“Inglourious Basterds” has been a personal favorite movie of mine since my parents finally decided I was old enough to watch a rated R film when I got to high school. Please do not judge me for the fact that I was a sheltered child, and instead, judge yourselves because your parents clearly do not love you as mine love me. But despite my parents’ best efforts to contain me, it was a major step in my own character development when I was exposed to Quentin Tarantino and his Nazi-killing vision of history, and since that time, I have become the needlessly nihilistic bastard you have grown to tolerate. A truer character arc, I have yet to see.
This film has been widely revered for the past decade because it holds the reputation as the movie where “Hitler gets what he has coming to him and the good guys kill a bunch of Nazis”. While that is unequivocally a factual description of the events in the film, there is so much more to “Inglourious Basterds” than fetishized Nazi exterminations. I try to avoid speaking in hyperbole and superlatives where possible, especially regarding statements that cannot be confirmed by a quantitative measure, but I am feeling awfully rambunctious after re-watching the film. Dare I say, “Inglourious Basterds” has the most competently written script I have seen in a film to date.
The first element, and perhaps the simplest, that the script succeeds with is the plot. The story is divided up into 5 chapters, all taking place in Nazi-occupied France in the 1940s. Chapters 1 and 3 are centered around Shosanna “Emmanuelle Mimieux” Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew who escapes execution at the hands of S.S. Col. Hans “The Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Walz) to go on to operate a French cinema under an alias, and host the premiere of a major Nazi propaganda film that is to be attended by Hitler, himself. Chapters 2 and 4 follow a US special forces unit of Jewish soldiers, led by Lt. Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt) with the singular goal of kicking Nazi ass and taking Nazi scalps. Chapter 5 is the culmination of both stories into a climactic finish.
What makes this such an important and difficult task for the Tarantino to undertake is that there is always the possibility of losing focus by shifting who the story is about so frequently. Yet, despite the constant fluctuations, the film remains steady, with each chapter providing equally compelling stakes and interesting events. If Shosanna’s story was less interesting than the Basterds’ escapades and vice versa, then the film would have suffered a sort of letdown every other chapter. That balance that the script achieves is an unheralded aspect that is often overlooked in favor of the flashier qualities of the film and is just as consequential in making “Inglourious Basterds” a complete film.
The element that most took me by surprise upon my most recent viewing is the dialogue. As I previously mentioned, the film is known for all the Nazi killing but I was very much caught off guard by the incredible volume of dialogue in the film. Most of the narrative is conversational, with relatively minimal violence in comparison. In general, the rule I have for films is that I would rather the story be shown to me than told to me, which often results in films that are saturated with dialogue to be viewed as lesser specimens than that of their more silent counterparts. But that is only if the dialogue is expositional, and this film does not commit that sin. Instead, the conversations’ purposes are the execution of information, and it is performed excellently.
Despite this being an American film, most of the script is written in German and French. Now, I do not think I need to explain to anyone in America that most of us do not have a strong grasp of the English language. Generally speaking, I do not have faith in the intelligence of our society and if anyone else has come up through the public school system or visited the internet recently, chances are you may share my feelings. So, to have an American writer, not only master dialogue in English but to also write equally skillfully in foreign languages, is just short of a superhuman feat in my opinion.
S.S. Col. Hans Landa best encapsulates Tarantino’s penchant for writing dialogue and Christoph Waltz’s acting prowess. As a conversationalist, he is second to none in cinema. He uses charm and wit to mask his sinister intent, all while speaking an astonishing four different languages fluently. He is in control of every single interaction, not due to a violent appearance or anything of the sort, but because he has an acute sense of the anxiety of those sitting across from him. At his whim, he is able to capitalize on insecurities and lies by teasing certain matters and utilizing awkward social graces to drag out conversations. It is really an art how there is never a single word uttered by this man that you do not believe he is at least 5 steps ahead of you.
