#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.