When I went into the movie theater in my Quentin Tarantino t-shirt and anti-nazi jacket, I was putting together an apology for writing a non-perfect review for a film by a man whom I consider to be one of the absolute masters of modern cinema. Because, it goes without saying that a movie with mixed reviews from Cannes like this cannot be perfect.
How absolutely stunned and delighted I was to find that both I, and several other film critics, had been wrong. The opening titles were typical of a Tarantino film, with a distinct 70s feel so prominent in his previous work. The title of the first chapter of the opus, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi Occupied France”, brought a knowledgeable laugh from some of the more film-savvy members of the audience, which was perhaps not fitting with the general mood of the opening scene. After this, however, the ride was a flawless one.
Right off the bat, we have an extended dialogue scene, one in which seemingly inane small-talk is spoken by masterfully picked, and very genuine actors. While in Pulp Fiction, however, such a scene merely lead up to a more threatening one, this extended dialogue was merely concealing an artfully intense undercurrent, as we are revealed the true intent of the characters, and their positions. The play with various languages used by the characters does not come off as gimmicky. Instead, international misunderstanding is masterfully used as a source of tension throughout the film, as a way of keeping characters without knowledge of the language painfully in the dark until a climactic moment.
Overall, the eponymous basterds are not given nearly the screen time one would think. This may come as a surprise when one considers how synonymous Tarantino’s name had become with Americana. This, however, is a stroke of absolute brilliance, managing to bring a War World II movie into a modern context, one in which Americans are no longer viewed solely as saviors of Europe. Indeed, the basterds’ role in the final act is near redundant, and their attempts at foreign language are hilarious. This, however, does not detract from the undeniable swagger of the characters. Regardless what else one might say about him, Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine is an absolute master of one-liners. One could say that he is a sort of import into this very European film, along with his tribe of nazi-hunters. The true residents of the Tarantino-verse being dropped behind enemy lines in Nazi-occupied France to wreak havoc, which is something they are good at no matter how bad they may be at Italian. Eli Roth’s character of ‘the bear Jew” is executed with a chilling amount of pleasure, which is both undeniably fitting for the character, and not very surprising when it comes from the director of the infamous Hostel. Probably the most common hypothetical use for a time machine is gunning down Hitler, and this man does it in the blazing glory of fury that the Jewish character – scratch that, the entire world – deserves.
The surprising self-denial of Americana is also understandable considering that the films that have inspired Tarantino’s often exaggerated estimations of American life come from European masters of cinema, such as Sergio Leone. In this light, Lt. Raine’s bumbling attempts at Italian are revealing, particularly when one considers the fact that his character often acts directly as a voice for Tarantino himself.
The German and French characters, however, provide a level of sophistication unparalleled in other Tarantino films. The performance by Christoph Waltz is absolutely breathtaking. The intellectual SS officer nicknamed Jew Hunter is almost an appealing character, despite also being only one of two nazis with any in-depth character development. While being an absolute credit to the writing, it could not have been pulled off by just any actor by a long shot. <SPOILERS> His final decision, therefore, to change sides is not a surprising one, despite my initial reaction of disbelief and discontent at the twist. Besides the obvious Nazi factor, the most dislikable, quality of the character is the incessant inclination towards theatricality, which inspires in him both the cruelty to brutally murder a family a Jews, and gallantly allow their daughter to escape. His final faith, therefore, reveals a somewhat weak man – one whose entire manner depends on a position of power. </SPOILERS>
The other nazi with any true depth is Fredrick Zoller, played by Daniel Brühl. This war hero, starring in a film about his own war escapades, is torn between his successful career as a nazi, and his humanity. The conflict comes to the head in a climax between him and a Jewish woman whom he desperately loves, and who only shows the slightest hint of affection for him after his demise.
This finally brings us to probably the truest protagonist of the film – Shosanna Dreyfus, “the face of Jewish vengeance”, played masterfully by Melanie Laurent. A strong female lead in a Tarantino film obviously does not surprise anyone, but her absolute determination in both staying alive and all-consuming vengeance, as well as her stunning beauty far surpasses the samurai-sword wielding assassin from the Kill Bill movies. The actress superbly performs scenes in which she has to pretend to appear calm, when the audience knows the character is anything but – such as when she has to converse calmly with the killer of her family. Her final message to the nazis is that of gleeful victory by one victim over the forces which have swept Europe up in a blazing storm of fire, and so does she end it in a similar way. The scene in which she readies herself for the finale and applies her feminine war paint is awe-inspiring.
This is also true of other camerawork in the film. It reveals an incredible sentimentality, while not being silly or probing for a few cheap tears. The soundtrack, similarly, while being borrowed from film classics (there are a few very recognizable Ennio Morricone pieces), is not a gimmicky. It works perfectly to create a mood in a way that may have been impossible with a modern composer.
The last line of the film is “This may be my masterpiece.” Mr. Tarantino, you ain’t lyin.