I have seen no less than eight people walk out of this film. They ranged from an elderly couple, tottering out as the first scalp is sliced off, to a group of young people who slinked out muttering something about “fucking French”. This is certainly not your average summer blockbuster. It’s talky, wincingly violent, and a little complicated, all of which are qualities which could drive restless audience members to vacate their paid-for seat. They’re also the qualities which make Inglourious Basterds two and three quarter hours of unmitigated cinematic joy. Quentin Tarantino has produced a hilarious, magnificently accomplished masterpiece, tossing around and tearing apart conventions like a playful monkey to craft the funniest, most frightening and thought-provoking film of the year.
The basic idea is a war film with Spaghetti Western elements. Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is tasked with leading a group of Jewish-American soldiers, the eponymous Basterds, into Nazi-occupied France to, as he so wonderfully puts it, inflict “murder, torture, intimation, and terror” on the men who did the same to the European countries they occupy. Meanwhile, the utterly terrifying Col. Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) hunts Jews with charming, monstrous precision, whilst Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a girl he let escape for his own amusement, plots to inc
inerate the Nazi high command. Every single performance from this stunning international ensemble cast is a pleasure to watch. All their accents and mannerisms are played up for some truly hysterical moments of comedy – the British characters are especially amusing, along with Pitt’s tight-lipped “Bonjourno” – without ever becoming overly ridiculous.
As well as the ever-flowing comedic moments, Basterds offers some heart-stoppingly tense moments of suspense constructed around the unpredictability of the smooth-talking, subtly aggressive and intense Nazi officers. The film is similarly visually stunning. Brief spurts of action are a treat for the eyes, and all are managed without a hint of CGI, which led to two of the stars nearly becoming cremated during a particularly ambitious scene. The wry, winking iconography Tarantino scatters throughout also deserves special mention. Look out for the looming black poodle sternly criticizing Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) guffawing racism, Landa’s emasculating Swiss style horn-pipe, and Major Dieter Hellstrom’s (August Diehl) fantastic cowboy boot shaped pint glass, coming to wreck havoc on the Apache Basterds.
For a film so colourfully ostentatious, Basterds is a film imbued with great amounts of depth and subtlety. Essentially, this is a film about the audience. We see Hitler laugh hysterically at the Americans being slaughtered in the film-within-a-film Nation’s Pride, and our natural instinct is repulsion – but it quickly dawns upon us that laughing at nasty, painful death is exactly how we’ve spent the last two hours. Having the twentieth century’s ultimate figure of evil indulging in the same edgy delights as our good selves might send a ripple of unease over an audience which laughed heartily at the Bear Jew (a surprisingly accomplished Eli Roth) clobber a Nazi soldier to death whilst yelling baseball conventions. Just like Roth’s own Hostel, we find ourselves forced to question why we find the violence so entertaining.
The phrase ‘kosher porn’ has been tossed around by some reviewers to describe the visceral, vengeful joy the film provides. These certainly aren’t the Jewish characters you tend to see in more conventional war films. Their gleeful, effervescently comic brutality makes the Nazis the victims, inverting preconceptions of the place of Jewish figures in war films by making them figures of absolute power rather than desperate resisters. It’s actually their Nazi victims that seem to elicit glimmers of sympathy rather than our heroes. We’re given very little background on the Basterds themselves, whilst their scalped, carved and shot targets talk of defending their people, hugging their mothers and seeing their children grow up.
I could write about this film for so much longer. There is so much to praise, so much to talk about. It is Tarantino’s unrivalled magnum opus, a film which defies all expectations and the potential to change war films forever. Please, ignore the ignorant negative and lukewarm reviews floating around. If you enjoy cinema, go and see this film.