The DVD cover describes Inglourious Basterds as a "revenge fantasy" and to a certain extent that's true, but it's a revenge fantasy that causes the viewer to re-examine the whole concept of revenge.
SPOILER ALERT!! If you haven't seen Inglourious Basterds, and intend to, stop reading now.
In the opening scene, we see a cottage in 1941 France from far off, and as the scene unfolds it becomes instantly clear that Director Quentin Tarantino is, once again, paying homage to films that influenced him as a young man, and as a young film maker. In this case, QT recalls the opening scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, right down to the spaghetti western music.
The main villain in the film, Col. Hans Landa, played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz, interrogates Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), the Frenchman who owns the dairy farm on which the cottage sits. His 3 daughters are sent outside so Landa can speak frankly with LaPadite, and once they are gone we are treated to a very tense interview in which Landa verifies that LaPadite knows of his, Landa's, reputation around France, that of "The Jew Hunter," the nickname bestowed upon him by those living in occupied France. LaPadite acknowledges that he knows of Landa's reputation, but claims to have no interest in nicknames or political gossip.
QT then pans the camera through the floorboards to reveal a family of Jews, the Dryfuses, frozen in terror as they hide in the crawlspace beneath the cottage floor. Cracks in the floorboards allow them to see Landa, and hear the conversation that takes place. It's at this point that QT uses another tried and true method of segueing from French to English; Landa explains that his French is bad, he knows that LaPdite doesn't speak German, but understands that they both speak English. In the course of discussion, Landa tells LaPadite that while the house had been previously searched, 1 Jewish family, the Dryfuses, also dairy farmers from the area, are unaccounted for. Waltz does a marvelous job in conveying the sinister motive that brought him to the farm without actually divulging it. He asks LaPadite if he's ever heard of the family while drinking a cold glass of milk. He explains that his men, waiting outside, are going to search the house again because the previous search had been conducted by a predecessor who had a reputation for not paying attention to details.
"He had the mindset of a hawk, rather than that of a rat. When looking for rats," says Landa "one needs to think like a rat."
Landa then offers LaPadite a deal. Save him the bother of tearing the house apart, tell him where the Jews are hiding, and he promises that LaPadite will never be harassed by the occupying German troops again. We see a tear roll down LaPadite's cheek, and a grim nod of acceptance. He points to the floor. Landa pretends to thank LaPadite and walks to the front door while saying adieu, only to wave his men into the cottage. We see the boots walking across the floor, and the bullet holes as they open fire with machine guns. A masterfully shot sequence by QT, culminating with an exterior shot of a trap door on the side of the cottage flying open, and one of the hidden Jews, Shosanna Dryfus, running across a field trying to escape. QT uses John Ford's classic out the door shot from The Searchers to frame Landa, who stands in the doorway, watching the young girl, as she sprints toward the horizon. He levels his luger, and sights Shosanna in, and then grins. He lowers his weapon and shouts encouragement to the girl to keep running. "Bon jour Shosanna!" he shouts, and then smiles. The hunter.
It's at this point that QT introduces the title characters, 8 soldiers led by Lt. Aldo Raine. With an overhead shot of the 8 Basterds standing in a line in an open courtyard, waiting to be reviewed and addressed by Aldo, we see another example of QT's use of previous WWII movies as inspiration, in this case an almost exact duplicate of the line-up scene from The Dirty Dozen.
Tennessean Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt,(who speaks with an accent that is a cross between Matthew McConaughey and Slingblade) explains the mission to the Basterds. "We need eight Jewish Americans. We kill NAT-zees. We find 'em, and we kill 'em. But before you can actually join the club and be true fuckin' NAT-zee killers, you owe me a debit, and for you to pay off that debit, I'm gonna need one hundred natzee scalps from each one of ya."
