawork pitch-perfect, and the tone reminiscent of those famous first shots of C’era una volta il West (1968) where we are made to wait interminably for the inevitable explosion of violence.
The following chapters introduce a large cast of other characters. We switch to the battlefront and the titular band apart: the Basterds led by Brad Pitt’s ridiculously jaw-jutting Aldo Raine, and flanked most notably by baseball-bat bludgeoner Donny “The Bear” Donowitz. Their mission: to collect as many Nazi scalps as they possibly can, or die trying. Meanwhile in occupied Paris, Shosanna, seen earlier fleeing from Col. Landa and his troops, now runs a cinema and is courted by German war hero Frederick Zoller; it turns out he has had a film made about him, the première of which is rumoured to be being attended by the Führer himself, through which Shosanna sees an opportunity to exact revenge. On the other side of the English Channel, Lt. Archie Hicox is briefed by one of Churchill’s Generals of a separate plan to hijack the film’s première and nobble the attendant German high command, thus ending the war, a plan which involves actress and secret British spy Bridget von Hammersmark.
The astounding volume of characters and storylines goes most of the way to explaining the film’s long, frankly too long, 153 minute running time. There simply isn’t enough interest in all of these different strands or in how they combine, nor in the overall sweep of the film’s scope in order to justify such an epic length, and while the individual chapters are well-measured their cumulative duration detracts pace from the whole. Perhaps the stories, each of which is interesting in themselves, would have been better presented interweaved, as in Leone’s epics, a format which would allow a more textured, overlapping narrative structure. As it is, the heavily chaptered structure is episodic to the point of feeling like a portmanteau, and the over-expositionary nature of the early chapters makes the film feel unbalanced and stop-start.
That the story strands are presented unbroken does, however, show off Tarantino’s skill as a writer. The best example comes in a scene set in the basement of a tavern, where von Hammersmark is ostensibly celebrating with friends but covertly conducting a rendezvous with her co-conspirators. The majority of the scene comprises a light-hearted card-game, the dialogue on the surface natural yet beneath the facade lurks a tension rooted in the fear of discovery. Much like the opening scene, the tension is expertly crescendoed until released with predictable violence. And yet, and it may seem absurd to level this as a criticism, there are too many of such scenes, most frequently meandering and not advancing the plot sufficiently. It smacks of a writer/director unwilling to sacrifice parts of the script best left out for the good of the film.
The wordiness, whilst something of a flaw, is also a point of interest. For a director whose signature trademark is his use of dialogue, whether expositionary or entirely incongruous, it is noteworthy that this is a film less about dialogue and more about language itself. Though plans are hatched around him, the one character who is shown to be most in control is Col. Landa, and much of this power derives from his mastery of different tongues: to comic effect in a later scene with his grasp of Italian, but also to tragic effect in the early scene where he switches between French and English to devastating effect. The Basterds are all-powerful when having use of a German translator, but later helpless when floundering without. Note also the sly nod to Gordon Jackson’s linguistic-based demise at the end of The Great Escape (1963) – in war, language can very seriously mean the difference between life and death.
As well as being mostly monolingual, the film’s other characters are painted with such broad strokes as to make Christoph Waltz’s Landa the closest thing the film has to a three-dimensional figure, and it is his performance which clearly stands out above the other thanklessly undemanding roles assigned to the cast. Whilst on the one hand ruthless and cunning, Col. Landa also possesses a charm and likeability which, if he were in a situation other than the one he is in here, might see him presented as a hero, lionized in much the same way as Zoller is by the German military establishment. He is presented as the least shallow in terms of his motivations: where others are driven by bloodlust or revenge, his is a more inquisitive drive, and as such is the most intriguing character, and is what saves the film from constituting a mere mass of caricatures.
The game of reference-spotting is of little interest to me, and the more overt mentions of Pabst, Clouzot, Emil Jannings and David O. Selznick, to name but a few, become like a tiresome reading of a checklist of names from 1940s cinema. But the film-within-a-film and the positioning of its screening as the central event which everything is building up to presents a reflexivity I don’t feel like we have seen in Tarantino’s work previously, and points to something approaching a mature understanding of the social, rather than aesthetic, functioning of the cinematic artform. As Stolz der Nation plays to the assemblage of both its own cast and the cast of Tarantino’s film, and as Zoller shakes his head at the inaccurate inadequacy of his how his story has been presented, one feels this dual-layered artifice hits upon a truth – that cinema of any kind is a falsification, and as such is inherently a manipulation of the viewer by the filmmaker. And, reductio ad absurdum, if there is no obligation for film to tell the truth then why not use it to blow Hitler up inside a cinema?