There are no families in Quentin Tarantino’s world. (The little girl in Kill Bill doesn’t count, because we all know Uma Thurman’s true son was her sword.) Families require people to be unvarnished, awkward, stuffed with feeling, and inarticulate. They don’t belong in Tarantino’s single’s paradise. His movies (which are brilliant, before I go any farther) are told from a single man’s remove: assumed postures are exalted, violence is like a new suit, no-one has a home. Watching Inglourious Basterds, the first thing that hits you is the shear verve of the storytelling. The second thing (the kicker) is that no-one who dies is ever supposed to be missed.
In the opening scene a family is slaughtered. They were Jews, and this is Nazi-occupied WWII France. A Nazi colonel with a flair for the dramatic orders their execution, but he lets one daughter live, because he likes bending fate. In the years after the massacre, the orphaned daughter moves to Paris and takes ownership of a cinema. Out of the blue, the Nazi high-command commandeers her cinema for a movie premiere. Hitler, Goebbels and ever other arch-bastard will be in attendance. So the girl – and (unbeknownst to her) Allied special forces – make plans to end the Nazis along with the film. Two revenge plots, a plethora of victims… The only certainty is that a mass of people will bleed – good, bad and bastard alike.
Although Brad Pitt is the face on every poster, there is no star of Inglourious Basterds. Rather, there are stars of scenes, with some faces more famous than others. The biggest stand-out of all is the Nazi colonel. As played by Christoph Waltz he is charming, witty, self-amused, psychotic, slightly effeminate, totem-pole masculine… like Shakespeare’s Iago if he’d won. Waltz has a way of taking props (pens, strudel, shoes, phones) and showing you the carousel in his mind, the endless delight his character takes in himself. He is a Nazi officer as evil as any Nazi officer every portrayed on screen, but he’s also the one man in the movie whom you most want to live. Evil crackles in him. He takes such pleasure in torturing people with words that their torture becomes enthralling, like watching a house burn down. So gleefully does he go about his work, (guiltily) you want him to do more. He kindles sadism.
Every character in the movie teeters on parody. The Germans have skulls (mostly jaws) made of iron, full of brute vigour. The Brits are so stiff they stand like cigarettes, using Received Pronunciation so that even “death” sounds like an aperitif. Americans are all swagger and murder. The French chain-smoke and make everyone look naive. It’s the usual Tarantino movie-verse, where nationality is defined by how people act in movies from other countries.
Brad Pitt plays the leader of the “Basterds” (Allied Special Forces). We never really know the men under his command. They’re Jewish, and one of them beats Nazis to death with a baseball bat. Pitt seems to be in charge because he enjoys violence the most. He keeps his eyes narrowed, like he was always wondering about something illegal. His character is more wily than intellectual. When he and two other basterds steel into the movie premiere, he looks like he’s been nailed into his tuxedo. He’s like a tree branch smashing through a Nazi window, a hair-raising chunk of nature. If he was any more virile, he could knock you up with a look.
The pleasure of Quentin Tarantino’s movies is the same pleasure as being chased. There’s a rush of adrenaline, violence races towards you, it’s all so exciting! Then something ugly happens. If you’re going to like his movies, you have to live with that. Families will always be absent from his work because single people die more easily (there’s no-one to mourn them). Inglourious Basterds seems to need to kill a family before it can start. A clean lack of sentimentality means the movie is unpredictable (as far as who dies, not if), and, as usual, there’s black comedy galore. But that’s it – a bloody, brilliant thrill-ride. Is it enough for you?