From the moment the charming, laughing Nazi in Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic happening, sweeps on to the screen, he owns this film even more than its maker. Played by a little-known Austrian actor, Christoph Waltz, Col Hans Landa is a vision of big-screen National Socialist villainy.
Glory lost: Eli Roth (left) and Pitt in a still from Inglourious Basterds. Francois Duhamel
Inglourious Basterds, the director’s sixth feature, in many respects looks and sounds like a typical Tarantino production with its showboating performances, encyclopaedic movie references and self-conscious dialogue. The American avenger, Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), leads a pack of Jewish avengers, the “inglourious basterds” of the misspelled title, who occupy one part of the sprawling narrative. Also elbowing for attention is a young French Jew, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who’s running a cinema in Paris under a pseudonym, and a German army hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who dangerously woos her, unaware of her true identity. Mostly, though, there is Landa, whose unctuous charm, beautifully modulated by Waltz, gives this unwieldy, dragging movie a much-needed periodic jolt.
Tarantino likes to take his sweet time—he can be a master of the slow wind-up—but rarely has one of his movies felt as interminable as this one and its 2 hours 32 minutes. As usual he gives you a lot to chew on, though there’s plenty to gag on as well. Much depends on whether you can just groove on his framing and staging, his swooping crane shots, postmodern flourishes (Samuel L. Jackson in voice-over explaining the combustibility of nitrate prints) and gorgeously saturated colours, one velvety red in particular.
The invocation of Jews as rats is ghastly—both times I’ve seen the movie I could almost hear the audience holding its collective breath. What matters, to Tarantino, is the film-making.
But too often in Inglourious Basterds the film-making falls short. Tarantino is a great writer and director of individual scenes, though he can have trouble putting those together, a difficulty that has sometimes been obscured by the clever temporal kinks in his earlier work. He has also turned into a bad editor of his own material (his nominal editor, as usual, is Sally Menke) and seems unwilling or incapable of telling his A material from his B. The conversations in Inglourious Basterds are often repetitive and overlong and they rarely sing, in part because the period setting doesn’t allow him to raid his vast pop-cultural storehouse. A joke about Wiener Schnitzel just doesn’t pop like the burger riff in Pulp Fiction.
The film’s most egregious failure—its giddy embrace and narrative elevation of the seductive Nazi villain—can largely be explained as a problem of form. Landa simply has no equal in the film, no counterpart who can match him in verbal dexterity and charisma.
This isn’t to say that the film’s representation of National Socialism, its repellent invocation of the Holocaust crematoriums and calculated use of the Jews-as-rat metaphor are not vulgar. Tarantino likes to push hard against accepted norms, as his insistent use of a noxious epithet for blacks has shown in the past. But complaining about tastelessness in a Quentin Tarantino movie is as pointless as carping about its hyperbolic violence: These are as much a constituent part of his work as the reams of dialogue. This is, after all, a man who has an Oscar for a movie with a monologue about a watch stashed in a rectum.
Cartoon Nazis are not new to the movies, and neither are fascinating fascists, as evidenced by Ralph Fiennes’ Oscar-nominated turn in Schindler’s List. Unlike those in Schindler’s List, Tarantino’s Nazis exist in an insistently fictional cinematic space where heroes and villains converge amid a welter of movie allusions. He’s not making a documentary or trying to be Steven Spielberg— Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history.
In that sense Inglourious Basterds, which takes its title if not its misspelling from an Italian flick in The Dirty Dozen vein, is simply another testament to his movie love. The problem is that by making the star attraction of his latest film a most delightful Nazi, one whose smooth talk is as lovingly presented as his murderous violence, Tarantino has polluted that love.
©2009/The New York Times
Inglourious Basterds released in theatres on Friday.
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