Inglourious Basterds ticks all the boxes for a film by Quentin Tarantino. Visceral violence, an inspired soundtrack, genre bent all out of shape, reams of crackling dialogue and a veritable love letter to Sergio Leone, The Dirty Dozen and the films of pre-war Germany? Check. But an award-winning performance? Now that's unusual. Samuel L Jackson as the Bible-spouting hitman in Pulp Fiction, and Robert Forster as the ageing bail bondsman in Jackie Brown, both received Best Supporting Actor nominations at the Oscars. But in general, Tarantino films don't receive their plaudits for their performances.
To many, Tarantino is not an actor's director. His only experience of theatre was starring in the reviled off-Broadway revival of Wait Until Dark, and while he occasionally takes ill-advised cameos in his films, you can be sure it's Tarantino the director that's always the star. Indeed, when we meet, at the Cannes Film Festival, he's wearing a tuxedo with a rose tucked in the lapel – at 10.30 in the morning. "I know they're going to take photos of me, so I'm going to look sassy," he says, with the vanity one normally associates with actors.
If the 46-year-old director is still hanging on to that celebrity status bestowed on ' him by his debut film, Reservoir Dogs, and its iconic, Palme d'Or-winning follow-up Pulp Fiction, it's by his fingertips. His last film, 2007's Death Proof, was a flop. But before the week of the festival is out, the Inglourious Basterds star Christoph Waltz (whom Tarantino dubs his "partner in crime") will take the Best Actor award. The veteran actor, little-known outside Germany and Austria, plays Colonel Hans Landa, a Nazi known as "the Jew Hunter" and what Waltz calls – with a hyperbolic flourish that matches Tarantino's own – "the part of the century".
If it's not quite that, Waltz's performance – in four languages – is certainly the compelling centrepiece of Tarantino's largest ensemble cast to date. Relishing every syllable of the dialogue, he eclipses the better-known players – notably Brad Pitt, starring as the leader of the titular group of US-Jewish mercenaries, whose plans to scalp Nazis collide with those of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), a Jewish cinema-owner seeking vengeance on Landa for murdering her family. The French starlet Laurent is another find. According to Tarantino, she "has that gift that only a few actors have: she can think a thought and you can see it on her face".
Marshalling an ensemble is something that the 46-year-old director has always excelled at, and throughout his career he has made a habit of resuscitating ailing careers – most recently, the late David Carradine in the martial arts double Kill Bill. But with his latest film, it's Tarantino's willingness to cast outside his Hollywood postcode that deserves praise: with Inglourious Basterds, he's taking risks on German stars such as Til Schweiger, August Diehl and Daniel Brühl. He also filmed at Berlin's Babelsberg Studios, because he "needed German faces" for extras.
Talking to the cast about their experiences with the director, two different Tarantinos emerge. There is the Tarantino we all know: the "living film dictionary", as Brühl calls him, who hosts movie nights. But there's also the generous, enthusiastic collaborator who empathises with the actor's craft. "He's not an instructor," says Waltz. "He doesn't tell you what to do. He asks your opinion about it, and then the moment the mood has developed, he directs." If this suggests a new maturity in Tarantino's work, it's further strengthened by the fact that he no longer wants to act himself. "I had the bug and I lost it," he grins. "And you know what? I'm happy to lose it."
'Inglourious Basterds' (18) opens on Friday
Star stories: The Basterds (and others) speak out
(Archie Hicox, a lieutenant in the British Army and a former film critic)
"I watched a lot of George Sanders' films, as he was Quentin's inspiration for the role of Hicox. My idea – and this is what I tried to do with Hicox – was that people spoke differently in the 1940s, and carried themselves differently, and held their cigarettes or glass of whiskey differently. Quentin said, 'You just let me know – anything you need to see, I'll sort it out.' So I just watched as many of The Saint films – the original ones with Sanders – as possible, over and over again in my trailer, and tried to zone in on the way he spoke, his mannerisms and physicalities."
