2000s, 3.5/4, Quentin Tarantino, Review, War

Inglourious Basterds

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#7 in my Ranking of Quentin Tarantino movies.

This movie is chock full of greatness, but it ends up being a bit less than the sum of its parts. I can easily see how someone would take those different great moments and get wrapped up in the whole movie while glossing over the fact that the ending doesn’t tie up as well as it should, but that ending bugs me.

The film starts with what may be Tarantino’s single best scene, the chapter titled “Once upon a time … in Nazi Occupied France.” Hans Landa, an SS officer, arrives at a small dairy farm and begins to interview the middle-aged French owner of the land. Landa is investigating a handful of Jewish dairy farmers who had lived in the area before the Germans arrived. There’s one family unaccounted for, the Dreyfuses.

This scene is brilliant. From the moment it starts as the SS car drives up, we know that something’s wrong. Christoph Waltz’s performance as Landa is so ingratiating and the character written so intelligently that before the camera pans below the floorboards to reveal the Dreyfus children hiding, we know that there’s more to the scene than we are seeing. Once that reveal happens, though, the tension simply ramps up steadily and almost unbearably. Landa starts talking about his admiration for the Jewish people’s supposed similarity to the rat (as opposed to the German people’s supposed similarity to the hawk). He says he knows how they hide, where they could go that other German soldiers wouldn’t imagine. Before Landa tells the dairy farmer exactly where the Dreyfus children are hiding, we get the sense that he knows exactly what’s going on.

Another brilliant aspect of it is the use of language. Landa is German. The dairy farmer is French. Landa walks up speaking French, but being German, it’s not a huge surprise that he might find the language uncomfortable, so they switch to English. It seems like something both realistic within the context and a cop to the audience so they don’t have to read subtitles for the rest of the scene, but it’s also part of the ruse to keep the hiding Jews from understanding what’s going on. They don’t speak English, so as Landa outlines what he’s going to do, they have no idea. One of the three children ends up escaping, Shoshanna, and Landa lets her go. You can tell through the whole scene that what he loves most is the chase, and letting her go is just continuing that chase.

After that, we have our introduction to the titular Basterds. A group of eight Jewish American soldiers, led by Aldo the Apache, they go into France before D-Day and wreck as much carnage as they can, claiming scalps of Nazi soldiers as they go. Their introduction is the genre meat of the film, the revenge porn aspect. It’s an amusing way to introduce them, watching the Bear Jew beat an unrepentant Nazi to death with a baseball bat. Thankfully, there’s more to the movie.

Three years after Shoshanna escaped the Jew Hunter, she has become the proprietor of a movie theater in Paris. She inherited it from her aunt and uncle (assumedly, those non-Jewish French who took her in to help save her) and runs it with her African-French boyfriend. A young German officer, a war hero who killed dozens of Americans in Italy, tries to strike up a friendship, but Shoshanna has an understandable aversion to Nazis and resists. He insists to the point that he convinces Goebbels to hold the premiere for the soldier’s movie at Shoshanna’s theater. Shoshanna is passive through the whole experience, knowing that to fight back would be borderline suicide.

It is at the lunch where Goebbels decides that Shoshanna comes face to face with Hans Landa again. We know how smart Landa is, based on his previous scene. He looks Shoshanna directly in the eye and seems to be hiding something. I think Landa’s supposed to know exactly who Shoshanna actually is from this first interaction. It’s the detail that he buys her a glass of milk. Why would the Jew Hunter do this, though? Well, three years have passed and the German situation has declined since. He’s planning, but so is Shoshanna. She wants to embrace having Nazis in her theater in order to burn it to the ground and hurt those who hurt her and killed her family.

It’s about the fifty minute point in the movie when this plot actually begins to develop, which is fascinating on its own. That’s a long time dedicated to simply developing characters. I love it!

We next get Tarantino’s second best scene where the Basterds have to meet with the German film star Bridget Von Hammersmark in a tavern in a basement. “Well, you don’t gotta be Stonewall Jackson to know you don’t wanna fight in a basement.” The two German speaking Basterds and a British operative who also speaks German, descend and find that the movie star is not alone. She’s entertaining five soldiers who are celebrating the birth of a son back home. The Basterds and actress try to disengage without arousing suspicion, but it’s a tricky business. Eventually, the British officer speaks, telling off a soldier, but his accent isn’t right. That accent attracts the attention of an unseen SS officer hiding in a corner. He injects himself into the conversation, forcing the group to tolerate his hostile questions and pseudo-friendly presence. We know that the group is just one wrong move away from giving themselves away, and when it does happen it takes a second to develop. The explosion of violence that follows is very bloody and very quick.

