The best scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is the first one.
A French dairy farmer is visited by an S.S. Colonel (Christoph Waltz). The colonel, ominously nicknamed the “Jew Hunter,” suspects the farmer of harboring Jews on his property. It turns out the farmer is, and they are cowering beneath the floorboards under the officer’s feet.
The scene is a masterpiece of aggrandizing tension, as the colonel manages to intimidate the farmer into providing the coordinates of the escaped Jews. The payoff to the scene is especially effective as it sets up events that will become crucial later in the film.
Nevertheless, the reason why this scene works so well and many others in the film do not is because it’s the only scene that seems to know exactly what impression it wants to leave the audience with.
Unfortunately, much of the movie plays like a pinball machine bouncing wildly between thriller, horror, humor, war-movie homage and farce. It never really stakes a claim in any direction.
The film stars Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine, a good-ole boy from Tennessee who assembles a squadron of Jewish soldiers for the purpose of “killin’ Nazi’s.” Since 1941, the Basterds, as they’re referred to, have made their way through France, killing German soldiers. They use either firearms or a baseball bat, and scalp the heads of the deceased, carving swastikas into the heads of survivors. Why? Because Raine wants the Nazi soldiers to be identified in civilian life after the war concludes.
Also launching her own campaign against the Nazi’s is Shosanna (Melanie Laurent). She owns the largest movie theater in town and is approached by a German officer to host a screening of a Nazi propaganda film. The guest list will include The Fuhrer himself, Adolph Hitler, played by Martin Wuttke in a clownish caricature. Shosanna agrees, but launches a plan to burn down the theater.
Anyone familiar with the previous work of writer/director Quentin Tarantino will recognize the familiar hallmarks of his style here-there’s a playful juxtaposition of humor and sensationalistic violence and snappy dialog. But while moral callousness is perhaps the most insistent staple of his films, it doesn’t work here. Instead, it’s at the service of a story inspired by one of the most unfortunate events in world history.
Tarantino never bothers to distinguish the Basterds either as individuals or as ethically superior to the Nazis. Several sequences of dialog go on for more than 10 minutes-but it’s never made clear why they were assembled, the reason behind their dangerous mission or whether their families are hostages of the Nazis.
Tarantino, though, does get some terrific performances from his cast.
Waltz is exceptionally good as the pragmatic colonel, an otherwise clichéd character-the menacing Nazi officer-but with charisma and sardonic wit. Laurent is both sympathetic and feisty as the Jewish theater owner. Pitt, in a mostly comedic performance, at least brings gusto to the role, if not much depth.
One sequence involves a meeting at a restaurant between Waltz and Laurent where the symbolic ordering of a glass of milk creates a level of heightened alarm. Both actors perform so well that you feel bad for them due to Tarantino’s anti-climactic conclusion to the scene.
Lost in all this is any sense of what Tarantino is really getting with this film. And once the ending comes and the bastards get what they have coming, it left me wondering what does it all mean and why should I care?