YOU DON'T ALWAYS HAVE TO SPELL IT RIGHT...
Quentin Tarantino, at 46, is a bit old to be considered an enfant terrible, but he's always had a kid-in-the-candy-store approach to movie-making. Or maybe a kid-in-the-video store, because that's where he used to work, and his movies are chockablock with references to other movies, to the point that you may need a guidebook.
His new feature, “Inglourious Basterds,” is something of a departure for him, in that it tells a straightforward story in a more-or-less linear way, but that doesn't mean he has any less fun with it. In fact he seems to throw in just as many gleeful, let's-try-this moments as he did in “Kill Bill,” but they all serve to advance an actual plot.
Most everybody knows by now that the Inglourious Basterds of the mis-spelt title are a sort of Jewish Dirty Dozen in France during World War II, and that their mission is to capture Nazis and do really awful things to them in order to inspire terror in the enemy ranks. You may also know that the group's leader is named Aldo Raine, which is the first big movie reference, an echo of Aldo Ray, a gruff and solid actor who played many such parts in 1950s war films. Brad Pitt plays Raine with an amusing Tennessee Cracker accent that only gets funnier when he tries to pass himself off as an Italian stunt-man at a big Nazi party in Paris.
The Nazi officer who toys with Raine by speaking perfect Italian is Colonel Hans Landa, played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, who practically runs away with the whole movie. (That phrase was a near thing.)
Waltz gets to open the movie and set the tone, when Col. Landa, known as the Jew Hunter, arrives at a rural French farmhouse looking for a hidden Jewish family. Landa is all chuckles and affability, and you realize with a shudder that he's drawing the noose tighter around the farmer and leaving him no chance of escape. This opening scene, or “Act” as Tarantino labels it, is by itself a bravura piece of movie-making, with Waltz's virtuoso performance shaping it at every step. It's a triumph of the actor's approach that we don't succumb to the sham for a minute. Richard of Gloucester is Shakespeare's second most heinous villain, but he draws us into his plots with such glee that we become willing accomplices, waiting for the next deliciously nasty laugh. Landa is equally gleeful and controlling, but never once as attractive. It could have something to do with his repulsive analogy to Jews as rats, which makes the farmer sweat and weep.
Except for a brief interlude in London (and can someone please keep Mike Myers from ever attempting an English accent again?) most of the movie is done in original languages with subtitles, which makes it odd when Landa, whose French is excellent, begs the farmer to switch to English. Shortly afterward you find out why, and it's the scene's biggest chill.
The Basterds, surprisingly, don't get that much actual screen time. The movie is more concerned with two parallel plots to assassinate the German High Command by setting fire to/blowing up a theater in Paris during the premiere of a Nazi propaganda flick. The intertwining lines of the two plots provide the story's tension, because we don't know if they'll both succeed or if they'll cancel each other out. If the latter, it would be a real pity, because the premiere will be attended by the entire High Command, including – wait for it – Hitler himself.
And that's not the first indication of how Tarantino sees this movie; the first indication is right on the poster, and in the first frame: the printed title, “Once upon a time, in Occupied France...” What Tarantino has written and directed is a fairy tale about revenge against the most despicable evil in living memory, and he's done it by writing the story at a 12-year-old's level, and that's pretty much how it plays.
Here's what I mean: being a kid in the early 50s, we still played games in which we attacked and destroyed the Nazis. Of course we played Robin Hood and Cowboys and Indians and Cops and Robbers too, but our war games were mostly against Germans and Japanese (the Korean Conflict never grabbed any kid's imagination), and we played with all the techniques and cruelty we learned from the other games. So when Raine, who claims to be part Indian, tells his recruits that he requires 100 Nazi scalps from each man, the small boy from the 50s nods in horrified approval. “They seem to be able to appear and disappear at will!” says a Nazi officer about the Basterds. “He strikes, and then gone like a flash!” says the Sheriff of Nottingham in Errol Flynn's “Adventures of Robin Hood.”
Tarantino uses other distancing effects to strengthen the fairy-tale metaphor, including titles for the five acts, titles to introduce historical characters, and voice-over narration (by Samuel L. Jackson) that explains how it's going to go down. The appearance of Michael Fassbender as a suave and sophisticated British lieutenant who's also a knowledgeable film critic pushes this right over into fantasy. And just in case we've been too involved with the story to remember the fairy-tale opening, we get a Cinderella moment near the end, shoe and all.
Not that Tarantino throws in fewer old-movie references than usual, but this time he's less obvious about it. and here are a few examples just to get you started:
The first thing you hear on the soundtrack is “The Green Leaves of Summer” from Dimitri Tiomkins' 1960 score for “The Alamo.” That may lead us into the verdant rural French landscape, but it also takes us to Tiomkins' famous score to 1961's “The Guns of Navarone,” another WWII fairy tale that, like “Basterds,” is mostly made up.
Then there are the posters in the lobby of the theater in Paris, advertising two brilliant movies by Henri-Georges Clouzot – look for “Le Corbeau” and “L'Assassin habite au 21” -- who was censured after the war for making movies for the infamous Continental Films, controlled by Joseph Goebbels. And it's hard to miss the many references to Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst, and the plot points that turn on Riefenstahl's 1929 “Die weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü.” (Some of these titles are available at MG's or on Netflix, and they're all worth a look.)
And fer cryin' out loud, when the Nazis are playing Who Am I (or, I suppose, “Wer bin ich?”) two of the guys get stuck with King Kong and Edgar Wallace, and that's the kind of connection Tarantino delights in.
Apart from all the tricks “Inglourious Basterds” is the most sustained piece of movie-making Tarantino has given us yet, and for all his famed addiction to horrific violence, the blood's not as important here as the story, which, although it ends bloodily and abruptly, is almost as satisfying as “...and they lived happily ever after.”