Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds represents something of a commencement for its maker. Tarantino, now in his mid-forties, has found himself in that nearly mind-boggling predicament every major populist artist endures. Reduced to mere generalities, Tarantino's reign as American film's biggest, brainiest bad boy and correspondent of cinematic delectations has followed a fairly predictable path: amazement and adulation, followed not so slowly by backlash, resentment and cynical incertitude—and, depending on the individuals (each, for argument's sake, belonging to a certain cinematic-consumption stratum: critics, audience members, “cinephiles”), this has been repeated in the past twelve years. For some, Tarantino had definitively lost his way, or was at least adrift—the Kill Bill movies are so obscenely overloaded with richness and deliriousness of the genre-picking sort that they are readily divisive endeavors. Tarantino's partnership with Robert Rodriguez in creating Grindhouse, with Tarantino's Death Proof the picture endlessly argued about, defended and loathed by many who viewed the entire experience, caused a significant portion of film connoisseurs to begin to write him off for good. Here was a man who was, to liberally paraphrase from one noted, dissatisfied film blogger, crawling up his own ass and losing all bearing of reality.
Tarantino, however, knows that reality and film are two radically divergent worlds. Like one of his immediate ancestors, De Palma, he sees cinema as a fundamental lie, but like the noted Hitchcock-devotee, he interprets it as a benign lie, one as necessary as nighttime fairytales. You were either on board with this outlook or not—with Tarantino or not—and this dramatically influenced one's opinion of Tarantino's post-Jackie Brown work. Was he simply playing around or was there more behind the facade? For the critics, however, the mere question necessitated a correction of course; Tarantino, it was said, had to now put or shut up, almost like he was beginning all over again.
Let it be said that with Inglourious Basterds Tarantino puts up. Most immediately resembling his most universally acclaimed film, Pulp Fiction, in its multi-chapter structure with parallel, rotating stories, this cine—superficially World War II men-on-a-mission adventure, naturally it is first and foremost a Tarantino picture and everything that entails—is so headily unaware of its own grandiosity that it manages to be oddly intimate and downright recondite in its shadings of its cornucopia of distinguished gallery of Tarantino characters. That may be viewed as a kind of backhanded compliment, but it is not: Tarantino is so assured and inspired here, whatever quibbles or questions arise are almost instantly discarded. From the first frame to the last, this feels like the film Tarantino wanted to make after Jackie Brown but held off on—and, according to him, it was the screenplay he began working on after Brown, but the work became too massive and sprawling for its own good, and Tarantino redirected his energy behind Kill Bill—an unmistakable new, bold chapter to the Tarantino saga behind Tarantino's filmic journeys.
There is a moment early on in Inglourious Basterds that is in its own way a microcosmic description of the film entire: Colonel Hans Landa, with a honeyed, bright demeanor and grin, is coyly interrogating a Frenchman depicted as a virile, physical worker in the first of many comments on national and ethnic stereotypes Basterds makes. (The French dairy farmer with three daughters hiding a family of refugees may come from Tarantino's much-beloved Tonight We Raid Calais, a noted favorite of the director, from 1943 by John Brahm, about a British intelligence officer plotting to destroy a German munitions plant in France, hiding out with a French farmer and his daughters who—not unreasonably—blame the British for the fall of France.) The Frenchman reaches for his corn pipe and begins to smoke, and Landa quickly reaches for a pipe of his own—naturally, this Colonel known in France as the “Jew-Hunter,” a keen detective who is the distilled personification of a man who loves to play cat-and-mouse, has one that recalls Sherlock Holmes. The absurdly oversized pipe will make many a viewer of the film want to chuckle, but the chuckle is fleeting. As with other Tarantino creations, Landa is stunningly three-dimensional; whatever excesses and peculiarities he may possess are sadly all too human and strangely plausible. That pipe is a signpost: Basterds plays with people the way Tarantino films do, but the writer-director never ceases to insist that his characters are people. What follows is most crucial, for it reveals that Landa, an ostensible non-smoker, already knows that the French farmer smokes, and came prepared. Tarantino cuts away from the sight gag of the pipe to Landa's steely eyes, and the laughter dies down. Landa may be funny but he's no joke. No Tarantino character truly is, even the jokers. And like many a Tarantino character, Landa—like Mr. Pink arguing against automatic tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Bill discussing the subtextual meanings of the character of Superman in Kill Bill 2—patiently, coolly relates why he can think like a Jew by discussing the characteristics of a hawk, a rat, and, circuitously, a squirrel, in an early demonstration that the film has a provocative outlook on the issue of hunters attacking prey, most emphatically embodied by Landa himself.
