“Once upon a time.” Four fun little words that are intended to let us know that we’re being led into a tale of fakery and many times sheer magical fantasy. You know, with talking animals & such. Yet I’ve seen many a-film in which we’re supposed to get ready for a tale of the fantastic only to find that the tale never reaches passed commonality. Well, I’m pleased to say that as the summer is winding down I’ve seen a fairy tale fantasy that’s all wound up. It starts out like this: “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France…”
Yep, I’m talkin’ about a little thing called INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (spelled that way simply as a signature of its author, Quentin Tarantino) and a wild & wooly tale it is. You want talking animals? You got ‘em…of a sort. We’ve got a mean & nasty commando unit that’s been sent behind enemy lines to brutally instill terror within Nazi hearts and souls, we’ve got a mean & nasty “Jew hunter” of a Nazi military detective assigned to hunt down hiding Jews and either round them up or kill them, and we’ve got a mean & nasty (well, almost, anyway) French-Jew who’s reached the point where the only apparent reason for living anymore is to seek vengeance against anyone connected to the Nazis who slaughtered her family. And woven within all this is a subtext surrounding a love of cinema – and the magical & moving journeys on which it can take us all. Even the nasty German Nazis have admiration and appreciation of the powerful art form.
Does any of this sound like a fairy tale to you yet? Probably not, but oh, dear reader, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS be just that. Sure, it may sound like an ominous period drama, yet though it’s set in the WWII era it most certainly is not any traditional period piece. There ain’t anything in this WWII universe that’s meant to be taken as any sort of history lesson. Aside from a few well known true characters tucked in it from history, this tale is all tale. And just to make sure no youngsters reading this out there get their historical facts confused, the madcap ending is one ginormous fantasy, just like the rest of it.
Yes, Jews of that time were tragically rounded up, persecuted, tortured and killed and WWII did occur, and Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) did try to preside over the “master race” & a big chunk of the world, and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) was the Nazi minister of propaganda, but most of the rest is certainly a—sometimes gruesome—fairy tale. So Quentin Tarantino ain’t kiddin’ when he leads the story in with “Once upon a time…”
And there’s something else INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS is – fun! I almost feel ashamed to say it, though, given its subject matter and the lack of a sense of any type of morality buried beneath it. But Tarantino weaves his characters so charmingly (and sometimes eerily) together that you can’t help smiling and admiring the effort. Do not take the kiddies though!
The cast is excellent and when Brad Pitt starts speechifyin’ as Lieutenant Aldo Raine it’s nearly priceless. The way he gravels out the word ‘Nazi’ makes you want to mimic him. I mean the guy’s such an animal he practically grunts when he talks. And Christoph Waltz (a German TV actor, though perhaps no longer after this) gives an amazing performance as Colonel Hans Landa. He’s gotta be a shoe-in for an Oscar nomination. It’s almost worth the price of admission merely to watch his skillful, slimy performance…in three-and-a-quarter languages, no less—with the quarter being Italian. Mr. Waltz beautifully understood what Tarantino wanted to do with Hans Landa; his cadence is spot on and his oratory practically flows like music. The entire cast is a joy to watch, in fact. Even one of my old favs, Rod Taylor, makes a teeny-tiny cameo as Winston Churchill.
I may not be one of Tarantino’s largest followers—he sometimes delves too much into graphic excesses for my taste—but one can’t help but recognize that he has a very keen sense when it comes to important concerns such as casting, dialogue, setting and even music. Some of his plotting can get a bit shaky at times, but he understands his chosen art form well and it always shows; as does his love for it and knowledge of its history. He may never be viewed as a Rembrandt or a David Lean; however, he’s a grand pop artist in several respects and I’m sure he’s quite comfortable with that.
He’s also quite the exhibitionist and exploiter. One knows he knows exactly what he’s offering and that he’s not trying to shadow it, exploitation or otherwise, and this somehow makes much of it more palatable in some fashion. He seems wise enough to understand that what he may choose to do here or there may not be the most artistically appropriate decision, so I think It’s more a matter of whether he cares or not. At times he’s simply more interested in toying with his material, as well as his audience. And yes, admittedly, it can be kind of fun.
In fact INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS may be one of my favorite Tarantino films. I know there are those who’d say that as a whole piece it can’t quite measure up to the likes of PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN (mainly because their plotting was solid and rarely wavered), yet I personally had more fun with BASTERDS than some of his other works. I’m a sucker for a period film too, so that’s surely part of it.
BASTERDS is also leavened buoyantly with that which came before it. There are definite ingredients from films like KELLY’S HEROES and THE DIRTY DOZEN layered within it. Tarantino even uses Lalo Schifrin’s great Tiger Tank theme from HEROES at one point. And even though the movie was of a dark nature and set during a very dark period in history, Tarantino quite skillfully dances around it all and even manages to inject it with a very clever sense of humor. The whole movie is actually rather lyrical. It’s a joy to just listen to what everyone has to say.