The final chapter is where the movie comes together in part but never quite enough to satisfy me. Shoshanna preps for her revenge and the Basterds make it into the premiere. So, we end up with all of our characters in the same place doing the same thing, but it still feels like they are in separate movies. Shoshanna is in her mode of personal revenge that ends with her dying at the hands of the German soldier while the Basterds are simply there to wreck carnage. There’s a similarity in motive, revenge, but it never really develops into anything more than that. It feels more coincidental that the two storylines end up in the same place rather than intentional.

Still, everything up to that ending is great, and some of it is some of Tarantino’s best work. Christoph Waltz plays a difficult role pitch perfectly. Brad Pitt is really good. Diana Kruger is very good. It’s tense, funny, and great to look at. It feels like everything is going to wrap up really well in the end, but it fails at that insisting on little more than revenge porn. I think Inglourious Basterds could have been Tarantino’s best movie if he had just found a better way to bring everything together.

Netflix Rating: 5/5

Quality Rating: 3.5/4

7 thoughts on “Inglourious Basterds”

  1. The lunch scene is one of my favorites.

    “Attendez la crème!”
    I do not think Landa recognized Shoshanna.

    But the tavern scene is at the top for me.

    My one problem with the ending was Tarantino needing us to suspend disbelief that ZERO SS guards would be outside the theater, allowing Marcel to nonchalantly lock the doors.

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    1. The way Landa plays with Shoshanna seems too much like how he played with the farmer in the beginning. And he’s too smart of a character.

      And, on top of that, he rails against the Jew Hunter moniker later, which he had embraced early in the war/movie. He hasn’t lost his skills, but he’s rejecting their use for their original purposes. It’s not definitive, but I really can’t imagine him not knowing who she is in that scene.

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  2. I think Inglorious Basterds (IG hereafter) is where I realized that Quentin Tarantino can write a scene better than anyone working in Hollwood…better, perhaps, than anyone since Howard Hawks…but that he doesn’t know how to assemble the scenes into a movie. I may be wrong there, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction work well despite the jumbling of the narrative and he did some of his best filmmaking in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, but I think I’m closer to being right than wrong with that statement.

    Three scenes stand out to me, two of which will stand the test of time as the best scenes in the last 100 years. The Basement scene and the opening farmhouse scene are simply masterpieces of tension and release AND it has some of the best acting you’ll see. For me, the first scene with Brad Pitt introducing the Basterds mission is also memorable but…slight.

    However, the rest of the movie is a mess or worse, boring.

    The problem, oddly, is with the characters. QT has made very good, very real and well-rounded characters in his other films, even for his supporting cast. He knows how to get performances out of an actor no one else seems to be able to (John Travolta….looking at you, you perverted hack fraud). Which is why it’s baffling to me why so much of the rest of the movie fails to create interesting, well-rounded characters I can root for.

    Melanie Laurent as Shosanna…boring. This should be the ultimate sympathetic character. She should be oppressed and fearful. Instead, she’s flattered and petted and pursued while she rejects the sincere attentions of her Nazi suitor. She come off as cold and bitchy instead of strong or afraid.

    The Basterds…boring and one-dimensional. Bafflingly-so. You have Michael Fassbender here and he’s wasted. The dialog, sparkling elsewhere, is dumb dumb baby boo boo bear stuff in the mouth of the Basterds. None of them stand out in the mind, none of them have memorable lines, none of them feel like they deserve our regard except that: they’re Jews killing Nazis and wearing American uniforms. The men he cast flat out let him down, or he let them down.

    Worse, the NAZIS end up being the sympathetic characters. Not Landa, who is too cool for school, but the rank and file guys who are just chasing girls or drinking in a bar or going to a movie or hanging out in the forest on duty…these are the victims here. It can’t be an accident. QT is too good, I think for it to be an accident that the Nazis feel like the victims instead of all of France and all of Jewry. Those who suffer, we sympathize with. We suffer with them, like the Jews under the house in the opening scene, like the farmer forced to betray them. But what do we get after that scene?
    We see Nazis tortured but braving refusing to bow or betray. That’s admirable! While the men torturing them are the Jews we’re supposed to admire. We see a boy trying to woo a girl while she refuses. We feel bad for the poor guy just trying to attract a woman he finds attractive! The Germans drinking in the bar aren’t trashing the place or threating the bartender or the customers, they’re celebrating the birth of a baby! QT makes me sympathize with the Nazis and feel contempt for the Basterds. That’s why I really hate this movie.

    A few final words, I think in IG Tarantino discovered that Brad Pitt can act. Likewise, he plucked Christoph Waltz out of European obscurity and introduced him to America and the world. He gave Mike Myers a chance to play a man and not a monkey. He reached back and gave the might Bo Svenson another moment in the limelight. His eye for talent and skill with actors is so good, it makes me question everything about this movie. And not in a good way.