Tarantino's opening is as rapturously mounted as anything in his oeuvre; he shoots the Frenchman working with his three beautiful daughters, and visions of Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West and myriad spaghetti westerns unfurl within the cinematically-trained mind. Tarantino follows suit with repeated excursions into filmic convention: like his seedy crime yarns that play with gangster movie conventions or Death Proof that seemed to exist as a kind of instrumental covering of many of Tarantino's favorite kinds of movie—cheap, tawdry horror movies, exploitation flicks of all kinds, road trip movies of sundry incarnations—Tarantino's multiple chapters in Basterds take on vibrant cinematic attributes found in spaghetti westerns, countless men-on-a-mission war films, romantic spy melodramas, of which there were plenty in the 1930s and '40s, and even a possible melding of horror-tinged religious cinema (a French heroine becomes Tarantino's approximation of Joan of Arc, devoured by flame before her tormentors) which feel at one with giallo and Catholic filmmakers' representations of their fear and guilt. This may mislead many who partake in Basterds' multitudinous delights of sight and sound—Basterds is admittedly enormously informed by Tarantino's love of cinema, including German expressionism, the brilliance of G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl's work and Henri-Georges Clouzot's Le Corbeau, the latter of which may signify Tarantino's acknowledgment of a “bad boy” of another era, in which one was not rewarded for the sharp attitudinal edge of one's film but rather punished for it as Clouzot was for Le Corbeau—but a pastiche it is not. Tarantino has reached a higher plane insofar as his recollections—part personal (the titular Inglourious Basterds stalk their German victims with knives like the psychopaths who terrified a young Tarantino in The Last House on the Left), part historical (Tarantino affords much banter about popular culture, once again, but it is confined strictly to figures of the time period such as Max Linder and the film character King Kong) but these gropings at cinema are heartfelt and genuine, as well as seamlessly stitched into the fabric of Basterds' very filmic identity.
What Inglourious Basterds proves is that Tarantino is still obsessed with human beings rather than a more accessible instigator of movement—his films are made up of a few, long, extraordinarily detailed scenes, as though they are visual, character-based novels. Those who harshly critique Tarantino's modus operandi appear foolhardy. Do they wish him to no longer invest such passion and care into his characters? Would they be happier if, for instance, Basterds were more cosmetically satisfying? It surely would have been easier to create a knockoff of The Dirty Dozen and leave it at that, but Tarantino's tapestry demands altogether greater scrutiny. Almost ironically, Tarantino's very artistic behavior—to lovingly dwell on the minutest of details, to bathe in the minds and hearts of the people he, like any significant writer, simply follows—is what has helped to make him so durably popular. If he were to abandon it, he would be sacrificing that which makes him a unique voice.
