I Had a Helluva Time Watching Inglourious Basterds

inglorious 1 I Had a Helluva Time Watching Inglourious BasterdsInglourious Basterds
Running time 153 minutes
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger

Like all Quentin Tarantino movies, Inglourious Basterds is exasperating, absurd, cruel, cynical, sneeringly arrogant, racist, elitist, naïvely derivative and viciously funny. It is also one whale of a rigorous entertainment.

The wild plot: In World War II–occupied France, a band of bloodthirsty American Jews form a battalion of renegade guerrilla soldiers without approval or military supervision, dedicated to the merciless torture and death of all Nazis. They don’t take prisoners. They butcher their captives, performing shocking acts of execution, mutilating their corpses and bashing like eggshells the skulls of their victims with baseball bats. Their leader is Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), an Indian from the Smoky Mountains with a rope burn around his neck from a narrow encounter with a hangman’s noose; his specialty is scalping Nazis while they’re still alive—a talent that earns him the nickname “Apache.” Under Apache’s command, the unit’s war crimes escalate, littering the 1941 landscape with more corpses than The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes and Saving Private Ryan combined. With little attention to narrative detail, the movie suddenly jumps to 1944, and Apache leads the “basterds” to Berlin to blow up a movie house where Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and the entire leadership of the Third Reich are attending the movie premiere of a Nazi war propaganda film during a Leni Riefenstahl film festival. Preposterous, of course, but according to Mr. Tarantino, what more logical way to end the Holocaust than to go up in flames from flammable nitrate film stock in three-strip Technicolor with the cameras rolling? Would you believe the basterds’ chief allies in this big, noisy finale are a revered Marlene Dietrich–style film star and a covert double agent who is really a British film critic with an expertise in German cinema? You gotta love it.

Facetious, and sprawling over two and a half hours, the film is often unintentionally hilarious but, I hastily add, never tedious. Both the German barbarism and the testosterone-infused American brutality are exploitative in styles that borrow freely from every war movie Mr. Tarantino has ever discovered in the video rental shops he calls home. In all of his films, he specializes in exposing, with imagery and well-crafted vignettes, humanity’s capacity for violence and stupidity. But when he’s accused of film school smugness and fractured plagiarism, I can’t entirely disagree. Inspired by everything from the German cinema of Murnau, Pabst and Josef von Sternberg (Emil Jannings even shows up for the premiere!) to Hogan’s Heroes and (most glaringly) Paul Verhoeven’s fabulous Nazi saga The Black Book, Mr. Tarantino borrows and steals so many clichés from other people’s movies that I’m surprised he didn’t throw in the little girl in the red coat from Schindler’s List. A monstre sacré for Gen Xers who like their movies loud, outrageous and obnoxious, Mr. Tarantino is so immune to opinion that he can’t even spell the title right, and nobody challenges him. By the time he gets around to rewriting the end of World War II, his arrogance is positively de rigueur. He’s like an idiot savant.

If you crave Holocaust accuracy, see Heimat or all nine hours of Shoah. If you want the most disgusting, patronizing and manipulatively sentimental crap movie ever made about the subject, revisit Life Is Beautiful. Mr. Tarantino aims for neither end of the scale; as war movies go, this one never rises to the level of Elem Klimov’s 1985 epic tragedy Come and See or sinks to the depths of The Dirty Dozen Hollywood heroics. The important thing to remember is that Inglourious Basterds is in no way intended to be taken seriously—and as pure hokum, it delivers. Mr. Tarantino is pretty generally considered, in serious circles, as a wickedly overrated amateur, but in his defense I admire the way he makes no claim to “art,” so you can’t say he’s pretentious. He’s as self-conscious and referential a movie “fan” as mainstream entertainment can be, which makes him a welcome adversary of the kind of creeping art-house paralysis I generally hate—phony, self-conscious, and booooring! (Lars von Trier, anyone?) His limitations are obvious. He sees everything from the viewpoint of a teenage faux-cool dude, which means his films rarely delve any deeper than juvenile posturing. So, as with Pulp Fiction, he makes Inglourious Basterds stylish and riveting without producing any remotely profound insight. It totally reflects not the age of its setting, but the age that has informed its director—a time of pop videos, Playstations, the Internet, CGI and 24-hour digital TV with ads inserted every eight minutes for bathroom breaks. So expect World War II as seen through an issue of DC Comics. The gung-ho “basterds” are louts who storm the barriers like Hogan’s heroes; the comic-book Nazis are Katzenjammer Kids; and nobody displays much icy wit except for one Nazi colonel who steals the picture. (More about him in the next paragraph.) Among the casting errors, comedian Mike Myers plays a British officer with makeup and prosthetics that render him unrecognizable; the terrific Irish actor Michael Fassbender (devastating in Hunger as Bobby Sands, the IRA prisoner who starved himself to death in prison) plays the undercover movie critic who parachutes behind enemy lines to kill off Der Führer; and a bulbous Rod Taylor makes a guest appearance as Winston Churchill. The dismally miscast Brad Pitt, upstaged by an exaggerated Southern accent that imitates choking on grits and grillades, acts with a grim intensity, like he’s the only one who’s not in on the joke. The film turns ludicrous when he crashes the premiere, festooned with swastikas, pretending to be an Italian extra and sounding like Gomer Pyle.

On the plus side, I was bowled over by Christoph Waltz, a juicy, flamboyant Austrian actor who speaks perfect English, in the unforgettable role of the finger-licking Gestapo Colonel Hans Landa, a combination of every handsome, blue-eyed movie Nazi from Otto Preminger and Helmut Dantine to Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. Passionate about gourmet food and fresh milk, oozing a lethal charm that thinly veils a capacity for murderous outrage, Mr. Waltz emanates such energy and discipline that he’s one 35-millimeter Nazi who deserves an Academy Award. The funniest thing in the movie is his final offer, with the war coming to a disastrous end, to help kill the leaders of the German high command in exchange for the Congressional Medal of Honor, U.S. citizenship and a house in Nantucket.

Mr. Tarantino knows how to frame a scene. The color, movement and sound are as good as in Pulp Fiction, the dialogue is a slight improvement over Reservoir Dogs’ and the scene where the Gestapo invade a French farmhouse to massacre a Jewish family hiding under the floor is better than anything in Kill Bill. World War II was more serious, complex and horrifying than all this comic embellishment, but if I sound critical, I apologize in advance. I had a helluva time watching Inglourious Basterds. It’s as frenzied as a dog in heat. Mr. Tarantino lacks nuance, but he’s an erratic, awkward and often brilliant filmmaker. In time, he might even become a mature one.

rreed@observer.com