QT jumps again to a scene where the Basterds have ambushed a German patrol and are trying to gain information from their prisoners. When one refuses to reveal the exact location of a German squad down the road, QT gives us a close up shot of a German soldier being scalped. A K-Bar is dragged across his head to horrified shrieks, and we see a human head from above, sans skin and hair. The Basterd laughs and throws the skin/hair to the ground before shooting the guy. It's at this point that the viewer is challenged to consider another group of crusaders who practiced scalping of people they considered villains. We (I) suddenly place the Basterds in the role of American Indians, and we're forced to see the Nazis as the cowboys who rode across the west during America's conquering of a continent.
Once again as in many previous films, Tarantino confuses us as to the identity of the "bad guys." The scene ends with the legendary (among Germans) Bear Jew, Sgt. Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth), who's become famous by bashing Nazi skulls with a Louisville Slugger, emerging from a dark tunnel. Raine has offered the Nazi in charge a chance to spill his guts about the squad location, and if he refuses he is assured that The Bear Jew is going to play DH and knock his fucking head apart.
"Fuck YOU!!" hisses the German, and the Basterds all share a laugh as Donowitz approaches calmly and pummels the guy's skull to a fucking pulp. In typical QT fashion, we are spared nothing in detail, including the sound of a cracking skull.
We then see Shosanna, played wonderfully by Melanie Laurent, 3 years later, on a ladder changing the letters of a marquee in front of a French theater. It's there that she meets Fredrick Zoller, a German soldier who's become famous for his exploits in battle. Young, handsome, and a he develops a quick attraction for Shosanna who snubs him with every advance. Zoller, as it turns out, is the subject of a new propaganda film Nation's Pride made by Joseph Goebbels. Zoller is instantly smitten with Shosanna, and she is sickened by him. Eventually, in an attempt to impress Shosanna, Zoller convinces Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to premier the film at Shosanna's 350 seat theater.
There is heavy German security surrounding the premier, led by Landa, as it will be attended by Goebbels, Goerring, Borman, and Hitler himself.
Landa is doing advance security work, and it is during Shosanna's introductory lunch with Goebbels that Landa decides to sit down at the table and ask a few questions of the young theater owner. She freezes at the sight of the asshole that machine-gunned her family years previous, but is able to compose herself sufficiently to carry off the ruse. Landa insists that they share a piece of strudel, and he orders a glass of milk for Shosanna.
QT then shoots a very odd scene at British HQ which involves Churchill (Rod Taylor) and Gen. Ed Fenech (Mike Myers, yes Austin Powers) discussing the British plan, named Operation Kino, to air drop 3 special forces types into France and kill every Nazi in Shosanna's theater during the showing of Zoller's movie. Fenech says "All the rotten eggs in one basket." which harkens back to the exact same line delivered by the POW camp leader in The Great Escape.
QT seems to never position his camera closer than 25 feet away from the characters, and in doing so not only makes them seem very small in relation to the enormous room, but also implies a diminished British role in the defeat of the Nazis.
Once the 3 special forces types are dropped, they meet up with a German actress, Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who is a double-agent and who intends to help the 3 Brits gain entry to Shosanna's theater on premier night. The scene where they meet takes place in a basement pub, which was supposed to be a nice quiet place but which is unfortunately being used by a table-load of Nazis who are celebrating the birth of Maximillian, son of one of the soldiers. As the Brits enter, wearing German uniforms, they see Bridget playing Louisiane , the French version of the American drinking game "Indian." You know, the one where everyone holds a card against their foreheads. Everyone is drunk, and the Brits get nervous.
Bridget welcomes them as old friends and they take their seats at another table. Whiskey is ordered and the Brits mumble suspicions about Bridget luring them into a trap. She assures them that the Germans are there on special leave, that one has just become a father, and that there is nothing to worry about. At this point, Maximillian's drunken father, Wilhelm, stumbles over to ask Bridget for an autograph for his new son, and she happily obliges, signing a napkin and placing the big red lipstick kiss under her signature. The German sits down and starts up with some small talk, which makes the Brits even more nervous and one of them barks in German that "this is an officer's table, and you're annoying us." Max's dad remarks that he doesn't recognize that particular accent and asks the Brit what part of Deutschland he's from.
