I saw Inglourious Basterds last night. SPOILER ALERT: I wouldnt say the following comments are spoiler-heavy, but they certainly do contain spoilers. Read on at your own peril.
So, I liked it a lot. There werent too many surprises, since Id read the script that was leaked a while back (a script that was, incidentally, so filled with spelling errors that I can see why some early readers assumed that the spelling Inglourious Basterds was simply one more typo rather than a deliberate choice), and apart from some alterations to the climax, there were very few changes that werent simply cuts (mainly excising what little backstory the script gave some of the characters, particularly Dreyfus and Donowitz). One bit I was sorry to see cut was an exchange between Dreyfus and Hirschberg where each of them is supposed to be thinking sadly that theyre about to cause the death of the other; but its hard to know whether the intended subtext would have come across. (Tarantino also abandoned his plans to have the third chapter in New Wave black and white, which seems a pity; Im glad, though, that he didnt decide to do the fifth chapter in black and white, which would have interfered with the presentation of the Reddest Dress That Ever Existed which for some reason looks maroon in most of the stills Ive seen, but not in the movie.)
There are the usual Tarantinoesque cultural references; many of them are to early German cinema this time around, but there are more familiar ones too such as the films opening scene, which is a direct tribute to the farmhouse scene in Sergio Leones The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (The original Leone scene starts at 4:30 in this video and skipping just a bit continues through 2:25 in this one. I suspect that the later scene in Inglourious Basterds where the American soldiers are pretending, extremely incompetently, to be Italian was a self-mocking reference to Tarantinos attempt to emulate Leone.) Landa the Jew Hunter smokes a calabash pipe a reference, appropriately enough, to the cinematic version of Sherlock Holmes, not the literary one. And of course theres the closest thing the film has to a main character, Shoshanna Dreyfus (whose last name makes her an iconic representation of French victims of anti-Semitism), assuming the identity of Emmanuelle Mimieux (a name that combines two cinematic sex symbols).
Ive heard some Tarantino fans worrying that audiences who come expecting a Brad-Pitt-centric, warfare-centric movie might be disappointed upon encountering a movie that devotes most of its time to unknown (to Americans) actors having tense conversations in subtitled French or German; but judging from the enthusiastic reaction of last nights audience, I suspect this movie is going to do very well and the excellent Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, in particular, arent going to remain unknowns for long.
The movie has been accused of trivialising both World War II and the Holocaust; the New Yorker, for example, laments that Tarantino, in mucking about with a tragic moment of history and treating the Nazis as merely available movie tropes, is appallingly insensitive a Louisville Slugger applied to the head of anyone who has ever taken the Nazis, the war, or the Resistance seriously. Given that were talking about a medium that has given us The Great Dictator, To Be Or Not To Be, Dr. Strangelove, Hogans Heroes, The Producers, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (to say nothing of Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS) all of which treat the Nazis somewhat less seriously than Tarantino does I find it odd that Tarantino is singled out specifically here; Nazis have been merely available movie tropes for the past seventy years. And if recent years have seen some especially serious and somber takes on the period (Schindlers List and The Reader, for example), theyve also seen Hellboy (fantasy action-adventure) and Mein Führer (comedy).
In any case, the New Yorker review seems to have a bit of a tin ear; it describes the movie as disconnected from feeling (says who?), and claims that Waltzs character, Hans Landa, exudes the kind of insinuating menace characteristic of Nazis in old Warner Bros. movies a description that might apply to Hellstrom (the SS officer who invites himself to the Basterds table in the basement tavern) but is rather off the mark for Landa, whose goofy, giddy style, while certainly menacing, is strikingly different from that of the stereotypical movie Nazi.
