The following is not a formal review, but instead a casual conversation about what I believe to be the best film of 2009. That being said, I have still awarded it 5/5. Go figure. Please let us know your thoughts on Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds in the comments section below!
Inglourious Basterds is a modern-day classic, whatever that means. Is a classic film one that adheres to a certain criteria? Or is a classic film one that defies any predictable criteria? Well, Quentin Tarantino’s Basterds does both; it’s a tribute to cinema and a commentary on cinema. It is inspired by the greats, whilst also being great on its own unique terms. It features performances, sequences and fleeting shots that deserve to enter the pantheon of classic movie moments. It’s also one of those rare films in which a film critic is portrayed as a cucumber-cool badass. Clearly, this film holds a special place in my heart.
In my original review of the film, I wrote the following cringe-worthy paragraph in relation to the meaning behind the film: “I’d be lying if I said that Inglourious Basterds has a lot to say. It does not try and explore the themes of cruelty during wartime, nor do The Basterds act as an extended metaphor for something in today’s society”. What terrible film criticism. Although I awarded the film five stars and tentatively called it my favourite film of the year, I was not yet aware of how truly great this film was. At the time, with only a few hours to write my review before it hit cinema screens, I could not yet comprehend all that Tarantino had packed into his two-and-a-half hour opus. I knew that I loved it, but I hadn’t quite figured out why. That review was hyperbole without reasoning and I’ve regretted publishing it more than any other review I’ve written. Allow me now to right this wrong.
Inglourious Basterds was advertised (often by Tarantino himself) as a ‘men-on-a-mission’ movie; a western set during World War 2. Well, the ads were half right. The film did feature men on a mission, and the Western inspirations were clear (Ennio Morricone is all over the soundtrack). But this was not the action movie we had been promised; in fact, the film’s brief moments of action are so abrupt, immediate and bloody you might as well consider them tableaus. The film is far bigger and better than that. We had all waltzed into the cinema expecting to see Brad Pitt collecting “nah-tzee scalps” in a wonderfully inglorious fashion. Tarantino had sold us a propaganda film in which good-old American soldiers would save the world by massacring cinema’s favourite (and let’s face it, most deserving) punching bags: the Nazis.
But the Nazis (for the most part) aren’t as despicable and dishonourable as we expected. Several German soldiers face death at the hands of the Basterds with grace and politeness; meanwhile, our “heroes” are unrepentant, vile and unforgiving. They are bastards. The film’s real hero might in fact be Col Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), or as he is commonly referred, The Jew Hunter. He’s a regular Sherlock Holmes with a swastika on his cap. Every time he is on screen, the film is electric. He’s funny, charming, terrifying and a genius. Waltz’s performance is going to be remembered forever.
2009 was supposed to be the year that motion-capture swept the world. The year that decades-long productions would kick off a revolution in cinema. At the time of this writing, I am yet to see James Cameron‘s Avatar (the supposed saviour of cinema). I have seen Robert Zemeckis’ A Christmas Carol however, and it did not live up to the hype. In it, solid performances are choked to death by technology that was indeed precise and impressive, but antithetical as to why we enjoy watching people act. Conversely, Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds was shot, cut and released unto audiences in less than twelve months. It featured a whole slate of impressive performances; some that chewed scenery and some that were so subtle you could barely notice them. Its budget was a minuscule $70 million (that seems like a lot, but it was about the same as Judd Apatow’s Funny People). Having seen about three quarters of the touted Best Picture contenders for the 2010 Academy Awards, I can say without hesitation that Inglourious Basterds is the only film that warrants victory. As I plough through the remaining Oscar bait, I’m sure deserving nominees will be revealed, but surely none could top Tarantino’s achievement.
