Quentin Tarantino has a brand-new toy: World War II. The aging boy wonder never lacks playthings. Something always pops up in his shooting-gallery mind, and bang! he bags it, either just for fun or for future use. But that’s another story. This particular yarn, Inglourious Basterds, is the one about Nazis and Jews and American GIs locked in mortal combat in Europe in the 1940s, the “biggest news story of the 20th century,” as Tarantino envisions it. It’s what we might call a unique vision.
Just how unique depends on how much we know or care about a long row of subjects Tarantino deals with, topics the ordinary ticket-buying moviegoer doesn’t necessarily need to bother with. For a certain segment of the audience, the sight of Brad Pitt scalping captured German soldiers while they’re still alive, in graphic detail, will be the main selling point. Tarantino doesn’t stint on that type of action — it’s one of his trademarks, but only one of several.
Which is to say that if we dismiss the film as a lowbrow, eye-popping spectacle of extreme violence, we’d be throwing away a few other fascinating threads Tarantino has left dangling there for our amusement. Subtler things, more refined things, even though they often relate narratively to barbaric, distasteful people. That’s part of the trap we always risk falling into when sizing up Tarantino — that we’ll mistake his primitive side for the rest of his sensibility, the part of the 46-year-old filmmaker that’s not primitive. The side that’s scholarly, truly enthused about a wide (some might say too wide) array of cinematic expression, and eager to share his delight. It’s pretty much a fanboy’s delight, but it’s sincere.
Synopsizing Inglourious Basterds is a little like summing up WWII itself. There are too many “theaters of war” — in this case wide-ranging movie-historical facets playing out simultaneously — to highlight in one or two phrases. Essentially the scenario concerns a Death Head SS colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a sadistic fascist swine, meeting his comeuppance at the hands of avengers converging on him from different directions: the eponymous brutal squad of Jewish-American commandos led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Pitt), a less effective group of British soldiers, and, most improbably, a young Jewish-French woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), whose family we see murdered by Landa. After a few stretched-out scenes establishing the bloody seriousness of it all, the action focuses on the neighborhood movie house Shoshanna runs in Paris. As it happens, she and her black French boyfriend Marcel (Jacky Ido) are dedicated cineastes — shades of Cinema Paradiso.
In fact, there are so many filmic references scattered through Inglourious Basterds that it probably deserves its own annotated version, a Tarantino commentary. No doubt there’s one in the works for the home video market. Tarantino has discovered classic German cinema — naughty Nazi Leni Riefensthal, in particular, but also G.W. Pabst, Emil Jannings, et al. — and is so thrilled about it he tosses out references like beer nuts. At least he resists trying a geometric shot of phalanxes of storm troopers marching down stairs à la Triumph of the Will. For the German-dialogue direction, Tarantino tapped contemporary auteur Tom Tykwer, a wise choice.
Then there are quotes from Hollywood and British WWII films by Robert Aldrich (The Dirty Dozen, natch), Samuel Fuller (The Big Red One, etc.), Michael Powell (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp), and Ernst Lubitsch (To Be or Not to Be), for starters. The Italian war flick Tarantino stole the title from, Enzo Castellari’s 1978 The Inglorious Bastards, gets a passing nod — Tarantino is obviously more enthralled with the Germans, especially Third Reich patriotic war films like the one that’s screening at Shoshanna’s theater. Of course Shoshanna is the sort of movie fan who yearns to direct her own — doesn’t everybody?
Austrian-born TV actor Waltz steals the movie as nutsy villain Landa. Tarantino lavishes the same sort of attention on him that he once devoted to Samuel L. Jackson, and Waltz delivers — the glass-of-milk-and-meerschaum-pipe scene, the food-eating lesson, and so on. What a glorious ham. Not even Pitt’s backwoods Tennessee scalp hunter can stay in the same shot with him. By the way, the Pitt character’s inability to speak a European language, alongside the film title’s misspellings, may be Tarantino’s unsubtle comment on Boobus americanus ignorance, then and now.
The movie could have lost thirty useless minutes of its two-and-a-half-hour running time by trimming the ungainly British commando thread, with its stupid scene of Churchill (Rod Taylor, so help us) and Mike Myers’ piss-poor accent. And why bother to drag in a corny Hitler (as crazy as the one in Dani Levy’s Mein Führer), plus Goebbels and Goering, if you’re not going whole hog and casting John Travolta as Mussolini? Remember the “Royale with Cheese” routine in Pulp Fiction? They’re inventing a new junk-food product line for Inglourious Basterds — the White Elephant Supreme.
After Inglourious Basterds, it’s a pleasure to seek relief in Ole Christian Madsen’s realistically exciting Danish WWII adventure Flame & Citron. Think of it as a post-Tarantino palate cleanser.
Instead of Punch-and-Judy histrionics, director Madsen’s screenplay (co-written with Lars Andersen) covers similar overlooked ground as Paul Verhoeven’s Soldier of Orange — that is, a more-or-less true story of homegrown Northern European resistance to Nazi occupation — in the code-named characters of Flame (Thure Lindhardt), a cool-headed anti-fascist killer who’s also a Copenhagen police officer, and Citron (Mads Mikkelsen), a scruffy leftist family man who at first appears to just be along for the ride. They’re aided in their fight by Ketty (Stine Stengade), a beautiful courier who also tends to Flame’s downtime, and hindered by the ruthless Gestapo chief (Hanns Zischler).
The two partisans’ task is to eliminate Danish Nazi traitors, which they do with great efficiency in medium-long camera shots, one after another in picturesque Danish settings. But Flame and Citron are plagued by Nazi disinformation and deception. The Allied invasion of Europe is about to take place, and perhaps they’re killing off the wrong people, the ones who are working for the British and will assume command after the Germans eventually leave. It’s enough to drive them to drink — in marked contrast to the situation in places such as WWII Poland or Russia, Madsen’s drama emphasizes the copious amounts of beer, wine, and food available in Copenhagen.
So maybe it’s not completely realistic, but alongside Tarantino’s Twilight of the Pumpernickels, Flame & Citron is a hard jewel of righteous political fury. The Nazis must die, preferably in the street like dogs. We’ll drink to that.