The signs were not good.
After killjoying the exploitation film into submission with Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino looked like he was going to do to WW2 movies what Zed did to Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction.
A supposed remake of Enzo Castellari’s 1978 Dirty Dozen rip-off with an eyebrow-raising cast (Mike Myers? Eli Roth?) and a worrying whiff of historical revisionism, Basterds could have ended up part indie Where Eagles Dare and part ultraviolent ’Allo ’Allo.
In fact, the irrepressible iconoclast has pulled off a real coup, cramming his auteur obsessions (feet, food, films, Mexican stand-offs) into a triumphant ensemble piece that plays with artifice and authenticity, doing justice to both.
Brad Pitt and his scalp-hunting mercenaries may be the poster boys, but they’re also a knowing exploitation cliché, gleefully inserted into the convincing clash between plucky Jewish cinema owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) and her chillingly courteous Nazi nemesis Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, who won Best Actor at Cannes).
For authenticity, the Euro-all-star cast (featuring alumni from Black Book and The Counterfeiters among others) speak in their mother tongues throughout, while Nazi film posters (examined in Elvis Mitchell’s excellent featurette) both echo and subvert their historical inspirations.
In terms of artifice, catchy nicknames (Waltz is ‘The Jew Hunter’, Roth, ‘The Bear Jew’) and in-jokes abound (two QT regulars have cheeky vocal cameos), Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’ battles Bowie, and the director’s cinephilia sings from every frame.
No jabber-track from Tarantino but a reasonable sprawl of extras. Veteran Aussie actor Rod Taylor (who plays Churchill) tells grandfatherly anecdotes, Castellari gets a featurette salute, Roth gets together with Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), three cut scenes add nothing but length, and an amiable round-table chat sees Tarantino describe WW2 as “the last time a whole bunch of white people killed a whole bunch of white people”. Meanwhile, Waltz declares: “Tarantino has killed the German Nazi film for all time…” Or perhaps he’s reinvented it.
Switching expertly from comedy to drama, silliness to suspense, pulp to poetry, Basterds allows, in QT’s words, a generation of Germans to “tap dance on the guilt” without the sensationalism some predicted (Hitler’s rewritten fate notwithstanding…).
Or, as original Bastard Bo Svensson says in fab film-within-a-film (and best extra) Nation’s Pride: “I’m not going to be the son of a bitch responsible for turning [1,000 years of] history into dust!”
Epic, maverick, one-of-akind, Inglourious Basterds is anything but dry.
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