That voice helps to shape the aforementioned Colonel Hans Landa (a sensational Christoph Waltz), whose thrill of the chase and hunt (predominantly cerebral) is fetishistic and unnerving. He asks for a glass of the farmer's milk from his cows. Like Anton Chigurh's grabbing of a bottle of cold milk in No Country for Old Men, the villain's commandeering of the satisfying cream appears shameless and even saturnalian. Landa is an apt avatar for the Third Reich; his rapacity is on open display as he hurriedly swallows an entire glassful of the milk belonging to the French. Landa is undeniably acute and fully commanding but he lacks the patience to savor that which he ingests. A later scene in which he almost mechanically rips apart a piece of strudel with requested cream, taking turns between munching on a bite and asking a probing question, reinforces this amusingly sad characteristic. Waltz is at one moment quite humorous, and in the next downright chilling. Like Samuel L. Jackson's Ordell in Jackie Brown, Landa is self-protective to a fault, with an air of melancholy. Just before he violently snuffs out a fellow German's life—one of Tarantino's most uncomfortable and ugliest scenes, far more devastating than any scalping or baseball bat-beating by the Basterds—he has a look of sadness that reminds of Ordell's final, quiet warning to Max Cherry, before resuming his role as natural predator. The long, opening act establishes Landa's genius, as well as Tarantino's: a request to swap French for English in conversation between German and Frenchman first appears to be a bow to the commercial, so that Americans need not read anymore subtitles for a while. However, Landa's language-switch has a deep, sinister purpose. Late in the film, Landa kisses a handkerchief with a woman's lipstick and signature, and soon thereafter confronts the woman in a revoltingly warped recalling of Cinderella while indulging in Tarantino's much-discussed foot fetish. Basterds' men are, like other Tarantino guys—Vincent Vega, Max Cherry, even Bill—largely astonished and aroused by women because they recognize that they know so little about them. Such is the case with two Germans, Landa and particularly German war hero Fredrick Zoller.
Zoller's crush on a young French woman who runs her own cinema develops Tarantino's incendiary depiction of cinema itself, as a moral reckoning, distorter and demigod. The French woman is Shosanna Dreyfus, renamed Emanuelle Mimieux (Melanie Laurent)—Shosanna was the last surviving member of the Dreyfus family, sheltered by the French farmer before Landa and his men killed all but one. Tarantino's framing of Shosanna against the silhouetted front door frame of her father's farm, running away into the wilderness from the ruthless Nazis, exhibits a borrowing from John Ford's The Searchers. As the leader of the Basterds, Lieutenant Aldo Raine played by Brad Pitt (an obvious homage to American tough-guy actor Aldo Ray, complete with throat scar substituting for fatal throat cancer) informs his men, he is part “Injun,” and the Basterds will conduct themselves in the fashion of Apache warriors, scalping and mutilating Germans wherever they find them. The American Indian theme blossoms: Tarantino is himself part-“Injun,” drawing comparisons between his and Raine's own ancestry and respective raison d'êtres. Raine tells his men that the Germans will come to know this special secret squad of men and fear them—a kind of yearning for fame, or infamy, based on thuggery and shock, perhaps representing either an auto-critique by Tarantino or augmentation of argument that Tarantino's cinema is only at first glance about such mainly unimportant matters. At the beginning of the final chapter, the vengeful Shosanna applies her makeup as though she is meditatively donning warpaint. Never before has Tarantino's fixation on film been more irrepressible, as Shosanna's scheme to exact revenge on the Nazis responsible for murdering her family involves her sacrificing cinema—her own theatre as well as many reels of nitrate film she has in storage. Shosanna's final act of the film—one of both compassion and distraction—prove Tarantino's point, and establish just how frightening the efficacy of the cinema truly is. As with another woman—Dietrich-like German film star Bridget van Hammersmark (an entirely pleasant and surprisingly strong Diane Kruger)—Tarantino brings about the fates of his feminine forces to an anguished height, finally reaching the crushingly realistic conclusion of his long-fascinating depiction of “girl power” in manifold forms.
Bruhl's Zoller exists at once as Tarantino's twist on the American Audie Murphy story, reversing the mirror shot, so to speak, following other such reversals as the American soldiers being depicted as butchers juxtaposed with a decorated German, Sergeant Werner Rachtman—who honorably, judiciously and with great dignity informs his baseball bat-wielding executioner he earned his medal “for bravery,”—and exploring the inner-workings of the Third Reich's film industry through the perspective of Joseph Goebbels as overarching filmic auteur/movie executive. (Winston Churchill, played by Rod Taylor, asks a British expert on German cinema whether Goebbels considers himself the German Louis B. Mayer.) Zoller, however, is generously expanded upon by Tarantino. As a construct, Zoller could have been just a Tarantino meta-comment—the character says Goebbels wants him to become “the German Van Johnson,” terrifically editorializing on the cinematic image of toughness against that of the tangible world (the strapping, 6'2” Van Johnson versus the 5'5”-½ Audie Murphy). Zoller is a German war hero who, all alone, killed literally hundreds of enemy soldiers in Italy and now his story has been told in a propaganda film starring none other than himself. (Zoller excitedly tells one character that he has been hailed as the German “Sergeant York,” another example of people of one country discovering the story of another nation's hero through cinema.) Zoller is an intriguing character, made all the more abundantly arresting by the picture's remarkable climax. Viewing his own “heroics” on the giant screen, Zoller is in actuality disgusted; he cannot continue to watch, and leaves to “annoy” the owner of the cinema. Zoller represents the mature filmgoer who can at least empathize with if not truly live the violence glorified by Goebbels' picture, merging the previously disparate themes of the violence enacted by the Basterds, often cheered by Tarantino's moviegoer. Like Jules in Pulp Fiction, he has seen a terrible, unshakable visage—and it is of himself, in another materialization—and can finally look back on the killing he has committed with a comprehensibly enhanced perspective.
Tarantino indulges himself with British Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, last seen starving himself in Hunger), expert in German film, writer of two published books and published film critic. Tarantino's anointing of the cinephile as conduit and guiding force of Tarantino's own, phrenic world is here even more robust than in Death Proof, which saw a group of female film buffs and film crew members fight back against Stuntman Mike. Shosanna, Hicox, Zoller, Goebbels, von Hammersmark, the numerous German enlisted men and officers who are bedazzled by von Hammersmark, Shosanna's black film projectionist and clandestine lover, Marcel (Jacky Ido, an African in a cast heavily populated by Europeans and Americans), and others are all either directly or indirectly endowed with a special, durable connection to and appreciation for the art form of the motion picture. Yet while von Hammersmark's presence connotes the renowned fashion, glamor and elan of movie icons (a stereotype to which Tarantino gives plentiful twists); Zoller is, one could contend, the “exploited” person, the individual whose real-life escapades provide fodder for the insatiable beast; and Shosanna is the practically sanctified Tarantino demigoddess who readily sacrifices cinema for her own personal vengeful victory; it is, with disturbing and cutting clarity Lieutenant Hicox whose knowledge of cinema informs his decisions. Confronted by an overbearing Nazi Major Dieter Hellstrom (a superb August Diehl) in a pivotal tavern, Hicox resorts to his encyclopedic knowledge base to throw the inquisitive major off the scent that the undercover Englishman is indeed not a German. Hicox is briefly saved by his fondness for a Leni Riefenstahl film, The White Hell of Pitz Palu. Moments later, however, he gives himself away in a manner that reveals Tarantino finally confronting himself and perhaps his critics who deride him for being so hopelessly stuck in movies. Hicox's fate points to the admission that film, though especially indispensable to a cinephile, ultimately cannot teach one about everything, about every group of people, no matter how well-informed one may be. The brutal irony that Hicox was especially an expert of German cinema makes the point all the sharper and clearer.
Tarantino's World War II epic is conspicuously skewed, both surprisingly and not surprisingly, in almost being a weird, “proto-black man's view” of the war. Samuel L. Jackson lends his voice to two brief narrations. As though this were not enough, the one character who is viewed with wholly uncomplicated sympathy is Shosanna's lover, Marcel, who is obedient to his woman, kind, tender and evidently fearless. This is not alarming coming from Tarantino, whose occasionally ostentatious affinity for and relationship with black-oriented features has flowed into these filmmaking decisions. Most penetrative, however, are a pair of speeches delivered by Nazis—first by Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and later by Hellstrom—respectively commenting on the unique place blacks have had in America, as athletic competitors and previously as slaves. This threading connects World War II to the black experience in America, and suggests Tarantino's contention that “America,” as an abstraction, or reduced to specific characters (“Basterds”), was not the uncomplicated hero of the war. This is never distracting; only a source of moral bemusement.
Tarantino's essaying of the Basterds themselves will doubtless bring about divergent reactions. One may interpret the American “Basterds” as ridiculous, over-the-top cartoon characters—although Tarantino does not afford most of them much time or weight, beyond Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine, Eli Roth's “Bear Jew” Donny Donowitz and Til Schweiger's Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz—so the cartoon quality of the characters is perhaps actually softened. Pitt is fine in his role and repeatedly quite funny. Pitt's presence lends balance to the film's air of the star-studded international cast, even if he is less obvious for Raine than former Tarantino hombres like Bruce Willis or Michael Madsen. Roth is solid as the “Bear Jew.” The Basterds are in truth defined by their comparative absence from the world of cinema in relation to the film's other characters. As Raine tells a doomed German, watching Donny Donowitz split open German heads with his baseball bat “ is the closest we get to goin' to the movies.” Tarantino's sly comment about the possible, cathartic need for filmic violence as a substitute to real-world bloodletting cannot go unnoticed. Beyond this, in a typically Tarantino-esque, twisted manner, the Basterds may represent some form of pitiless conscience, and more than simply existing as a group of Jewish soldiers slaughtering Nazis about France, the point made by Raine on two highly memorable occasions is worth pondering, particularly for Jews victimized by the Nazi terror. Will these Nazis abandon their uniforms once the war concludes and go about their lives without consequence? Though the Basterds are sadistic and fiendishly violent, the question resonates in the final chapter as Landa himself, who, in the prologue, relished the title given to him—“The Jew Hunter” (early in the film, Landa says he believes Heydrich in Prague should be proud of his nickname, “The Hangman,” perhaps a reference by Tarantino to one of Lang's wartime propaganda pictures, Hangmen Also Die about Heydrich)—feigns recoiled horror at the label when he is negotiating a cunning deal. The Basterds, then, could be sincerely deciphered as unforgiving avenging angels before the fact. This does not, however, remotely excuse the barbaric bloodthirst of the Basterds, nor the hideous oversimplification of viewing every Germanic soldier as a demonic Nazi. This is a thorny extension of Tarantino's obsession with revenge, which has seemingly become more explicit with each release. As with the Kill Bill movies and Death Proof, when the revenge is finally meted out, Tarantino does not glorify or romanticize the violence—this is in fact only truer with Inglourious Basterds, which features violence as a swift reckoning—all too fast, ghastly and terrible, the outbursts explode at the end of long set-pieces of dialogue.
What perhaps makes Inglourious Basterds so intoxicating and enthralling is the opaquely ambagious, unpredictable route it so gleefully travails. Tarantino, for all of his homages and love letters to cinema, has never shied away from happily departing from the trusted formula. Inglourious Basterds actually delivers the usual Tarantino multilayered, two-for-one special: on one basic narrative level, his pictures conclude precisely where they must (Mr. White discovering Mr. Orange's secret in Reservoir Dogs or The Bride confronting Bill in the Kill Bill movies being especially straightforward destinations) and so does Inglourious Basterds (which two male characters do you believe will finally meet before the picture concludes?) but the circumstances, emotions and emphases are always stunningly different in their laminations and most importantly their meanings from what most audience members are anticipating.
Tarantino's characters, it must be said here, are always meeting ends unforeseen by all including themselves (even an important character who has elected a kind of grandiose, operatic martyrdom does not meet the exact fate they had envisioned). Basterds displays once more the circuitous manner in which Tarantino characters finally get what is coming to them. Characters receive tragic ends that have little or nothing directly to do with their past sins. Basterds augments this entrenched trait by playing things firmly “down the middle,” so to speak, like an umpire, Tarantino dispassionately surveys all of the characters, with an impartiality and probity that takes the lackadaisical, conventional triteness that even suffocates supposed “satire” (Starship Troopers and the recent District 9 both suffer inordinately from this laziness) out of the way, throwing the audience's wanton desire for mayhem and death back into their collective lap. Whereas Tarantino's first batch of films were based to one degree or another in a criminal underworld, which usually feature more ambiguously-defined roles of “hero” and “villain,” Inglourious Basterds takes on the static mythology of World War II, with its elephantine and nearly preconceived “heroes and villains.” This is chiefly played with by Tarantino with regards to Zoller, who even explicitly tells the French beauty to whom he is attracted that he is more than a uniform, coupled with a humanizing comment that all German soldiers are “somebody's son.”
Beyond Zoller's plea that he is more than a uniform—a direct thematic rebuttal to the Basterds' campaign—Tarantino's film is bustling with not only textual and subtextual reversals (and even textual reversals during which the subtext remains the same, including a late-inning gambit by one particularly unscrupulous but brilliant figure), but also simple reversals of identity. As with other “men-on-a-mission” pictures, some of the Basterds along with the aforementioned Lieutenant Hicox must pose as Germans. Throughout the long, intentionally languorous visitation of the tavern, the parlor game played serves as a shockingly direct substitution for the very serious game being played; that Tarantino's device runs exactly parallel to his suspense-driven plot situation and very few find it excessive proves he has become only more successful at partially veiling his intentions with a layer of apparent frivolity that is in actuality part and parcel of the critical narrative conditions. The scene itself plays like a combination of Tarantino sequences in which people look like they are letting their proverbial hair down while only masquerading or belatedly revealing their true selves. The tavern exists with a thoroughly detailed environment and, like other Tarantino set-pieces, feels like that from a novel or play with its purposeful limitations (one reason Tarantino is never called “stagy” is because people tend to enjoy the long, winding monologues and repartees he produces)—the intersecting of characters feels as though it belongs to the spirit of such locales as Reservoir Dogs' hood hideout, Pulp Fiction's diner, Jackie Brown's dark bars and Ordell's chief homestead, Kill Bill's several sequences of predator finding prey and the Tarantino character's bar in Death Proof. The playing with identities in Basterds is not unheard of for Tarantino; his first film, borrowing liberally from the original The Taking of Pelham 123, followed criminals with unknown identities with one another beyond their color names, and indeed his subsequent films all tend to fall in that line, to be partly about characters discovering others' true, or truer, identities. Tarantino's playfulness has been known to extend to the brutal, and Basterds is no exception: the last German man standing, weeping and frantically distressed, the most ostensibly “cowardly” of his squadron, is rewarded first by the Basterds for giving information Sergeant Rachtman refused to bequeath and then by Adolf Hitler himself, who makes the (physically and spiritually disgraced) German soldier the veritable hero of the cover story that has now become “official” reality. In one of the film's most piquant visual mirrored reversals, one character strangles another; the character being murdered helplessly grabs a hold of anything, such as the carpeting of the floor, and later the strangler is himself mounted, and, like the character he terminated, can only grip and pull at grass in unspeakable pain.
Inglourious Basterds places Tarantino above one of his closer antecedents, Brian De Palma, and probably places him on roughly equal footing with his most nakedly revered idol from the past, Jean-Luc Godard. Tarantino's much-denied moralistic streak is akin to De Palma's; their inversions of normalcy are startling but very much related to one another. Basterds concludes on a note of female anguish and annihilation—a redux of Carrie and possibly The Fury (with Bruhl's Zoller approximating John Cassavetes in his final, distasteful speech)—that feels completely earned and directly corresponding with Tarantino's long-documented half-guileless, half-goofy relating of “girl power,” which he himself utilizes as fragmentary stand-in for his piqued curiosity of the fairer sex (like most Tarantino male avatars). Tarantino has proven he is no cinematic or cultural revolutionary—he is nearly the anti-Godard in the sense that Godard posited his homages as necessary conditional trappings to create something of a new cinema, while Tarantino's love of anterior cinema overwhelms most other impulses. Countering this, however, is that Tarantino's love of cinema almost circularly takes him into a realm not dissimilar from Godard at all—especially as the young Godard sought a degree in Ethnology at the Sorbonne, Tarantino's undying infatuation with cinema has given him a dramatically different but equivalent studying of disparate cultures and their origins. Comparisons to Hitchcock become perilous, but Basterds is teeming with references to the man who jubilantly placed the moral responsibility of his World War II spy films' carnage on the audience, as in a pivotal movie theatre scene in Saboteur, wherein violence takes place against the backdrop of the silver screen's applauded and cheered violence. Tarantino's sense of morality is persuasive insofar as the filmmaker refuses to confess that it exists; by simply “following” his invented tale, he can live by the conceit that he is not judging the proceedings, gavel in hand, as he crafts his screenplays and films. Pungently, Tarantino openly assaults history, and therefore saves millions of lives in his alternate world by concluding World War II much earlier than it did in fact end (possibly averting the Russian overtaking of Central Europe as well). The film asks a pointed question: if the war's final year could have been averted, would the story's destructive massacring, and furious, merciless climactic conflagration, been seen as justified?
Another inspiration of Tarantino's—Leone—is easily discovered in the relation between a known war and a complete, beautifully unfurled fictive fantasia, as in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The sequence in the tavern likewise recalls spaghetti westerns in its careful attenuation of competing characters. There is even a new father, a German soldier, whose appearance along with several of his compatriots is a classic, painful example of the wrong people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both like, and more quotidian than, the iconic Confederate soldier being given a “smoke,” Tarantino's Germans are fully flesh-and-blood—something one may not expect in a film so divergent from standard historical fidelity—as well as being endowed with sheer, cunning smarts. Landa, Hellstrom and others are all viewed as intelligent, almost insidiously astute adversaries. (Humorously, Landa is offended late in the picture when a noted enemy does not appear to afford him the kind of respect he believes he demands.) Like other Tarantino film scores, the music recalls Ennio Morricone's larger-than-life melodies in its euphonious depiction of various individuals as archetypes.
Lastly, and possibly most importantly, Inglourious Basterds is a paean to propaganda. For the first time, Tarantino has scaled the mountain of the propaganda film. Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he reads the propaganda films of the United States, Great Britain and Germany with great, unbridled engrossment. Expectedly, Tarantino pays tribute to the very national stereotypes bolstered by the respective countries' own propaganda—the heedless voracity, brashly indomitable spirit and brutish instincts of the Americans, the stiff upper lip propriety, earnest self-challenging derring-do and remote chilliness of the English, and the shrewd, wily and skillfully manipulative Germans, all double-edged swords—while discussing the correlation between German film exec Goebbels with the American film execs who immediately pushed for propaganda pictures after Pearl Harbor and the morale-boosting English pictures of the same time. Riefenstahl may have a most dubious position in history, but her films shed voluminous light on the character of the people she tirelessly observed through her film work. Tarantino certainly admires the role of the propaganda film—it is, perhaps, the ultimate (and government-sanctioned) exploitation picture, after all—and his treatment of the much-hyped Nazi propaganda film at the heart of Basterds is curiously unaffected, with a definite ambivalence that over the course of his picture covers highly contrasting emotions stemming from pride, affection, passion, mockery, ridicule and disgust.
At a recent Marin Shakespeare Company presentation of “Julius Caesar” in San Rafael, California, this writer overheard one patron discussing Inglourious Basterds with his family and friends. “It's a World War II Pulp Fiction,” he roared. At a presentation of a play written by the Bard a millennium and a half after the events took place, in which a kind of historical, Roman propaganda takes shape on each side of the play's expansive argument—Cassius cajoling and soothing Brutus that his name shares the weight of Caesar, followed by the emotional, powerful demagoguery of Mark Antony—this was a most intriguing venue to consider Inglourious Basterds. The dualistic nature of Basterds suggests Tarantino's meta-contextualizing of the propaganda film, matching his previous forays in digesting all of the properties of his variegated subjects. To compare Tarantino with the Bard in any fashion may be correctly considered disturbing—yet their respective analyses of historical propaganda reveals a commonly sober, balanced reading. That level of maturity is not easily quantified, nor is it usually appropriately appreciated. Perhaps Tarantino, speaking through Pitt's Aldo Raine in the picture's final pre-end credits moment, is indeed correct—Inglourious Basterds “just might be [his] masterpiece.”