A mumbled explanation is proffered followed by a repeated insistence that the German leave the table, and it's here that we meet a Gestapo officer who's been sitting quietly in the corner. He too wants to know where that accent is from and QT uses this moment to brilliantly build tension while fake NAT-zees have a showdown with a real Nazi. After playing a gratuitous game of Louisiane, the Gestapo officer declares an end to the patronizing bullshit and tells the Brit that he's no more German than the 33 year old Scotch the 3 Brits are drinking.
Guns are drawn, and we get a Tarantino showdown, in this case each person pointing a gun at the balls of someone else. The Brit stops with the fake German, finishes his drink, and asks essentially "Well, what now?"
What now is the gunfight that leaves everyone dead except Bridget and Max's dad, and from outside the pub Aldo Raine shouts down. "We have a deal to offer you. Drop your gun Willy! I'll come down unarmed and take the girl. You can leave unharmed." After some bargaining, Willy agrees, and drops his machine gun, at which point Bridget shoots him to death. Again, we find ourselves (me) feeling a certain sympathy for what would should be clearly the bad guy.
Turns out Bridget's taken one in the leg, and Aldo takes her to a veterinarian to get fixed up. Aldo voices his concern about why Bridget would lead the Brits into a pub filled with NAT-zees, and she explains Max's birth and Wilhem's special leave. The whole thing she says is a "tragic coincidence."
"We have another word fer that. Suh-spee-shus." says Aldo. Eventually, after some brief torture, Aldo decides to trust Bridget, and they formulate a plan for the Basterds to take the place of the Brits at the premier.
In typical Tarantino fashion, we have no idea how the Basterds have survived for so long in France, nor how they wound up at the premier wearing tuxedos, but Brad Pitt's fake Italian is worth the price of the movie alone.
When Bridget is approached by Landa in the cinema lobby, he asks why she's wearing a cast on her left leg. (A cast that elevates her heel 5" off the floor to match her fuck me pump on the right. Hilarious sight gag.) She tells Landa that she was "mountain climbing." Landa begins laughing uncontrollably, and then stifles his laughter in a flash. He asks Bridget to introduce her escorts, to which she explains that they speak no German. "They are Italian." she says. "This is my date for the evening, the famous stunt man Enzo Carlomi. (Pitt) This is the cameraman Antonio Margharetti (Donowitz, The Bear Jew) and this is his assistant Dominic Decocco. Landa (who already knows the plan, having found Bridget's autograph and an expensive designer shoe in the rubble of the shot-up pub) plays stupid and asks Aldo to pronounce his name, repeatedly. With each pronunciation, Aldo says it slightly differently, and with each try sounds more like a Tennessee hillbilly trying to fake Italian.
Landa pretends to buy it, and tells 2 of the Basterds, Margharetti and Decocco, (Pvt. Omar and Sgt. Donowitz) to have a nice night. They take turns faking Italian arrivedercis , culminating with Aldo bidding his friends "Uh-ree-vuh-der-chee."
As Aldo and Bridget begin to excuse themselves to take their seats Landa asks Bridget for a word in private, and once in his office he tells her he knows that she's a double agent, proving it by making her slip the shoe he found in the pub onto her one good foot. She shrugs, and asks "Now what?" at which point Landa dives across and takes about 30 seconds to strangle Bridget to death. Tarantino's camera work here is stunning, and the close-up of Bridget's struggle for life is shattering.
