The opening title card "Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France..." tells you nearly everything you need to know about Quentin Tarantino's revisionist, alternate-dimension approach to the Holocaust. Less interested in morality, history or context, the iconoclastic filmmaker is more into pushing hard on the buttons that trigger a film geek's pleasure. After producing entertaining but unadulterated trash over the last few years (the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof), QT gazes upon World War II and rewrites the past to make it oh-so-hipper. Solely a student of film, all of history is like the Sergio Leone western he invokes, a conceptual landscape ripe for cinematic reinvention and mythology. So it makes sense that Tarantino would see the moviehouse as the ultimate instrument of revenge against the Nazis.
Nutty, audacious and talky-as-hell, Inglourious Basterds is a smartass war film fantasia that will satisfy QT fans and entertain audiences, but also brings with it troubling moral questions most fanboys would prefer to dismiss. While ironic amorality and cartoonish savagery are QT film staples, here it's closer to historical callousness. Because the film presents its Nazi-scalping mission with such smirking swagger, there's no cautionary or critical depth. It's not that the Third Reich can't be used as fodder for humor — Charlie Chaplin certainly proved it can — it's that it never rises to the level of farce, instead using a serious moment in history to occasion some adolescent wish-fulfillment. Hostel director Eli Roth, who stars as a baseball bat-wielding Nazi hunter, described the film best as "kosher porn." Which prompts the question: Is there any moral value to pornography?
But let's face it, anything Tarantino does is a cinematic event — there just aren't that many young auteurs in Hollywood anymore. You have QT, Wes Anderson, P.T. Anderson and the Coen brothers. After that, the list gets pretty thin. So maybe it's best to think of Inglourious Basterds as a science-fiction yarn, one that trades the fantastical possibilities of science for the hyperbole of the matinee. Here, the director revels in the grotesquerie of American pop art as influenced by Marvel Comics' What If ... title.
Shifting genres (horror, western, thriller, comedy), musical styles and languages (French, English, German, Italian), QT curates all his totems into a camp-operatic stew that revels in its meta-fictional European affectations.
The movie also presents a unique conundrum of style and pacing: Certain scenes seem to drag, but the overall running time (north of two and a half hours) flies by. Part of the problem is that Tarantino is a little too enamored with his own dialogue. Some talky encounters work beautifully — such as an opening farmhouse interrogation — but others are overkill. Still, most involve the elegantly devastating Christoph Waltz, so it's hard to complain.
Tarantino, working with a linear narrative for a change, juices things with two intriguing story lines. One concerns Brad Pitt's Nazi-hunting "basterds"; the other's a revenge plot by a beautiful Jewish survivor turned Parisian moviehouse owner. In fact, it's the character of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) who articulates Tarantino's cinematic fetishes: name-dropping German directors plotting a filmic revenge and riffing on Hitler's and Goebbels' favorite flick, Metropolis, to announce their impending doom. Even the young Nazi sniper (and rising movie star) who courts Shosanna plays as the flipside to America's real-life Audie Murphy. One begins to wonder whether Tarantino is as pissed off at the Nazis for killing Jews as he is for their persecution of Fritz Lang. Still, by forcing two tales into an already lengthy running time, neither gets developed the way it should, and by the end you can't help but think a few reels got lost en route to the theater. Maybe an epic extended Director's Cut DVD is in the offing?
Despite failing to achieve epic greatness (or moral relevance), Inglourius Basterds is a helluva cinematic experience, rewriting the fall of the Third Reich in a way few directors would ever dare. Tarantino has the incredible ability, no matter what era or genre he's working in, to elevate trash to its highest order. Plus, anyone who can gracefully find a way to insert David Bowie's "Cat People: Putting out the Fire" remix into a World War II drama earns my profound admiration.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].