What I most love about this film is that it is really about propaganda, and if any of you read my “V for Vendetta” review (Check that out, by the way), you’d know I have a sentiment for political propaganda that sometimes borders on the disturbing. The most obvious example is “Nation’s Pride”, the Nazi war film starring and about the exploits of Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). This storyline is what draws every loose end of the narrative together. The film gets all the high-ranking Nazis and the Basterds into Shosanna’s cinema. The film is being hailed as the greatest piece of pro-Nazi media and is beloved by Hitler for the strength and power of Nazis in war. Its purpose is to rally the spirits of the German people and spread the idea of German dominance.
With regards to “Nation’s Pride”, there is no secret of its purpose within the context of the narrative, but it serves another purpose too. Before I discuss what that purpose is, I am going to propose a question: If the ‘bad guys’ of the war were considered to be the Americans, what sort of propaganda film do you think our leaders would show to express American dominance? I bet it would be a film that shows Jewish American heroes bashing Nazis’ heads in with baseball bats and shooting Hitler in the face while wearing a snazzy white tuxedo. I bet that film would star a handsome American actor, like let’s just say Brad Pitt, as the lead. And, I bet that the most important thing the audience takes away from that film after seeing it is just how America kicked Nazi ass. I hope you were able to arrive at the destination I was leading you towards but there is no shame if you still need some help. Tarantino created a propaganda film about propaganda film, and the effectiveness of his intent is only exacerbated by the fact that almost no one who watches it is aware of it.
Landa is a character that is also very aware of the effect of propaganda. He understands that perception is essentially the truth and is able to see through the lies to understand fact and separate it from reality. He is the best character at utilizing this to his own advantage, often exclaiming how he loves rumors and going on long-winded monologues about how we perceive the world. A prime example is his speech in the early moments of the film where he addresses how a squirrel and a rat are essentially the same but our perception of the two is what differs. And there are two lines he utters in the waning scenes that fully express his command of the subject matter. When he captures Lt. Raine, he tells him that “Your mission – some would call it a terrorist plot – is still a go”. And when he is willing to sell out his higher-ups for a better deal for himself, he says “What shall the history books read”. Landa knows that history is written by the victors, and thusly knows that it can be altered to fit whatever narrative is convenient. Who is to say that WWII did not play out exactly like this and the facts have been embellished in our textbooks? It probably is not the case but I can assure you, our perception of history is altered by our perspective of the events. Landa is willing to sell out for the history books to view him as a hero.
You may have noticed that when I first mentioned individual characters, I provided their aliases as well, and the reason I did that is that their aliases are propaganda too. Lt. Raine, as brutal as he is, is not an Apache (Which, in this instance, is a racist term used to describe him as a barbaric and lawless man from America). Even though Shosanna goes by the name Emmanuelle and masquerades as a non-Jew, she is still Shosanna, the Jew. Landa maybe called “The Jew Hunter” but he views his job as more of just a task rather than a ravenous hunt. And, of course, Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), nicknamed “The Bear Jew” though big and brutal, is not an actual golem. But with all of these characters, it is important to note that the perception of them is as impactful as who they actually are. Their reputations drive action and fear and cause events to transpire differently than if they were just the person underneath the alias. They have all managed to manipulate reality by changing perception. Like Lt. Raine says, “If it were up to me, you’d never take that [Nazi] uniform off until the day you die”, and that is because he does not like the idea of bad people changing the perception of them through misinformation. I guess some things really can only be solved by carving a Swastika into the forehead of Nazis.
Whether or not you choose to breakdown the intent of the film with the same rigor I did is your own decision. Most viewers do not consider all of the factors and are still mesmerized by great acting, well-timed brutality, and an expertly executed story. I often have a difficult time picking out which of Tarantino’s masterpieces is his true magnum opus, but “Inglourious Basterds” deserves to be in that conversation.
I would give “Inglourious Basterds” an emphatic 9.3 out of 10
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Brühl, Diane Kruger, Eli Roth, B.J. Novak
Runtime: 2 Hours and 33 Minutes