Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" – his misspellings, not mine – is a self-described fairy tale. Being that this is a Tarantino film, you can be sure it's closer to one of Grimm's more ghastly escapades than to "Sleeping Beauty." In this World War II fantasy, top Nazis get obliterated by Jewish avengers.
The film is divided into five chapters, each given its own heading. The first chapter, which is shot in the slow-burn, panoramic style of a spaghetti western, is titled "Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France." Subsequent chapters likewise have the look and feel of different moviemaking genres, although 1960s "Dirty Dozen"-ish stylistics predominate.
What does this filmic fandango add up to? Tarantino, who looks at life through a viewfinder, sees film as the ultimate righter of wrongs. Through the magic of movies he overturns the Holocaust. Who needs bummers like "Schindler's List" and "The Diary of Anne Frank," or even the historically based "Defiance," which featured Jews killing Nazis but was mucked up by all those pesky debates about morality? In a recent interview in The Atlantic, Tarantino says, "Holocaust movies are always having Jews as victims.... We've seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let's see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let's not have everything build up to a big misery, let's actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation."
His "fun" here involves a band of Jewish American revengers, headed up by Brad Pitt's perpetually chin-jutting, non-Jewish Lt. Aldo Raine, who specialize in scalping Nazis and carving swastikas into their foreheads. The most intimidating of the Basterds is a baseball-bat-wielding hulk known as "Bear Jew" (played by Eli Roth, the sicko-horror film director).
A parallel story line has Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), who alone escaped the massacre of her family in the opening chapter, plotting her payback three years later as the owner, under an assumed identity, of a movie theater in occupied Paris. It seems the Nazi high command wants her theater to première a new German movie, "A Nation's Pride," starring war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a sort of Teutonic Audie Murphy who is smitten by Shosanna. Since the nitrate film housed in the theater is highly flammable, she sees a way to turn the event into a caldron of retribution.
There's lots more plot in this 2-1/2-hour fantasia, and, despite its action-movie origins, lots of talk. It's the least virtuosic movie Tarantino has ever made. Many of the sequences drag on unduly, especially an early scalping scene, which could have been scalped by at least 10 minutes, and several set pieces involving a German glamour queen and Allied secret agent (Diane Kruger). As is standard with Tarantino, the baddest of the bad guys get the best dialogue – in this case, the dreaded Nazi "Jew Hunter" Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), who first decimates Shosanna's family and then carries on from there.
Landa is such a wily and despicable concoction that, in movie terms, he's almost impossible not to like. And therein lies part of my problem with this movie. Tarantino may have set out to make a World War II film where the Jews come out on top, but he can't resist indulging in the same old penny dreadful shenanigans as all the other pulpmeisters who feature villains you love to hate. No one else in "Inglourious Basterds" comes close to Landa for sheer charisma.
Tarantino, who is not Jewish, may be genuine in his desire to make the un-"Schindler's List" but there's absolutely no irony, no pathos, in his game plan. Doesn't he realize that making a righteous fantasy about the Jewish incineration of the Nazi brass only reinforces the sad reality that, tragically, this never happened? Knowing what we know, how can we look at this film and cheer?
I have another large difficulty with this film. Tarantino's fantasy implies that if only there had been Jews like the Basterds, there would not have been an Auschwitz. This ahistoric revisionism is pure malarkey, but it may seep into the moviegoing consciousness of audiences, including young Jewish audiences, who might come to believe that a few roving bands of renegade Jewish scalpers might have terminated this whole Holocaust thing.
That's the trouble with filmmakers like Tarantino. Their heads are so crammed with old movies that they confuse movies with real life. And what may have been intended as a screw-loose tribute to Jewish gumption ends up its opposite. Grade: B- (Rated R for strong graphic violence, language, and brief sexuality.)