If there's one thing you are guaranteed to get out of a Quentin Tarantino film, it's good dinner table conversation. Not to say that you'll necessarily want to discuss the events of a Tarantino film around your dinner table, especially if there are children present, but within the reality of the movies themselves you can expect to spend at least part of your time in a restaurant or a bar, watching characters converse over a meal or drinks.
In Inglourious Basterds, we get three -- one in a kitchen over milk, one in a bar over drinks and one in a restaurant over strudel with cream -- and each one of these little sit-downs is just as pulse-poundingly terrifying as any action sequence you will ever see.
That's right -- in this movie about the Inglourious Basterds, a focused, unstoppable team of Nazi-killing Jewish soldiers, the most thrilling parts are three long conversations, only one of which even tangentially involves them.
If a conversation over strudel sounds like the most boring thing ever to you, just remember that one of the participants is a Nazi, and the other is a Jewish fugitive with false papers, and you start to get the idea about why you'll find yourself on the edge of your seat through each of them. These are not the quirky pop-culture discussions of Death Proof and Reservoir Dogs, these are the "what the hell is going to happen next?" conversations of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Pulp Fiction. And what is going to happen next in two out of three conversations is that someone is going to be horribly murdered. You won't know for sure until they end, but you'll get goosebumps from the anticipation, if you don't already have goosebumps simply from watching a new Quentin Tarantino movie.
Two of the conversations owe their delightful tension to the actor Christoph Waltz, who plays Hans Landa. Endlessly polite, witty, well-spoken and multi-lingual, Landa is, in a word, charming, although there is certainly something frightening about him. It may have something to do with his Nazi uniform, but more likely it has to do with the fact that nobody is this nice, unless they either want something from you or want to kill you without arousing suspicion in advance. Waltz won the Best Actor award at Cannes, and he'd better be nominated for the Oscar, as well, because the man actually makes this horrible, horrible Nazi simultaneously likeable and revolting. Of course, given how the Basterds run roughshod over them, you're bound to feel a certain amount of Nazi sympathy before the end, at least until you remember that they're Nazis.
Yes, the Basterds kill a lot of Nazis, using baseball bats, bombs, machine guns and the like. Their Nazi-killing business, while booming, is just background noise; the Jewish fugitive, Shoshanna, is the true protagonist of the film, as she is unwillingly drawn into social circles with a young Nazi war hero and propaganda czar Joseph Goebbels himself.
Her plan to kill Nazis is just as grand and effective as the Basterds', and the line that actress Melanie Laurent walks between annoyance and fear looks like it would be a difficult one to walk, but she manages beautifully, in all meanings of the word.
Lest anyone think that this movie is without Tarantino's beloved pop-culture references and stylistic quirks, don't worry. In fact, be very, very happy. The introduction of certain characters is greeted with a rock fanfare straight out of the beginning of The Blues Brothers, with giant block letters spelling out their names like they belong on an album cover.
The Western music of Ennio Morricone plays in the background of several scenes, and at one point David Bowie's "Cat People (Putting Out Fires)" kicks in brilliantly. There is a lot of talk of German films, which only a scholar or a very old German person could follow, but there is also plenty of talk about films in general. The bulk of the plot revolves around a premiere at a movie theater, and Michael Fassbender plays a former film critic recruited for the mission. The real-life director Eli Roth (Hostel) plays the vicious Boston Basterd known as the Bear Jew, and in one scene a Nazi plays 20 Questions, only to discover that he is, in fact, King Kong.
The ending will stun many, as it leads the film into the uncharted world of speculative fiction; not science fiction, exactly, and not fantasy, per se, but a vision of a world where things went very, very differently for the Nazis. It's an exciting world to watch come into being, and as the credits roll, one can imagine another alternate reality, where Landa was played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the critic was played by Simon Pegg and the Bear Jew was played by Adam Sandler.
All of those actors were initially pursued by Tarantino for those roles, before they dropped out or he went in another direction. It's an exciting world to imagine, if only to see what Tarantino would have done with those three, but to make this film without Herr Waltz -- or Mr. Fassbender, or, yes, even Mr. Roth -- would be to tamper with history. There's no going back now, and I wouldn't want to change a thing, anyway.
What did you think of Inglourious Basterds?
For more from Television Without Pity: