I had to see Inglourious Basterds twice to properly appreciate it. The first time was one beset with hang ups: expectations of a film, expectations of history; I came away from it thinking that it had great moments but was uncertain as to its quality as a whole movie. It turned out that the film has great moments, yes, sequences of incandescence that outshine its remainder; thing is, the remainder is still almost as great. It’s now safe for me to say that Inglourious Basterds is an unqualified success: a blissful piece of film making and a great film on top of that. If it took me a week to realise that, it’s my own fault.
Inglourious Basterds is rather different to its presentation in the trailer: where I expected a rag tag adventure of Jewish American soldiers killing Nazis and embarking on a cockamamie scheme to assassinate der Führer and his top men, I got a somewhat nuanced, definitely multifaceted, piece about the nature of revenge, occasionally leavened by disquieting violence.
Separated into five chapters, Inglourious Basterds is a two and a half hour series of scenes that seem long at first blush but turn out, overall, to contain no wastage; everything (except potentially one sexual cutaway) serves a greater purpose to the film’s cause. Certain digressions are covered with Blaxploitation techniques that have the potential to take you out of the film, but Tarantino has balanced the scenes so well that one scarcely notices. The craft of the film is nothing short of amazing: while you have the scenes with the Basterds, the true star of the movie is Melanie Laurent as Shoshanna, a Jewish refugee masquerading as the owner of a popular Parisian cinema. Both storylines work together but one does not miss the one that’s not shown. You’re not left hungry for what you’ve not got; Tarantino sustains enough interest in what is actually happening for you to trust him to tell the story.
The structure is brilliant, the music expertly chosen, and the whole exercise could perhaps best be described as “cinematic”. This is a movie, unashamedly so. Tarantino loves movies and puts my own experience to shame. Unlike some of his other work, Inglourious Basterds never really feels self-indulgent, even with the ridiculous faux-Briticisms of Mike Myers’ briefing scene.
There has been moral panic about Inglourious Basterds, largely in relation to the violence perpetrated by the Basterds – that, in practising Nazi tactics, they have themselves become Nazis. Others (or perhaps the same people) say that Hans Landa, the “star” Nazi of the film, is too lovable. Neither the Basterds nor Landa are the film’s human element: both are powerful figures or symbols rather than anything approaching realistic characters. This “larger than life” approach could have made them annoying or frustrating, yet it does not. The Basterds seem like a means to an end, a vital part of the film, and obviously its namesake, but they largely serve to augment the more interesting Shoshanna storyline. Landa is a villain in his own right, but Tarantino almost makes the Nazi party an entity that every character is a mere extension of.
This brings about the other part of the worry: that Tarantino has made light of a very serious part of history. Tarantino is hardly the first to make fun of Hitler or Nazi Germany; just look at Mel Brooks, who managed to put Hitler jokes in the Western Blazing Saddles. Inglourious Basterds is the latest in a long line of films that rings some laughs from a dire and dark time, but it never cheapens the situation. Were it not for the existence of Shoshana, the film’s heart, perhaps one could worry. As it stands, the Basterds are bloodthirsty subhumans , Landa is a genial monster, and none of this matters: they service a story, they entertain, they do not detract from reality as we have come to know it. At no point does Tarantino ask or expect us to be sympathetic towards any of them. They are inglorious. They are bastards. Inglourious Basterds never pretends to be a textbook historical account, and nor should it be treated as such
Some films don’t hold up to repeat viewings; others, like Inglourious Basterds, reward you by demonstrating both how and why they work. As an entirely self contained piece of work, maybe Inglourious Basterds is a masterpiece. The problem is that there is baggage: history of World War Ii, history of cinema, preconceived notions of what and who Tarantino is. If you can somehow discard these artefacts – no easy task, at least not the first time – then Inglourious Basterds works better. Allow yourself to be surprised, because Inglourious Basterds will surprise you.
In its extreme orthodoxy, Inglourious Basterds allows itself to stand apart from the rest of modern movie making. Whatever it is that Tarantino makes, regardless of how deliberately derivative it’s supposed to be, it has its own signature. Regardless of the final analysis, Inglourious Basterds is a film that demands to be seen. Don’t disappoint it.