It seems to be a trait of really great films to combine almost irreconcilable art forms, techniques and styles and by doing that introduces the audience to a completely new aspect of storytelling and style. Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” is such a film, and yet it tries not to appear special by being shabby at curves, unpolished at certain places and lacking to use the moral high ground of most of the films portraying WWII events. The screenplay for “Inglorious Basterds”, which was written by the director Tarantino himself, had been developed in the course of many years, which allowed him to polish all the details and develop his unusual story to an extent where the words spoken on the screen appeared as natural as if there were no real screenplay at all. This unique writing method allowed the actors to take their characters in whichever direction they wanted, but still to remain truthful to their original background that was set before the shooting even began. This fact distinguishes Tarantino from other screenplay writers, and allows him to do whatever he sets out to do creatively in the first place, allowing the interference by the studio executives only at the very end, when the whole project is ready to appear on the market. But let us look closely at the film itself.
On the level of film message, Tarantino’s genial bastards confront the audience potentially with several very serious taboo issues. Let us name some of them. The first issue could be formulated as the following question: Should top level officers of conquered armies, who committed massive war crimes against civilians, be allowed to have arranged conditional surrenders (legal and safe rat channels) or should they be eternally be branded with the sign whose victory they expected? Tarantino’s bad Jewish boys prefer branding with knife curved Nazi swastikas on the forehead. The second issue could be also put in a question form: Since justice is rarely just and since the victims of WWII (the Jews in the first place) cannot be compensated completely for their losses – should the victims be allowed to commit revenge in their own manner? Tarantino’s bad boys take scalps like the Apache and the film music supports this association by citing and mixing music even from the brutal spaghetti westerns with the film music composed by Ennio Morricone. The third issue is a problem of postmodernist, playful, pseudo-historical reconstruction of the end of the WWII. Here, Tarantino provokes us with the fictitious possibility of ending the war by killing Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering in a movie theater (“all rotten eggs in one basket”). After numerous unsuccessful assassination attempts on Hitler, the “Painter” himself happens to be killed by moving pictures in a Paris cinema? Nobody before Tarantino hit on such an idea. The fourth issue is the problem of the German racism against Jews and Blacks, which is really a very good topic considering some actual revivals of the neo-Nazi subculture worldwide. And the fifth issue is the problem of a brilliant, intelligent, eloquent, polyglot, charming and well-mannered mass murderer in the character of the SS-colonel Hans Landa, standing here for some very famous Nazi monsters who managed to escape from the justice (e.g. Mengele), being a caricature who manages to learn eventually to use the expression “bingo!” properly – but in rather bizarre circumstances. Besides, Hans Landa seems to be kind of a cross between the sleuth living at 221B Baker Street and Michael Dobbs’ sinister politician Francis Urqhart from his bestselling novel “The House of Cards”, too. Even more so, the rest of the cast is brilliantly portraying many stereotypical roles that could have walked off from the set of any Sergio Leone’s films, or even from such films as “Dirty Dozen”, “Where Eagles Dare”, “The Eagle Has Landed” etc.
Furthermore, Tarantino seems to have made a film that approaches theater quality in some physically rather static scenes (e.g. while sitting at table) which grow to develop a total dynamics of verbal intelligence in performance (determining who is going to survive – depending on accents, verbal and non-verbal mistakes in one’s mother tongue and in foreign languages, depending on the ability to destroy one’s own traces before leaving important places, depending on the individual luck and destiny) with final deadly gun shootings. Somehow, we have here a film consisting of five partly varied, well-known drama parts: 1) the exposition showing the extermination of the Jewish family Dreyfus “In Nazi-occupied France”; 2) introduction to the Jewish Avengers in “Inglorious Basterds”, 3) intensification of tension in the “German Night in Paris”, 4) dramatic peripeteia in “Operation Kino” and finally 5) the Nazi defeat in the “Revenge of the Giant Face”. On the other hand, Tarantino’s film is a film about films, too. It is about films that are in conflict: the UFA film production of the Third Reich against Hollywood, Goebbels against Selznik. It is a film about film critics and their books.
The Nazi war hero films (e.g. “The Nation’s Pride”) stand against the Jewish expressionist films of the 1920s in the Weimar Republic. The chiaroscuro technique of the expressionist film poetics has been used by Tarantino intentionally. The verbal allusion of the bad Jewish boy called the “Bear Jew” or “Golem” is part of this intertextual playfulness in the film. Pabst is mentioned and Emil Jannings appears himself as a character in the movie fiction. Leni Riefenstahl, Max Linder, “King Kong” and Chaplin’s “The Kid” are part of Tarantino’s film text as well. Shoshana Dreyfus, the only one survived member of the whole Jewish family, collaborates with the Nazis as the owner of the host cinema for the German night under the name Emmanuelle Mimieux and acquires the appearances of the alleged collaborating actress Danielle Darrieux. Furthermore, Tarantino’s film is indirectly a film about propaganda hate films, too – like “The Eternal Jew” (directed by Fritz Hippler, 1940) – that have become part of the subconscious mind of people even in France: Perrier LaPadite decides to betray the Dreyfus family only after Hans Landa tells his story of rats (meaning Jews) that bring diseases and disasters. The savior of Jews becomes their traitor after Landa’s brainwashing and silently points him – although with tears in his eyes – their location in the cellar. This film is also a film about cutting films, changing them with new embedded, subversive film sequences. The film material itself (nitrate film prints) becomes finally the most important means of destroying the complete Nazi leadership.
Let us look finally on the film reception. The common denominator of most of the early reviews of this film was the fact that everyone praised the overwhelming performance of an Austrian born actor Christoph Waltz professing his brilliance in portraying the ingenious Hans Landa, and at the same time stating his mysterious anonymity to the outside world. Yet, this is hardly the truth. He was almost unknown to the English speaking world in a sense that it had almost never actually seen him perform. The majority of his roles were done for German TV movies, but anonymous he was certainly not. As a mater of fact, people would be surprised at the fact that he was considered a prodigy in his early acting days, the same way as Pitt was proclaimed to be Robert Redford of the “next generation/”
There is, however, one major difference between the two. Christoph Waltz is a classical actor, in a sense that he studied acting at the Max Reinhardt drama college in Vienna and the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute in New York (the same Lee Strasberg who taught Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and most of the 80’s and 90’s actors and actresses the art of method acting!) As such, Waltz, being a classically schooled actor, most certainly does have a wider range of craft techniques at his disposal, which he masterfully implores throughout this film. Pitt, on the other hand, has evolved as an actor, and carries himself with the same tenacity and charm of a young Frank Sinatra – a role he gallantly played in Soderbergh’s remake of “Ocean’s 11”. The two actors meet in an environment that serves as a catalyst of their conflict, designed not to tame and calm but to provoke and embellish reactions, sharpen senses and bring out the hidden qualities of both worlds. The film profits from their mutual exclusiveness and it is no wonder that Waltz ended up winning the Academy Award for the category best supporting actor, which puts him next to Emil Jannings, as only the second Austrian ever to receive this award. He will most surely go down in history as the man who breathed life into one of the intelligent, yet horrifying antagonists in modern cinema history, alongside with Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter or Perkins’ Norman Bates from “Psycho.”