Landa orders Raine "arrested" and he is taken from the building, hooded and screaming "Get yer stinking fuckin' natzee hands off o me you natzee sons-o-bitches." We are then whisked away to another building, with Landa already waiting for Aldo, and he briefly interrogates him and Pvt Utivich (B.J. Novak) before offering him a deal. Landa explains that he alone has the power to ruin Operation Kino with one phone call, but that he also has the power to end the war by allowing the slaughter of the German High Command to take place. The two Basterds, Donowitz and Omar, were intentionally allowed by Landa to enter the Nazi filled theater with large amounts of explosives strapped to their legs. While interrogating/negotiating with Raine, Landa mentions that strapping explosives to one's body "Sure sounds like a terrorist plot to me!" and we are again left re-examining the good guy/ bad guy thing with obvious modern interpretations.
After a brief radio call with to American OSS general, who sounds very much like Harvey Keitel, Landa cuts the deal which includes land on Cape Cod, full US citizenship, and a Congressional Medal of Honor for serving as a deep cover double agent.
The stage is set, so to speak, for the big closing scene in which the Basterds trap the Nazi High Command in a French theater. As the Nazis watch some Zoller/Goebbels propaganda, doors are locked, bars are stuck in handles, deadbolts are thrown, and guards are murdered.
Shosanna's projectionist/lover Marcel, a "negro" has been given the night off at the behest of Goebbels, and he takes the opportunity to go behind the screen to have a smoke, while standing in front of a mountain of nitrate film that he's piled there. This is apparently a message from Tarantino about the preservation of old film, and a reminder that back in the day movies were indeed highly flammable.
At the high point of the agit-prop film, we see a scene that Shosanna has carefully spliced in. Shocked faces on the Nazi audience as her hysterical laugh tells the gathered crowd that they are about to die at the hands of a Jew. Revenge.
Marcel flips his ciggie into the pile of nitrate film, and the place goes up like napalm. We get shots of panicked Germans trying to batter down the exit doors as the entire theater is engulfed in flames, and 2 of the Basterds spraying the entire frantic crowd with machine gun fire. Finally, we see one Basterd turn a frightened Adolf Hitler into Swiss cheese with his machine gun. The two remaining Basterds then detonate their hidden explosives, making themselves suicide bombers, and the theater is obliterated along with everyone in it including Shosanna, Marcel, and many "innocent" guests of the Nazis.
This is one of those points in the movie, along with the scalpings and the killing of Wilhelm in the pub, that we find ourselves reconsidering revenge. If revenge means that we do things that would be normally appalling to us, things that are seen as criminal monstrous acts by our "enemies", then we must accept the fact that our enemies see us as monsters as well.
Finally, at the perimeter of the fighting, right at American lines, the truck transporting Aldo and the surviving Basterds as well as Landa stops and they are released. Aldo insists that he be allowed to handcuff Landa to complete the deception, and while still looking straight at Landa, Aldo shoots the truck driver in a killing reminiscent of the "Oh I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?" scene in Pulp Fiction. (Samuel L Jackson handles much of the voice over narration in Inglourious Basterds.)
Landa is outraged but resigns himself to being cuffed and taken behind American lines, but before doing that, Aldo explains that he's sure that once Landa reaches Cape Cod he's sure that Landa will want to remove his Nazi uniform. That is unacceptable to Aldo, and so to assure that Landa will always carry a mark with him to reveal who he is, he carves a giant swastika into Landa's forehead, from hairline to eyebrows.
Tarantino's final shots are a close up of that knife carefully slicing into the Nazi's head, followed by a satisfied smile from Aldo that he has the design just right.
I know this review reads more like a book report, but that's what one gets when trying to dig into a Quentin Tarantino movie. Messages are rarely clear-cut, we are constantly challenged to put ourselves in someone else's shoes ( "The shoe's on the other foot." says Aldo after being apprehended.), and when it's all over we find ourselves wondering what the fuck we just saw.
It's a beautifully crafted movie, filled with crackling dialogue, and despite the end-to-end carnage we're able to focus on the story being told. Definitely a fantasy, a revenge fantasy, but in making Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino has caused me to conclude that WWII's actual storyline, and its conclusion are more fitting than any "USA rides to the rescue" tale.
I think Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino's finest effort to date.