What’s to Like about “Inglourious Basterds”?

I didn’t see Inglourious Basterds in the theater. It sat in my Amazon Video on Demand queue until last night.

I know it was a popular nominee for various Academy Awards recently. But I haven’t read any reviews and I’m not sure I ever saw a trailer. That’s all for the good. I didn’t know what to expect, and that surely made seeing the movie a better experience.

How to classify this film?

This is one of the first challenges for talking meaningfully about it. I’m feeling lazy at the moment, so I’ll sort it into a narrow pigeon hole and call it a Tarantino film. That is what it is, of course. QT directed. But his creation is unique. Who would have imagined it, to say nothing of created it, except Tarantino? And who would have pulled it off so that people would want to see it, enjoy it, and consider it the sophisticated work of art it is? (Well, I can’t really say what most others think of the film, since I’ve been careful not to find out.)

What’s to like about Inglourious Basterds?

To begin, its mix of realism and surrealism. I imagine that sentiment among French Jews during German occupation is plausibly captured here: fear, smoldering antipathy, determination to exact retribution, high-stakes strategies to outmaneuver the Germans. On the other hand, an OSS Lieutenant from Tennessee whose tactics emulate the methods of Apache Indians, replete with scalping? An SS officer who is conveniently fluent in four languages, whose antics combine comedy and the macabre, and who wants to “make a deal” that is a frequent motif in the TV series 24? And, speaking of motifs, the peculiarly effective device of marking Nazis with a permanent signifier that will guarantee post-war ignominy? The combination of the real and the surreal works to make this a genuinely entertaining movie.

Its quasi-spoof texture. Is this a spoof? Sure it is. It’s more imitation than reality, and this effect is exaggerated through its unusual implementation of humor. But how to compare it with other spoofs in the film world? Blazing Saddles it isn’t. It lies closer to that other Western caricature, Support Your Local Sheriff, but still an infinite distance away. Inglourious Basterds isn’t cornball comedy. It isn’t really sentimental. But what happens didn’t happen. And the way what didn’t happen happens is frequently humorous.

Its oddly-framed humor. Yes, this is a kind of understated humor. The subject matter insists on this. But the humor works through its contrast with the seriousness of themes and historical facts. And what amuses here does so in part because, when we come to think of it, most of what happens could have happened. We may experience dissonance at first. “This is too hilarious to be real. But it could have been that way. And there must have been moments like this.”

Its hero. Is he for real? Brad Pitt’s character plainly can’t fake Italian. But is he faking when he speaks with that southern drawl? Who really talks like that? And who juts his jaw out and curls his lip like that, into a kind of rigid contortion that sits there on his face throughout the movie? How did he really come by his fascination with scalps, and his enthusiasm for collecting them—in the 20th century? (Traces of Pitt’s role in Legends of the Fall.) Is he as brilliant as he must be for his exploits to succeed if he seems like such a dolt?

Its other characters. Hitler, looking least like Hitler than any modern film representation of him I’ve seen; Hitler, playing a tertiary role in the plot, but significant to its outcome. A young French woman, a Jew, with a chance to take revenge, courageously choking down her nausea to keep her wits. A black man working as the projectionist in a Parisian film theater. A famed film actress from Germany, in cahoots with the allies to end Hitler’s menace. A young German war hero who is mysteriously nice, almost to the bitter end. A Scottish spy who makes a simple and fatal mistake. A rural farmer, whose tortured character is disclosed so meticulously in the opening sequences, but who is never heard or seen from again after the stage has been set. The “Basterds,” who play havoc with the German psyche.

Its plot. The familiar elements of Inglourious Basterds are cliché. Jews hidden beneath the farmhouse planks. Shamelessly cruel Nazi occupiers. The connivance of French beauties. But these clichés enrich the film. They set in relief what is novel and original. And what is novel and original is the interweaving of these familiar elements with a plot that deliberately distorts reality, right down to the ending.

Its script and the individual performances. The SS officer is a most enigmatic character. Alternately playful and stern, always sly and suspicious, he has all the best lines. He makes us laugh as we simmer with hatred toward him. He is both believable and unbelievable. The beautiful French theater owner is haunted. Her “interview” with the SS officer over pastries reveals this actor’s talent for near-comedic facial expressions that make us feel her discomfort and disgust, and that makes us appreciate her delicate challenge to remain poised. The equally beautiful actress, so natural in her “uniform” as society-girl-cum-secret-agent. (Diane Kruger’s performance is impressive during the tense scenes in the bar, but a bit disappointing in the later scenes. Kruger in the more serious aspect of her role here is more engaging than in her roles in National Treasure 2 and Joyeaux Noël.)

Its revisionism. Not knowing in advance the outcome of this story was crucial to my enjoyment of the film. I liked it that I didn’t know what to expect as things unfolded, that I lacked confidence in all my conjectures about what would happen next, where things were leading. So often I feel that there isn’t enough mystery in contemporary films.

So I liked the film, for these and other reasons.

About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

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