One of the few unambiguous guilty pleasures in cinema is watching Nazis die. It satisfies even when the director, as does Quentin Tarantino in one of the brilliant set pieces in Inglourious Basterds, insists on intercutting a sequence in which Americans are killing Nazis with sequences from a Goebbels propaganda film (actually directed by local filmmaker and Basterds co-star Eli Roth) in which a Nazi kills Americans. The Nazi bigwigs watching that film can't get enough of it. I know, it's the same base manipulation going on in both cases, the same exploitation of ugly and primitive instincts. So what? Die, Nazis, die!
Inglourious Basterds | Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino | with Brad Pitt, Diane Kruger, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, B.J. Novak, Rod Taylor, and Mike Myers | Weinstein + Universal | 152 minutes
Interview: Quentin Tarantino. By Kam Williams.
The new wave of Reich books: pop genres, good Germans. By Peter Keough.
It helps that from the beginning Tarantino's obsessive self-referentiality and movie allusions never let you forget you're watching a film. Take Sergio Leone in Chapter One: the words "Once upon a time . . . in Nazi-occupied France" cross the screen as music by Ennio Morricone crackles on the soundtrack. What unfolds next resembles Leone's classic Western, with Colonel Hans "Jew Hunter" Landa of the SS (Christoph Waltz, gleefully malevolent, like a German Tim Roth) in the Henry Fonda role and young Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) as the Charles Bronson character.
Meanwhile, across the Channel, it's Chapter Two, and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt drawing more on Slim Pickens, if not George W. Bush, than on the actor who played the brutal sergeant in The Naked and the Dead) addresses — Patton-style — the Dirty Dozen–like Inglourious Basterds. They're a commando unit of Jewish volunteers, and Raine instructs them on how, like Apache warriors, they will terrorize Germans behind enemy lines. Graphic examples follow, like a funny digression about Basterd Donny Donowitz, the "Bear Jew" (Roth), that involves a baseball bat and an homage to Ted Williams.
Years pass. It's 1944 and we're into Chapters Three, Four, and Five. Together with German matinee idol/Allied spy Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) and British agent Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), the Basterds plan to blow up the entire Nazi command at a propaganda event in Paris. (The heroic Hicox, by the way, is a former film critic — perhaps that explains my enthusiasm for this movie.) But the grown-up Shosanna — now going by the name "Emmanuelle Mimieux" — also has a götterdammerüng planned for the Nazis.
It seems like overkill, but since when did that bother Tarantino? And though the resourceful Shosanna doesn't arouse the pity and terror of Uma Thurman's bride in Kill Bill, perhaps she doesn't need to. Actually, it's Colonel Landa who seems the real inspiration here. Tarantino shares the Nazi's sadistic, sardonic gaiety as he swoops his camera up and over, through ceilings and walls and round and round, inserting abrupt flashbacks and title cards with apparent spontaneity but also with sly calculation. As it turns out, the seemingly redundant plots collide and resolve with almost the elegance of Pulp Fiction. The climax is the antithesis of the sentimentality of Giuseppe Tornatore's Cinema Paradiso. It's nasty and exhilarating stuff. So too, at times, is the stuff of cinema.