“The German will be sickened by us, the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us.”
In Inglourious Basterds, director/screenwriter Quentin Tarantino presents his 153-minute WWII story in five chapters (the first chapter title is his original title for the film). The story centers on a special film event within the plot more than the rag-tag group of Nazi killers named The Basterds. Most of the soldiers in this group are Jewish-American with a few international exceptions.
Brad Pitt plays group leader Lt. Aldo Raine, descendant of Jim Bridger, an Apache resistance warrior. Aldo uses his famous genealogy as license to scalp Nazi victims. His even-keeled, Southern charm and signature neck mark work well with Pitt’s now considerable comedic talents.
The hero has some formidable adversaries on the other side. Christophe Waltz has a star-making role as Nazi Col. Hans Landa, the incredibly observant and intelligent “Jew Hunter” who drives the plot and delivers his dialogue well. “Because I'm aware what tremendous feats human beings are capable of once they abandon dignity,” says Landa while talking to Frenchman Perrier LaPadite, well played by Denis Menochet, in the memorable beginning sequence. Landa makes audiences nervous like Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell Robbie did in Jackie Brown, but Landa boasts more intellect as he consistently interrogates every subject he meets.
The more physical threat is Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom, played by August Diehl. Both Nazi officers are intelligent threats who would make crack detectives in any other situation. In the obvious hero-villain scenarios, their Nazi association creates fear based on audience knowledge, not what the Third Reich does on the screen, which is very minimal. Tarantino puts this film in the hands of his characters, not history, though audiences can easily spot several historical characters from various nations.
French actress Melanie Laurent delivers a standout performance as Shosanna Dreyfus, a French cinema manager who meets Fredrick Zoller, played by Daniel Bruhl, who’s a cinema fan, an admirer of Shosanna’s, and also a Nazi officer. Their predictably complicated relationship fits perfectly into the plot. Bruhl’s casting is adept (echoing a bit of Tobey Maguire) as he creates a reluctant, yet unapologetic character. African actor Jacky Ido has a small but significant role as Marcel, Shosanna’s assistant.
Hostel writer/director Eli Roth fits right into the violence as Sgt. Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. “The Bear Jew.” The Basterds love watching him do his work on the Nazis, which involves a baseball bat. “It’s the closest to movies we get,” says Raine about Donowitz. Besides his love of baseball, audiences get limited character background, as Donowitz mainly engages in some intense action, including the indelible climax sequence with fellow Basterd Pfc. Omar Ulmer, played by Omar Doom. Roth also utilizes his filmmaking skills in the third act’s short film.
Til Schweiger plays Nazi defector Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz. He gets a great introduction and even better background story as the film switches gears a bit into modern times. The Basterds recruit him and Cpt. Wilhelm Wicki, played by Gedeon Burkhard, to “go pro” and get payback on their former allies. B.J. Novak has a small but notable role as Basterd team member Pfc. Smithson Utivich while Mike Myers reflects the British Allies’ role in a key sequence as General Ed Fenech who briefs Lt. Archie Hicox, played by Michael Fassbender, on a special mission.
Diane Kruger plays famous German actress Bridget von Hammersmark and Sylvester Groth plays Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels who makes Nazi films with the help of his assistant Francesca Modino, played by Julie Dreyfus. Adolf Hitler is played by Martin Wuttke, who actually played Joseph Goebbels in the 2003 German film Rosenstrasse. Richard Sammel also has a short, memorable role as Sgt. Werner Rachtman, who crosses paths with The Basterds.
Samuel L. Jackson provides some entertaining narration while Harvey Keitel voices one of Raine’s superiors. Even Bo Svenson, who starred in the loosely based 1978 source film Inglorious Bastards (a.k.a. Quel maledetto treno blindato), gets a cameo as an American colonel.
Tarantino mostly retains his crew, which includes editor Sally Menke, cinematographer Robert Richardson, and production designer David Wasco. The screenplay would have more appeal with an increased focus on The Basterds while the director works wonders with his material. His doorway shot in the beginning sequence echoes great Westerns like The Searchers while great point-of-view angles and a top angled tracking shot of Shosanna entering the theater lobby makes audiences forget about the film's considerable length. The only notable edit would be an unnecessary flashback that repeats a sequence between Landa and an escapee.
Tarantino optimizes background noises (leather, clocks, and cows), language subtitles, and close-up shots (love that cream and strudel), but lacks in his usual stellar music choices, which seem a bit erratic mainly due to the time period. David Bowie’s driving song “Cat People” just feels misplaced in the third act while a Western theme music bit sounds similar to another Tarantino film. German cinema fans will enjoy the Emil Jannings appearance and other references.
Tarantino includes several crowd-pleasing elements and considerations throughout the plot including a fictional Nazi regime "endgame" scenario that every Allied soldier might imagine at that time. After seeing this film, will audiences celebrate this scenario? What lasting lessons will leave the theater with them? This film definitely warrants a high recommendation and creates a unique cinematic experience, which keeps people talking, especially about a few open-ended elements like what happened to LaPadite's three daughters. Rated R for strong graphic violence, menace, language, and brief sexuality.