A decade in the making, Quentin Tarantino’s World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds conclusively answers questions that have hounded the filmmaker in recent years.
Does Tarantino still have the revolutionary directorial voice he displayed in his debut, Reservoir Dogs? Is he still capable of presenting a familiar genre from a startingly fresh perspective, a knack he had demonstrated with the game-changing, non-linear crime drama Pulp Fiction? Were the depth and maturity he had shown in his restrained, character-driven Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown just a one-shot deal, overridden by his passion for trash cinema?
Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger
(The Weinstein Company; US theatrical: 21 Aug 2009 (General release); UK theatrical: 19 Aug 2009 (General release); 2009)
The answers are yes, yes and maybe—but if he keeps making movies as good as Basterds, then who cares?
The critical grumblings around Tarantino began with the two-part magnum opus Kill Bill, in which he seemed to compress every chopsocky flick and revenge B-picture he had ever seen into one gigantic sprawl. The complaints got louder with Death Proof, Tarantino’s contribution to a three-hour double feature titled Grindhouse in which he and director Robert Rodriguez paid homage to the tawdry 1970s exploitation movies that had influenced their craft.
But neither the public nor critics shared the filmmakers’ enthusiasm. Grindhouse bombed when it was released in April 2007, a lackluster follow-up to the profitable but coolly received Kill Bill Vol. 2. Suspicions arose that Tarantino had gotten lost in the junk-movie obsessions of his youth and was no longer relevant to the ordinary filmgoer.
The skepticism continues. Even though Inglourious Basterds received an 11-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and earned Christoph Waltz the Best Actor prize for his portrayal of Nazi Col. Hans Landa, a self-proclaimed “Jew hunter”, critical reaction to the film was mixed, the most extreme complainers branding it “an armor-plated turkey” and “a misfire”.
The naysayers were wrong. Long, talky and utterly engrossing from the first scene, Inglourious Basterds is thrilling, invigorating filmmaking. This is Tarantino’s best movie since Jackie Brown and a return to form for a director whose contemporary, big-city sensibilities had never hinted at a knack for a period war picture.
The combination sounds odd on paper but works like gangbusters on the screen.
“When I sat down to write Reservoir Dogs, I just wanted to do a heist movie,” Tarantino says from Los Angeles. “Here it was, ‘I’d like to do a movie about a bunch of guys on a mission, but it has to be ‘really cool.’ I’m counting on the fact that I’ll be working in this specific genre and that I will expand it and blow it up to some degree, while still offering the pleasures of that genre. So it was never about ‘Let’s do a World War II movie Quentin’s way.’ It’s more ‘Let’s do a guys-on-a-mission movie,’ and the Quentin part will happen on its own.’”
Unlike the fun but self-indulgent Death Proof, which at times felt like a movie primarily designed for its creator to enjoy, Tarantino approached “Basterds” with the zeal of a first timer.
“On Death Proof, it was like a party: We had fun, and we all goofed off, and the movie didn’t work as well as his other films,” says Hostel director Eli Roth, a friend and collaborator who acted in Death Proof and plays one of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers assigned by their commanding officer (Brad Pitt) to bring back the scalps of 100 dead Nazis.
“By comparison, Basterds was like a military operation,” Roth says. “Quentin was like a general on the set. He was very serious and very focused. He was on the set full time. He didn’t even have a trailer. There were no cellphones on the set, no chairs, no monitors. We were there to make a movie, “for” the love of movies, and the fun came in getting our shots right.”
Aside from the Basterds’ exploits and Landa’s heinous crimes, the complex screenplay also interweaves the story of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French-Jewish theater owner in Paris eager to avenge the slaughter of her family, and a German actress (Diane Kruger) helping the Americans’ cause. Tarantino insisted that all the actors be of the same nationality as their characters, and more than half of the dialogue is in French and German, with English subtitles.
“Quentin doesn’t speak French or German, but that doesn’t mean he can’t direct actors who are speaking it,” says the Austrian-born Waltz. “He has this immense ability to pick things up. He would give me direction, and I would stand there with my mouth open sometimes, asking him ‘How did you know that?’ It didn’t bother him that the words being used weren’t familiar, because he’s concerned with what is happening “behind” the words.”
Here is more from Tarantino on his decision to rewrite world history with Inglourious Basterds and the critical reaction to his recent films.
One of the most surprising things about Basterds is that it is a war movie with not much action. And when the action arrives, it is in potent, shocking little bursts. They’re like Altoids of action, curiously strong.
(laughs) That was actually intentional. I wasn’t interested in dealing with American soldiers and German soldiers on battlefields fighting each other. I was more interested in the human dramas that can happen. If you look at that old TV show Combat!, that’s what they went for. Because it was a TV show, they couldn’t afford to have seven tanks coming over the hill every week. So it would be “Sgt. Saunders is in a cave, and he comes across a German soldier, and a shelling happens, and they’re both trapped in the cave. And as they’re digging themselves out, Saunders finds out the German killed one of his friends. But they still need each other to survive.”