Tarantino is often criticised for being something of a “mash-up” director; a filmmaker who takes all his influences, throws them into a blender and emerges with a film of his own. We could devote an entire encyclopaedia to the references in Inglourious Basterds. The first scene alone, in which Landa confronts the dairy farmer Monsieur LaPadite, is a direct pastiche on the opening dinner table confrontation between Angel Eyes and Stevens in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. If we were to read into it even further, the actor who plays LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is a dead ringer for Stanley Kubrick. A mere coincidence? Perhaps. Kubrick purists will know that he passed away before he could bring his screenplay The German Lieutenant to the big screen. The premise of The German Lieutenant? It follows a group of German soldiers in the final days of World War 2. We could go on for every scene in the film. But this is not a “greatest hits” compilation; this is not QT’s driving mixtape; this is a recontextualisation of every war film, every western, every movie that has come before it.
They often say you have to know all the rules before you can break them and this is exactly what Tarantino has done. Scenes go on for what seems like forever; not too long, but certainly long enough to make you aware of its length. Cartoon caricatures like Pitt’s Aldo Raine and Mike Myers’ English commander are spliced into reality; we are made aware of the fact that we are watching movie characters in a real situation. But this doesn’t destroy the reality of the film, because the reality of the film is that it is a film. Inglourious Basterds not only knows that it is a fictional movie, but also that it is being watched by an audience, and herein lays its greatest achievement.
In one of the final scenes of the movie, an audience of Nazis (including Hitler) sits down in Shoshanna Dreyfus’ cinema to enjoy Goebbels’ latest propaganda flick Nation’s Pride. The film is a non-stop evisceration of Allied soldiers; as the body count racks up, the audience hoots and hollers in the most disturbing and disgusting of ways. Suddenly, the film cuts out and Shoshanna’s face is projected onto the screen. She informs the Nazi audience that they are about to be murdered … by a Jew no less. The cinema bursts into flames (thanks to some strategically placed and highly flammable film stock – yes, film literally kills the Nazis). Meanwhile, a couple of the Basterds burst in and begin to shoot round after round into the backs of the hundreds of burning Nazis. Hitler himself is given the brunt of the force in the film’s most hilarious piece of revisionist history, with Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth) shooting bullets at such close range into his head that it can do nothing else but explode.
The audience reaction to this slaughter is one of elation. I remember sitting in the cinema watching the Basterds and Shoshanna demolish these Nazi cretins and joining the audience in their sustained celebration. I myself could only laugh … laugh! … as the Nazis got their just deserts. And then, I realised what Tarantino had been playing at all along.
Without lecturing the audience a’la Michael Haneke, Tarantino comments on the power of cinema (specifically, the effect of violence) in a frank and incredibly effective manner. It isn’t subtle, nor does it require years of university education to decode. But, Tarantino is making a statement; an important one at that. It is not that violence in cinema is bad, or even that audiences should feel bad for enjoying violence in cinema. Instead, it encourages the audience to acknowledge that movies have a power over us. It can turn the most sweet-natured and meek into rowdy audience members. It elicits responses from crying to laughter and renders them beyond our control. The power of cinema is a difficult concept to express. Col Hans Landa tells Monsieur LaPadite in the film’s opening the reason for the Nazis hatred of the Jews: “You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive”. In a similar manner, we don’t really know why we like cinema, but we do, and it does things to us. The finale of Inglourious Basterds expresses this concept as concisely as I’ve ever seen it. Be you Nazis or Allies; good or evil. On an emotional level, cinema is the great equalizer.
Inglourious Basterds is nearly three hours long, with the majority of the dialogue in either French or German, and is almost the opposite of what was advertised. Word of mouth was expected to be poor. But audiences returned week after week, with the film eventually grossing $300 million worldwide. It is Tarantino’s most successful film financially. It proved something that film pundits continue to rebuke; that film-goers want intelligent films. We’ve seen some incredibly stupid films make a lot of money this year. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Ugly Truth are the two worst offenders in my eyes; two movies fuelled by rampant racism, sexism and general disrespect for the audience. But Inglourious Basterds, the most subversive film of the year, remains one of the biggest hits. Sure, some critics will challenge the film for not being particularly thoughtful (which I myself had done originally) while others will criticise the ending for being silly with its historical revisionism. I respectfully disagree. Quentin Tarantino has long been our generation’s most talented filmmaker, and he has finally delivered his masterpiece.