(Lt Aldo Raine, leader of the Basterds)
"Quentin came to visit some time at the end of the summer [of 2008] with the script, and we talked about back-story and we talked about movies until the wee hours of the night. I got up the next morning, and I saw five empty bottles of wine laying on the floor. Five! And something that resembled a smoking apparatus – I don't know what that was about. And apparently I agreed to do the movie, because six weeks later, I was in uniform as Lt Aldo Raine. Go figure. Quentin had been working on the script for eight years, and he said that night, 'We're gonna make it for Cannes [May, 2009].' And this was August!"
(Bridget von Hammersmark, German movie star and a spy for the Basterds)
"Quentin had a lot of references, people that inspired my character – not necessarily German. He showed me, I think, about 20 movies from the period that I'd never heard of, featuring women who inspired him. Ilona Massey was one. She was a Hungarian actress who came to Hollywood and made a couple of B-movies. He told me he fell in love with her when he was little.
"I was trying to avoid being a Marlene Dietrich-like clone. That would've been the obvious choice. Also, Marlene was a little tough and hard. What Quentin always told me about my character's background is that she stayed during the war and was adored by the German public, whereas Marlene left, and a lot of the German public held that against her."
(Fredrick Zoller, a young German war hero who stars in 'Nation's Pride')
"Quentin can tell you everything you could ever want to know about
a movie. He remembers everything; he has the brain of an elephant. He can tell you who was the supporting actor in a 1930s Czechoslovakian B-movie. But he also knows everything about the period [of Inglourious Basterds] and about the history of the conflict. He's not exploiting the subject. He's not making fun. The negative reaction [to the film's historical revisionism] has come from the extreme right, from neo-fascists on internet blogs, saying 'Oh, they're making fun of the Nazis.' So there are certain areas in Germany that I will probably not go to in the near future, and some parts around Berlin I won't visit. But I'm not afraid of the reactions."
(Shosanna Dreyfus, a vengeful French-Jewish girl bequeathed a Parisian cinema)
"When I found out that I got the part, I was in the middle of the street in Paris, just screaming and crying. Then the production told me I had to be in Los Angeles in two days to start learning how to project a movie. It was a crazy day. Quentin wanted me to learn how to project a movie – on modern machines at first, then older ones. So I was at his house, with a guy who taught me. And at the end of the 10 days, my task was to project, in a real cinema, Reservoir Dogs. All seven reels – which means six changeovers. A real audience all bought tickets and didn't know I was alone in the projection booth! The idea was to have the feeling of what it is to do a changeover under pressure."
(Col Hans Landa, a Nazi officer who arranges the premiere of the propaganda film 'Nation's Pride' at Shosanna's cinema)
"We had movie nights on set every Thursday night. You had beer, popcorn, hot dogs, nachos... all of the nasty, greasy stuff that you can buy in a movie theatre. We were in Babelsberg Studios and they have this fabulous movie theatre there, equipped for everything. Quentin has a collection of 35mm prints and he had them shipped over to screen them. Then he gave these little introductory speeches before each screening, which, as you can imagine, were fantastic performances. He showed two Hong Kong movies, for example, and he was talking about the people who made them as if they were all cousins and uncles – his family. The movies... some of them I knew, some of them I didn't. But it was Quentin's introductions that really hooked me."
(Sgt Donny Donowitz, the Basterd known as 'The Bear Jew')
"As I'm one of his closest friends – and I'm Jewish – I became a sounding board for Quentin, especially with the Shosanna character. He'd say, 'How would a Jewish person feel about this? Could they forgive? Would they want vengeance?' I said, 'Quentin, if you really want to get a good insight into Jewish psychology, you should come to a Seder [the evening service held by Jews to mark the Passover festival] at my house.' We tell the story of how we were slaves in Egypt, really to talk about the history of the Jews. My father's a psychoanalyst, and Quentin and he started talking about things, and it really helped him get an insight into Shosanna."