Quentin Tarantino opens his new film, Inglourious Basterds [sic sic], with the strongest sequence in his oeuvre so far: stronger than the severing of an ear to Stealers Wheel, stronger than assigning nicknames to a pack of colorful and contentious hoods, stronger than -- well, I guess that's about it.
The sequence takes place in rural France, in 1941, in the kitchen of a dairy farmer whom the Nazis believe may know something about some missing Jews. The farmer's antagonist is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who gleefully values his sobriquet, The Jew Hunter, because he's earned it, one extermination at a time. He's unwaveringly courteous and deferential as he questions the farmer about his neighbors. He's offered wine, but out of respect for the farmer's vocation, he chooses a glass of milk.
The farmer seems to be telling the truth -- or at least holding up well. Then, Tarantino's camera drifts down, down, down beneath the floorboards, where we see the family in hiding. The interrogation ends, and Landa prepares to leave. That's when he shows us how he earned his stripes. The climax of this encounter is a familiar storm of digital gunfire and debris. But it's bloodless, which is new, and it matters, which is very new. For the first time, a Tarantino slaughter means something outside of itself.
I should confess here that I don't think much of Tarantino's work, except for the very good Jackie Brown, which I recall liking for its intimacy and serenity. I dislike his other stuff because it was just stuff, save for those intermittent passages that even his detractors have to admit were, let's just say, entertaining. ("A Royale with cheese!")
Tarantino loves the movies too much, and he's one of a generation of kinetic cinephiles who's helped to corrupt serious American cinema by tricking people into thinking he creates it. And while it might seem like I admire the opening of Inglourious Basterds because it has a Holocaust theme, that's just not so: I admire it because it focuses strongly on story, character, dialogue and theme, the raw elements of good (although in this case, not great) filmmaking.
For about 90 minutes after that, it's largely uphill. Next Tarantino introduces us to his eponymous heroes, a group of brash Nazi fighters made up of soldiers -- many of them Jewish, and some of them former Nazis -- seeking revenge. Their leader is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessee cracker who knows his enemy and the game. He's part Injun', he tells us, so he wants his men to bring back scalps, 100 per man, and he doesn't really care whether the Germans who own them are dead or alive when they give them up.
Then Basterds jumps forward to 1945, to a town in occupied France, where Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), who escaped from Landa at the farmhouse, lives under a pseudonym and runs a cinema. She's wooed by the smitten Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German war hero who's the subject of Goebbels' greatest film yet. So when Zoller persuades Goebbels to premiere the film, in which Zoller plays himself, at her theater, the Allies move to blow up the premiere, and some top Germans along with it. Meanwhile, Shosanna has an audacious idea of her own.
The last hour of Inglourious Basterds isn't entirely a mess, but it's too too much: repetitive and improbable when we just needed Tarantino to get his story over with. Instead, he surrenders to the whims that so many people seem to like in his films and that I find to be callow and superficial. He especially indulges Landa -- a mesmerizing example of the temerity of evil -- and the wonderful Austrian-born actor who portrays him.
He does get excellent work from Pitt, who by now should grasp that he's a character actor, not a leading man. And there's a cameo by Mike Myers that's just a bit funny simply because we know it's him (although he does play a British officer, so it probably would be funny anyway).
Tarantino films most of his movie in a tight classical style, paying tribute to genres (especially spaghetti Westerns) along the way, and true to his point of view, he finally privileges reel life over real life. His script is vibrantly articulate, even in those scenes that go on for too long. He uses surprisingly little soundtrack music, with just one musical montage (to Bowie's "Cat People"), and a few boldly effective musical cues. These elements of restraint make his sloppy final hour even more disappointing.
During the opening sequence, Landa characterizes the lengths to which Jews will go to hide by saying: "What tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity." That's the moment at which you want to reach into the screen and strangle the arrogant bastard [sick]. Without knowing it, of course -- or maybe he does, it's hard to say -- he's described the Nazis perfectly.
What's really intriguing is that he's also talking about Raine and his men. Sure, the Nazis are the enemy, and sure, we want the good guys to win. But does the Bear Jew, a hulking hirsute member of Raine's band of brothers, need to kill an uncooperative German officer by bludgeoning his head with a baseball bat as the others cheer him on? Talk about America's pastime: If that's not abandoning dignity, then what is?
Tarantino knows this -- at least, I hope he does -- and he plays with the notion of how war turns heroes into assassins. I only hope his audience knows it, too. In English, and German, French and Italian, with some subtitles.