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    1. Thinking of Shoshanna, I think she’s actually quite sympathetic and interesting. She’s, of course, barely in her introduction scene, but the image of her running through the field covered in blood is stark. Seeing her run her cinema a few years later, she’s obviously fearful for being found out, but this German soldier is trying just so very hard to be disarming.

      Yeah, it can seem like she’s just being mean, but I think the movie justifies it. First, she’s obviously scarred by the experience at the farm. Not only was her family killed by Nazi soldiers, but Landa left her alive because he wanted to just chase her some more. She’s got that in the back of her head. She should be reticent of getting close to any of them.

      But the Zolar just keeps on being aw-shucks charming until his patience finally runs out. It’s that very quick moment when he slams the projection room door open after Shoshanna’s final rejection of him where we see the man’s true evil nature. His awshucks charm was pure facade, and beneath it was a monster just waiting to get out. It justifies her desire to push him away.

      The other side is the scene she shares with Landa with the strudel. Since I’m convinced that he knows who she is, I’m also willing to believe that she knows it too. He’s sitting there starring her straight in the eye, and she remembers clearly the day the rest of her family died in a hail of gunfire at his order. The tension of that scene helps to justify her overall fear of Nazis, her unwillingness to allow any of them to get close. Is Zolar a good guy who just happens to wear the uniform? Or would he immediately tell Landa about her Jewish heritage? She’s lost and she doesn’t have much to keep her steady.

      And that, I think, may be what Tarantino was trying to say overall with the movie, now that I’m thinking of it in this light. The Nazi uniform should never come off visually because of what was underneath. Landa’s going to cast off the swastika and move to Nantucket, but Raine isn’t going to let him say goodbye to the uniform in general. In much the same way, Shoshanna knows that the Nazism of Zolar isn’t just a uniform, but it has come to define who he is.

      I may have to watch it again now…I have new thoughts…

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  3. After watching it again, and until I see OUATIH for a second time, I now have IB ranked as his #3 movie – behind Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill – and yet I still agree with most of what you say. I too found the ending unsatisfying yet I also wonder what he could have done with it. Aside from that, it’s well shot, impeccably acted, scored beautifully, humorous, with a couple of his or anyone’s best scenes, and is just immensely entertaining, and I watch movies to primarily to be entertained.

    To Mark’s comment, I felt no sympathy for the Nazis and I’m not sure we were supposed to. They may have been celebrating the birth of a baby but they were fucking Nazis. QT has said he enjoys people having “mixed emotions” when watching his movies but that’s all I see the baby as. An emotion to mix in, not a cheap ploy to make us feel bad for Nazis. They are explicitly all-in on their Reich, and QT knows that the audience knows what the Nazis stood for and did. Kind of like Stuntman Mike.

    To Mark’s other point, yeah if he was half as good at stitching scenes into a movie as he is at writing those scenes, he would arguably be the greatest filmmaker of all time. Even Pulp Fiction is just a collection of scenes. But because we don’t know where it’s going and because we don’t even know where it’s *supposed* to go, it totally works. Much like OUATIH, you don’t find out the point of the movie until it’s mere minutes from being over.

    In films like IB and DU we have an idea of where the movie should go based on their conflicts. You know the “point” of the movie from the start and it’s all about how you’re gonna get there. Same will KB (it’s in the title) but little BB adds a whole new dimension in the last 30 minutes that changes *everything*.

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    1. After having talked to Mark, I began to develop an idea that I should have developed earlier. The central thesis, so to speak, of the film is that you can never wash away your sins.

      It’s inherently counter Christian, but here it is presented in dramatic form.

      No matter what any Nazi does, from Landa allowing the death of Hitler to the soldiers celebrating a birth, they will always be Nazis and no number of good deeds will wash that away. They can shed the uniform, but the mark will always be on their souls. In that regard, Aldo is doing the Lord’s work in making that mark permanent on their foreheads.

      In that regard, it doesn’t matter that little Max got born. It doesn’t change the fact that his father worked for a murderous regime.

      Now, to counter that idea, the movie may not actually establish the evilness of the regime itself that well. That seems like an odd thing you need to do (they’re Nazis!), but movie’s need to create the world themselves and rely as little as possible on the world outside of it.

      Yes, Nazis are evil, but we see these guys celebrating the birth of a son and we kind of like them. This is a form of Tarantino messing with his audience, for sure, but I think it does undermine the actual point he’s trying to make. People are individuals not just members of a group. He’s taking them as members of a group and feeling like their individuality shouldn’t matter to it. If we had seen these specific Nazis doing something evil before or even afterwards, it might have strengthened the idea.

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