It’s a strange quirk of circumstance that I happened to watch Inglourious Basterds and Downfall on subsequent days. Actually, they make for odd bedfellows. One of them is about the fall of the Nazi regime the way in which it happened, making prime use of the anti-climax, as justice happens to back up the wrong way into the end, and the other is about how it should have fallen. I said in my Downfall review that the death of Hitler happened to be very unsatisfactory. What I meant is that it’s unsatisfactory if you’re looking for blood. Fortunately, Inglourious Basterds offers a remedy. It’s sheer gladitorial blood sport. Out of all the World War II films and documentaries I’ve seen recently, this is the definitive and final word on the Nazis. Put a cap on them, they’re dead. No mercy, no clemency, no abstinence from death. It’s the revenge fantasy to end all revenge fantasies. And Quentin Tarantino has done it in the most (in)glorious way possible. The Nazi propaganda machine may have exploited cinema for its own vices, as Fredrick Zoller and Joseph Goebbels do to create a vehicle of their own strange creation, but now the Third Reich is both literally and figuratively destroyed by film. It’s no coincidence that celluloid happens to be so combustible. Their own history of lies is turned against them. Not there there is any real pretense that Tarantino can end evil; he only empowers us to destroy them within our own imaginations.
Inglourious Basterds is not fortified against criticism, but this is a film that only Tarantino could pull off. He’s one of the few filmmakers who can make death not just irreverent, but comical, while retaining the serious emotional core of the film. If this had been done in the style of Saving Private Ryan, then it might have been abhorrent. But the Nazis are designed to be absurd, operating as pure personality on screen; they’re caricatures made out of simple clay. Hitler in his overbearing, egocentric opulence dons a cape like a comic book villain. He looks like a glutton for punishment, and the basterds are all too happy to oblige. Only Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa feels like a flesh-and-blood person, but he’s an opportunist, somewhere on the scale between a salesman and an assassin, who happened to make a career with the Nazis. Tarantino is very clearly trying to eviscerate an idea. The screams and the desperate and anarchic movements of crowds makes it just horrifying enough to be effective, but it’s also cathartic in a voyeuristic kind of way; it’s therapeutic, like a combination of kick-boxing and yoga. The Nazis finally get a taste of their own medicine, and it’s all delivered by the angel of death himself, Aldo Raine.
Raine seems to have have one purpose in life, as born from the womb: killing Nat-zis. Brad Pitt shines as the bluff, gumbo-chewing southerner who is always in control and is without pretenses. But while a few of the basterds are memorable due to their brutal methods of deliverance (to death’s door), such as Eli Roth as Donny “The Bear Jew” Donowitz, the rest of them hardly get their due – they mostly lingers in obscurity, never given the time to develop even meager personalities, which feels like an unexpected waste of characters in a two and a half hour movie. I expected that the film would be a loosely structured collection of the basterds’ exploits behind enemy lines. Instead, the entire plot is a rigidly structured devotion to a single story thread.
However, Tarantino is also brilliant at letting a scene drag and build tension to the very edge of reason over long amounts of cosmic time. The longest sequence in the film lasts for twenty-five minutes without break or reprieve. Cutting back and forth is rarely necessary, anyway, since there are only a few storylines running at the same time, and they dovetail quickly. Sure, the characters are never explored in their full dimensions as actual human beings, but that has never been Tarantino’s motif. Instead, what he gains is sheer atmosphere and personality since his films are more about the moment than the overall plot.
Tarantino is at his best when he loads his films with esoteric and obscure references that are made palatable for a mainstream audience. If you don’t know the references, then you won’t even know that they’re there. In that sense Tarantino represents the best of both worlds. Never quite succumbing to his own routine, he is both bound by that convention and gloriously set free from it. The title itself, Inglourious Basterds, is a reference to a 1978 “macaroni combat” film. The misspelling may be “dumb”, but it reminds me a little of the Pursuit of Happyness in that it’s exactly how the characters might spell it. Tarantino always manages to subvert so many genres on the way to creating a unique experience, such as the Western and its lawless moral ambiguity, where the good guys and bad guys sometimes resort to the same violence for completely divergent ends – one for destruction and the other for justice. Yeah, okay, in real life there is moral ambiguity. Violence only reciprocates; it never acts as an absolute end. But Inglourious Basterds is the final retribution. It’s a fantasy trial for the assholes without the consequences, carried out by pure killing machines and forces of nature. I’ve never been a very big Tarantino fan, but this film turned into a geniune thrill ride. And for that, I think that it’s his best.
For a two disc edition the extras are modest. There aren’t any commentaries (on the other hand, I’ve seen some DVDs with two or three commentary tracks) but instead a collection of short interviews, specials, and extended sequences. The best extras are the half hour interview with Brad Pitt and Quentin Tarantino and the behind the scenes look at Nation’s Pride, the film within the film, which is played like a straight behind the scenes look at Nazi propaganda. Eli Roth gets to play a German director who extols the virtues of Nazi cinema, while Sylvester Groth is Joseph Goebbels, as he is in Inglourious Basterds, and acts like the producer of the film. The routine isn’t quite as good as Robert Downey Jr. retaining the personality of his character in the commentary for Tropic Thunder, but it really aligns with the major themes of the film.
And that’s about it in terms of features. There are no ambitious “making of” documentaries or illuminating behind the scenes footage. Perhaps the coolest thing about the two disc DVD and Blu-Ray is that they both include a digital copy of the film that can be transferred to a Mac or PC via iTunes or Windows Media Player. Compared to that, the single disc edition is truly a pittance. It only includes the extended scenes, trailers, and the five minute Pride of a Nation film, which are all included in the other versions. The two disc versions may not be much, but they’re necessary if you want any meat at all.
Quentin Tarantino (director) / (Quentin Tarantino (screenplay)
CAST: Brad Pitt … Lt. Aldo Raine
Eli Roth … Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz
Til Schweiger … Hugo Stiglitz
Diane Kruger … Bridget von Hammersmark
Christoph Waltz … Hans Landa
Melanie Laurent … Shosanna Dreyfus
Daniel Bruhl … Fredrick Zoller
Sylvester Groth … Joseph Goebbels
Julie Dreyfus … Francesca Mondino
Martin Wuttke … Adolph Hitler
Michael Fassbender … Lt. Archie Hicox
Mike Myers … General Ed Fenech
Rod Taylor … Winston Churchill