Spoilers... I try to avoid them, but you should definitely see this film before reading this review!
To say that I was eagerly anticipating this movie would be a drastic understatement. Quentin Tarantino is my favorite film maker. His films offer such an intense entertainment experience, equal parts action, comedic, and suspense. He makes films that he would like to watch, always focusing on the viewers experience above all other motivations. In my opinion, Tarantino's second film, Pulp Fiction, is the best film ever made. It's a master class in story telling, brilliantly using non-linear chapters filled with hilarious dialog and intense moments of violence to piece together a classic tale of betrayal and redemption, all while using completely unconventional and innovative script writing and film making techniques that have sense been copied to death by other screenwriters and directors.
I have loved all six of Quentin's films leading up to Inglourious Basterds to varying degrees, but the anticipation hasn't been quite this high for me, this being his first "epic" since 2004's Kill Bill: Vol. 2, which combined with it's first volume, is the best film of this current decade. Even though I love Reservoir Dogs, Jackie Brown, and Death Proof, I particularly love what Quentin refers to as his "Mount Everests." These are massive undertakings for him, often taking many, many years to get on the page, much less actually production.
Leading up to opening night, which was 12:01 AM on August 21, 2009, I had heard mixed reports coming from Cannes, but I knew that the art house crowd that populated the critic's screenings at that festival didn't always appreciate the wildly entertaining pulp classics that Quentin consistently provides his audiences. The trailer for the movie purposefully mis-marketed Inglourious Basterds as a bloodthirsty action movie, like a mix of The Dirty Dozen meets Hostel. It didn't completely appeal to me, but I knew Tarantino had way more up his sleeve.
Inglourious Basterds is a story of Jewish vengeance, represented by a band of Jewish American soldiers (a.k.a. the Basterds, led by Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine) terrorizing Nazis behind enemy lines, and a young Jewish French girl seeking revenge for the murder of her family. The man personally responsible for this atrocity is also the one character that ties the entire film together, the antagonist Col. Hans Landa, played brilliantly and enthusiastically by German actor Christoph Waltz, as he is in almost every chapter. The quality of the performance is at least equal to other powerhouse performances this decade (e.g. Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood and Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men), but I cannot recall the last time I saw an actor this charismatic and so obviously in love with his craft. He won the Best Actor award at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and I fully expect him to take home an Oscar as well.
The film is divided into five chapters, the first of which is titled "Once Upon a Time, in Nazi Occupied France..." This title, the beautiful opening shots of the French countryside, and the sampling from the scores from many Sergio Leone films and other westerns gives this scene the feel of a Spaghetti Western set in World War II. Once Hans Landa arrives on screen and enters the dairy farmer's house, there is about twenty minutes of typically great Quentin Tarantino dialogue, only we're having to read it in subtitles! Heaven forbid the mainstream masses knew about that before going to see the latest Brad Pitt movie! Hence, the (brilliant) mis-marketing. The majority of this film is actually in a language other than English, about equal parts German and French, with a dash of Italian for good measure. Our good friend Mr. Christoph Walt speaks each of these languages fluently throughout the film, adding to the already tour de force performance to the point of showing off. Back to the scene. It turns out that Col. Hans Landa is not only an expert linguist but a master detective hired by the Nazis for the express purpose of hunting Jews that have managed to escape the grasp of the German army. As he interrogates this dairy farmer (who looks suspiciously like Stanley Kubrick), the camera gives us more information, and tension builds until the camera finally puts us directly in front of the Col., staring into his heartless eyes for a few very uncomfortable moments. Excuse the hyperbole, but I feel that this is one of the best scenes Tarantino has ever written.
It's not until the second chapter that we're introduced to the Basterds, and most of this scene is spent in the woods during an interrogation of a few hostages that the Basterds have taken after killing and scalping most of the Nazi unit. Here we meet Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who gets his own flashback, and Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), also known as the baseball bat wielding "Bear Jew." If there is one thing wrong with this movie, it's the amateur delivery of each of Eli Roth's lines. He doesn't have too many, but whenever he opens his mouth I found myself cringing; in my mind a slight casting misstep, in an otherwise flawless cast (yes, I even liked Mike Myers). We also get to see a very animated Hitler, played deliciously over-the-top by Martin Wuttke, rant about the Bear Jew to the point of delirium.
Chapter three re-introduces us to the heroine Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), now the owner of a quaint movie theater in Paris, and her reluctant relationship to a young Private in the German army. This Private (Daniel Bruhl) is the catalyst for all of the events that follow, although Shosanna is obviously displeased by his advances. His playful banter and her distinct annoyance give us some lighter, humorous reprieve, before thrusting us again into the violent foray. This chapter also contains a great scene featuring a conversation between her and Landa over desert. The way Tarantino uses camera angles and close-ups to evoke the same feelings of tension he made us feel in the opening scene... Simply incredible.
Chapter four features the longest scene in the film that has been described by some as a thirty minute version of Reservoir Dogs that takes place in a basement tavern. There are several moments during this scene in which Quentin's pacing seems to meander until he suddenly causes you to hold your breath in anticipation. The scene builds and builds and when the release comes, it is quick, violent, and glorious; a small taste of things to come.
The fifth and final chapter culminates at the Shosanna's movie theater, at the premiere for a Nazi propaganda film which most of the German high command is attending. Each respective party of vengeful Jews gets basically the same idea, and the beauty is in the execution of each of these plans. One is a plan of desperation in which everything seems to go wrong. The other is a long gestating, deeply poetic, primal scream of a plan that culminates in some of the most haunting and enduring images Tarantino, or anyone, has put on screen.
I've listened to and read many critics and film geeks argue the meaning and purpose of this film, and some have submitted some pretty good arguments. There is definitely much irony throughout the film, especially when related to the violence. When a German officer is beat to death with a baseball bat, Tarantino presents him as an honorable soldier rather than a repulsive monster, which makes the beating and subsequent guffaws from the audience sit uneasily with a discerning audience member. Then there are the images of a grossly over-animated Adolf Hitler and his cronies, in a movie theater, their laughter and cheers erupting into a blood-thirsty frenzy as they watch a propaganda film that glorifies the death of hundreds of American soldiers. All the while a group of blood-thirsty Americans clap and cheer at the insanity that ensues, which can be described as a violent orgasm of death, or maybe... a holocaust.
There is so much substance here to be analyzed and scrutinized, but Tarantino himself has mentioned that he doesn't even try to examine the subtext of his films, although he recognizes it is there. Mostly he is determined to create a masterpiece each time he makes a film, and not for art's sake, but for ours. He is determined to create entertainment for an audience to enjoy over and over again, always finding something new to take away from it. I've seen Inglourious Basterds three times so far in the theater, and plan on seeing it once more before it leaves. Each time I notice more and more, and it leaves me somewhat contemplative, but always smiling.
One obvious theme is the power of cinema, and Quentin has mentioned that this film is essentially a love letter to cinema. Tarantino has always been accused of stealing from other movies, however, the accusers hardly attempt to apply the same level of scrutiny to other beloved directors (e.g. Martin Scorsese) who have not only revolutionized film, but as devout students of film, borrowed heavily from the great film makers who have come before and inspired them to make film in the first place. With Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino has melded together classic themes, settings, camera shots and musical cues with his unique style of writing and directing to create a completely fresh and unique experience. The final scene is delivered almost like a punch-line, or maybe the closing message of a morality tale; either way it is just the right touch to top off his cinematic masterpiece.
Monsieur Tarantino, to you, your cast, and your crew I say, "Bravo!"