A while ago, Bryan Ferry put his elegantly shod hoof in his mouth by commenting approvingly that the Nazis “knew how to put themselves in the limelight and present themselves”. Now Quentin Tarantino has managed to find something about the Nazis that he too can relate to: some of them could talk the hind legs off a donkey.
Tarantino’s war adventure Inglourious Basterds has more than a few arresting characteristics, not least that spelling. But if there’s one pressing reason to see the film, it is SS
Colonel Hans Landa, cinema’s most garrulous baddie since Blofeld last treated 007 to his unabridged musings on world domination. Played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, Landa is a voluble smoothie for whom “Raus! Schnell!” just doesn’t hit the spot. In the opening sequence, shot like a Sergio Leone remake of Jean de Florette, Landa relaxes into an extended monologue as he puts the chills on a terse French farmer. While the farmer gets in only the occasional murmur, Landa holds forth calmly, suavely and with alarming bonhomie for a full 15 minutes, before his purpose becomes horribly apparent.
Waltz’s extraordinary performance is a portrait less of evil’s banality than of its affability. His poised polyglot – in a neat gag, effortlessly slipping from subtitled French into multiplex-friendly English – takes childish pride in his nickname the “Jew Hunter”, and produces a huge Alpine pipe to trump the farmer’s humble briar. I can’t remember when I last saw an actor have so much fun with a part, nor an unknown (Waltz is a seasoned journeyman of German TV) establishing his star credentials so decisively.
He isn’t the only standout. Inglourious Basterds is winningly generous: nominal star Brad Pitt is just one player in a large ensemble cast, mostly of mid-ranking or obscure European names, many of whom get their turn to grandstand. It is also an unexpected film in structural terms. The rumour was that Tarantino would make his ideal Second World War movie, but he hasn’t quite. What he’s done is to imagine his ideal Second World War movie, then come up with a series of extracts from it: sample scenes from a theoretical film that he hasn’t actually made.
Inglourious Basterds comprises five chapters, each containing at least one extended tableau in which characters talk till they’re blue in the face – sometimes mesmerisingly, sometimes less so. For better or worse, it’s clear that when Quentin’s around, his patron Harvey Weinstein won’t allow a blue pencil in the building.
Tarantino’s last effort, Death Proof, was also verbose, but it didn’t begin to resemble a film. Here, however, the dramatic turns combine so that you all but fail to notice that there isn’t really a full-blown action movie here. Ostensibly, the story concerns a squad of Jewish American commandos, under the command of hillbilly lieutenant Aldo Raine (Pitt), their mission to enter occupied France and collect Nazi scalps. The film’s supposed heroes feature in chapters two and five, but that’s about it. Apart from the baseball-bat-wielding Donny Donowitz, feared in Germany as the “Bear Jew” (Hostel director Eli Roth, resembling a feral fourth Beastie Boy), the Basterds barely register as characters.
Tarantino is more interested in Shoshanna (the characterful Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who escapes Landa’s clutches, then turns up in Paris wearing a gamine cap and arranging the lettering on a cinema marquee. She’s clearly Quentin’s perfect woman: feisty French chick and, heh heh, owns a movie theatre. Among other featured parts, Diane Kruger is German film star Bridget von Hammersmark – Teutonic as the Lohengrin overture, but an agent for the Allies, flirtatiously regal in a feathered hat. Michael Fassbender, channelling the shades of Niven and Colman, is a dashing British officer who in Civvy Street was the author of a study of German director G W Pabst.
Yes, Tarantino is as obsessively cinephilic as ever, only he’s now traded pop-culture disposables for the loftier climes of European film history. There are references to Goebbels’s UFA studios, to the “mountain film” genre, to Leni Riefenstahl and Emil Jannings. Many references will mean little to Tarantino’s pulp-core constituency, which is fine: let them Google “Henri-Georges Clouzot” and get an education.
Apart from the tireless gabble, there are few Tarantino “touches”: at one point, he spells out a character’s name in big yellow letters, and throws in anuncredited Samuel L Jackson voice-over and a snippet of 1970s funk to temper the lashings of borrowed Ennio Morricone. But this seems done half-heartedly, just to remind us who’s directing. Largely, it’s all played moderato: we know that a scene in a cellar bar must eventually explode in violence, but Tarantino keeps us waiting a long time, giving us what could almost be a one-act play, as the characters play a film-buff guessing game.
Come the outrageous wish-fulfilment climax, you start checking your watch, all the more so as the finale is botched. Pitt and two other Basterds infiltrate a Nazi gala premiere posing as Italians, and suddenly we seem to be watching one of those creaky war farces in which the Germans had to endure the laborious buffoonery of comics like Louis de Funès in France, or the Crazy Gang in Britain. And Pitt’s performance is the film’s worst liability: this cartoonish turn might have passed muster in a Coens comedy but misfires here.
The violence is genuinely grisly: it’s not so much the sight of the scalpings as the sound effects that makes you wince. But you can’t say it’s gratuitous: think of the film as a hybrid between ’Allo ’Allo! and Sam Peckinpah’s Cross of Iron, and you know what to expect. For all its prolix shapelessness, Inglourious Basterds displays a perversely coherent vision. Personally, I wearied of Tarantino’s breathless shtick long ago, but I must admit I enjoyed Inglourious Basterds more than anything he’s done in years. Say what you like, he knows how to put himself in the limelight.