In fact, he dances around the dark material so well that at times one forgets to fully question the utter amorality or flat out immorality of it all. There’s scarcely a truly decent human being in the entire picture. After all, isn’t it a little disconcerting that the allies (who are naturally supposed to be the good guys) would sanction a special terror squad to create fear in the enemy by brutally—and gleefully—torturing and viciously killing any and all Nazis they come across? Even the female lead isn’t much warmer than ice. Yet, this is all a deliberate decision on Tarantino’s part. He says he doesn’t “impose” a sense of morality on his characters. Though frankly, I wish he would. A bit of it would make his work a little more humane and perhaps help it reach another level.
While we’re looking at this angle of things, what about that subplot involving the rather cold character of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent)? Though it starts out as intriguing it ultimately feels less satisfying than the rest of the film. Her character never interfaces with any of the other main characters (save for colonel Landa), which is fine in and of itself, but since she’s the main character of her own little story one senses that she should have more of her own supporting cast to play off of, or at least a bit more of an arc to her own character.
Because her entire family has been killed by the Nazis she is essentially dead inside and when an opportunity seems to present itself for vengeance it becomes the only thing for which she seemingly wishes to live. And if those who die were not directly involved in her family’s murder, indeed, even if some are completely innocent of anything, so be it. This is bothersome. In addition, we never get any sense that she has to make any important choices in regard to what she’s contemplating. She simply proceeds forward almost like a robot, devoid of any human elements. There’s nothing (left) in her to pity or empathize with.
There is a brilliant scene involving Shosanna in which Colonel Landa sits in a restaurant with her and toys with her as they eat some pie. (By the way, few can stretch a scene like Tarantino does and get away with it. His writing can be that lilting.) This leads us to believe he suspects what her true Jewish background is. She wills herself to maintain composer until he leaves, but then breaks down once he’s gone. It’s a strong scene that makes us think her story is going to escalate in interesting and perhaps frightening ways, yet once the scene’s over all of that storyline is apparently deemed not interesting enough for Tarantino or his audience to pursue in any true way. Though perhaps more than anything else it’s what would have allowed her to be truly human. That scene is almost the only time any real emotion comes from her.
What say we toy a little ourselves now? At the very start of the film might not it have been a more interesting ending to a very impressive opening to have colonel Landa use his serpent’s tongue to woo those he finds hiding, telling them how all is going to be just fine & dandy and that he merely wants to assist in their relocation and that he’ll personally oversee their well being, etc., etc., with the audience all the while knowing exactly what’s going to happen to them? With Tarantino’s very clever style of writing that could have been a most unique way to handle the closing of the scene. I think he could’ve made the hair on my arms rise. Instead we got the visceral punch we’d expect from the lad. Now, I’m not really trying to complaining, mind you. But a friend of mine and I were just wondering, what if? ‘Course, if you loved the movie you’ll no doubt think I’m going off half cocked, but there it is.
Those aspects notwithstanding, it was still one of the very best rides of the summer for me. Tarantino—with some excellent writing—had me from the opening scene and I was along for the rest of the trip. Yeah, he turned history into a grisly fantasy, but he and his cast & crew completely understood what they were doing and why (unlike certain others who take on period projects). And for a film set within a war backdrop, I thought Tarantino was more reserved on the graphic end of things than I expected him to be. He sent his boys & girls on a wild and even wacky, unsettling mission and I’d say they completed it quite a bit better than most would.
At one point Aldo Raine looks at his, um, handy work and exclaims something like, “You know, I think this may be my masterpiece.” INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS may not quite be Tarantino’s masterpiece, but I noticed a very nice growth in his writing and the whole thing made for a mighty witty, dark fairy tale and that’s sure good enough for me.
INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Weinstein Company/Universal Pictures 2009; 152 min.) Directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screenplay by Quentin Tarantino. Produced by Lawrence Bender. Co-Produced by Christoph Fisser, Henning Molfenter, and Charlie Woebcken. Executive produced by Lloyd Phillips, Erica Steinberg, Bob Weinstein, and Harvey Weinstein. Cinematography by Robert Richardson. Production Design by David Wasco. Art Supervision by Sebastian T. Krawinkel. Costumes by Anna B. Sheppard. Special Effects Supervision by Gerd Feuchter and Uli Nefzer. Visual Effects Supervision by Joe Henke, Gregory D. Liegey, Viktor Muller, and Chris Ryan. Music Supervision by Mary Ramos (with heavy input from Tarantino). Edited By Sally Menke. Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Melanie Laurent, Daniel Bruhl, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Samm Levine, BJ Novak, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Omar Doom, Sylvester Groth, Julie Dreyfus, Jacky Ido, August Diehl, Martin Wuttke, Richard Sammel, Christian Berkel, Sonke Mohring, Mike Myers, Rod Taylor, and Denis Menochet. MPAA Rating: R for strong graphic violence, strong language and brief sexuality.