One objection youd expect to see raised against this film, particularly in light of recent political circumstances, is that it condones the torturing and killing of POWs. Im actually somewhat depressed that I havent seen that criticism; nevertheless, Im not convinced that the charge sticks. I cant see that the film condones the Basterds actions; admittedly it doesnt condemn them either, and certainly the audience I saw it with last night were cheering their heads off in those scenes but I think one would have to have a tin ear to think Tarantino wants us to find the Basterds unproblematically heroic. (For one thing, he provides a useful foil for them in the much more civilised Hicox, the British lieutenant; though they are also foils for him, of course.) In any case, in all his films Tarantino tends to take a rather Shakespearean attitude toward most of his characters presenting them with all their virtues and vices, without telling us exactly how were supposed to weigh them up.
A lot of people have been saying that this is a movie about cinema, which is true; but more specifically its about acting. Nearly all the major characters in the film are putting on a false front, pretending (with degrees of success varying from impressive to abysmal) to be something theyre not with the most extreme case being the SS officer Landa (a phenomenal performance from Waltz), who oozes from one persona to another so effortlessly as to make us wonder whether there even is any real identity underlying all the masks. Landas early speech about why he likes being called the Jew Hunter, and his later speech about why he doesnt like it, both serve his interests in the relevant contexts, but leave us unsure what his sincere reaction, should he be capable of such a thing, might be. Disturbingly, the closest thing we get to a moment of sincerity from Landa just might be the scene where he flies into a rage and strangles … someone. (Still trying not to be too spoilerrific.)
Tarantino symbolically highlights this emphasis on role-playing and disguise through the game the characters play in the basement tavern, where people who are hiding their true identities from others also wear cards on their foreheads representing further identities (most of them, appropriately enough, cinema-related including Pola Negri, incidentally the subject of Ayn Rands first publication) that are known to others but not to themselves. In addition, the Nazi war hero Zoller plays himself in the movie-within-a-movie about his military exploits, prompting the question of how far he is also playing himself in real life; when, near the end, he morphs from his usual modest, unassuming demeanour to something nastier and more arrogant, are we suddenly seeing the real Zoller? Or are they both the real Zoller?
More generally, there are aspects of most of the characters that are hidden not just from one another but from us; we learn surprisingly little about the motivations of many of them. Why is Hammersmark working for the British? (Landa implies shes doing it for money, but he is not exactly a reliable source.) Why did Stiglitz start killing his officers? What drives Raines and Donowitzs sadistic rage? Why does Landa strangle the person he strangles? And why does Landa let Dreyfus escape from the farmhouse? (In the script he gives a little speech, cut from the movie version, thats supposed to explain the latter decision, but it doesnt, really.) I dont find the movies failure to provide a definitive answer to these questions a flaw, necessarily; its just one more instance of the masks-within-masks theme.
Another unanswered question is whether Landa knows, or suspects, that Mimieux the theatre owner is the same person as Dreyfus the escaped Jew. His offering her milk (her parents were milk farmers), and his telling her that he had something else to ask her that hes forgotten, suggest he does know and is playing cat-and-mouse with her. And it certainly makes for a more dramatic story if he does recognise her. But given that he could barely have glimpsed her blood-and-mud-soaked face for more than a second or two when he first met her three years earlier, its unclear what his basis could be for identifying her. I dont mean this as a criticism; our anxiety and uncertainty about how much Landa knows mirrors Dreyfuss.
This does bring me to a criticism, however: given how skilled a detective Landa is supposed to be, it would have been nice to see him do a bit more difficult detecting. You dont have to be Sherlock Holmes to see through Raines Italian accent or to recognise Hammersmarks signature on the napkin. (It would be better if hed found only her shoe and not her napkin as well, and then put two and two together later when he saw her leg in a cast. Still, the movie version is better than the script version, where Landa just learns everything from an eyewitness and does no detecting at all.)
Another criticism: Raine doesnt seem to know (I wonder whether Tarantino knows?) the difference between a Nazi uniform and a mere German uniform. He also doesnt seem to realise that theres an easy way to disguise a swastika-shaped scar: just extend it into a box. Why do you have a grid carved into your forehead? is a less awkward question than Why do you have a swastika carved into your forehead?