Quentin Tarantino can't have been the first person to wish that the Third Reich had ended not in a bunker below the Reich Chancellory in Berlin, with no outsiders watching, but in a public area made for mass entertainment: a Paris movie theater. And that the Jews, Hitler's special victims, might have had a crucial hand in his defeat indeed, that a French Jewess could have ignited her own holocaust of the Führer and his top aides with the words: "My name is Shoshanna Dreyfus. And this is the face of Jewish vengeance."
Anyway, he's the first director we know of to spin this sweet fantasy out into a 2½-hr., four-language epic. Receiving its world premiere on May 20 at the Cannes Film Festival, Inglourious Basterds first word as in "glower," second as in "turds" is an alternative history of World War II from the writer-director of Pulp Fiction, the Palme d'Or winner 15 years ago. As with all of his recent work the two Kill Bill movies and Death Proof Basterds draws portraits of strong women facing down evil men; and in Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) and Third Reich screen star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) he's created two of his fullest female portraits. But Basterds is long and, for the hypercharged auteur, surprisingly wan. It has to be declared a misfire. (See pictures of the Cannes 2009 red carpet.)
At the press conference following the film, Tarantino was asked if this was a "Jewish revenge fantasy," and he replied, "Well, that's not the section of the video store I'd put it in." But Eli Roth, director of the Hostel horror movies and one of Tarantino's Basterds, said the notion of Jews getting even with Hitler was "kosher porn. It's something I dreamed since I was a kid."
Tarantino has dreamed mostly of movies, and his pictures are pastiches, updatings, twistings of the films he loved in a previous life as the world's coolest, most knowledgeable video-store clerk. Kill Bill paid homage to Hong Kong swordplay films, and Death Proof to car-crazy exploitationers of the '70s. This one, which might seem a mixture of wartime films from the U.S. and France (it does absorb some of the aura of François Truffaut's 1980 The Last Metro), is really, as Tarantino has said, "a spaghetti Western but with World War II iconography." That means Sergio Leone's Fistful trilogy with Clint Eastwood and Leone's all-time top Western homage Once Upon a Time in the West. Tarantino sprinkles the sound track of Basterds with eight pieces by longtime Leone composer Ennio Morricone and begins with a title card telling us that the story is set "Once upon a time ... in Occupied France." (See TIME's review of Pulp Fiction.)
There was an Italian film called Inglorious Bastards (the English name for a movie whose original title translates as "That Damned Armored Train") made in 1978 by pulp journeyman Enzo G. Castellari, one of many vigorous imitators of the Leone Westerns. Bastards ripped off Robert Aldrich's 1967 WW II hit The Dirty Dozen, reducing the all-star 12 to a more manageable and economic five. "Whatever the Dirty Dozen did," the poster reads, "they do it dirtier!" It starred the American actors Fred Williamson and Bo Svenson, to whom Tarantino gives a cameo as a U.S. Army colonel. Beyond its title, Tarantino's film has no other similarities to Castellari's. Q.T. made the whole thing up himself.
In his warscape, an octet of eight rambunctious Jews most of them American but a couple German have been set loose with the mission to kill and disfigure the enemy army. "A hundred Nazi scalps each" is the order of the Basterds' leader, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, chewing heartily on an Ozark accent), who either doesn't make the distinction between German soldiers and Nazis or doesn't care. While the Basterds are giving the Krauts bloody haircuts, Raine takes his pleasure carving swastikas on the foreheads of his favorite prisoners.
In one of the parallel story lines that converge late in the film, German Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), a kind of supersleuth "Jew hunter" with a chatty, almost courtly demeanor, discovers and kills most of a Jewish family hiding in the cellar of a French farm. One girl, Shoshanna, escapes to Paris, where she runs a movie theater. She meets a young soldier, Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl of Good Bye Lenin!) who has become a battlefield hero and starred in his own military biopic, which is to receive its world premiere at Shoshanna's theater with top Nazis in attendance.
Double and undercover agents fill out the movie's other main plots. A German-born English officer, Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender, of Hunger and Fish Tank), is sent by his OSS superior (Mike Myers in a low-key guest spot) to hook up in France with starlet Von Hammersmark, and thus get close enough to Hitler, Goering and Goebbels to kill them and end the war. (Two of the Reich's most beloved actresses, Zarah Leander and Olga Chekova, were later thought to be secret agents for the U.S.S.R.) Hicox and the actress rendezvous in a French bar, the setting for the movie's most artful confrontation, a tense game of wits between sham Nazis and real ones. (See pictures of Kristallnacht.)
The chatter is pure Tarantino. For all his notoriety as a director of complexly choreographed action, gore, car and dance sequences, what he really likes it to let people meaning himself, as the screenwriter talk. Inglourious Basterds is, after all, a war movie without a single scene on the front lines. No long tracking shots of soldiers crouching in foxholes or marching across an open field, aiming death at their enemies. Almost all the set pieces are conversations, or interrogations, usually involving Landa: with the French farmer (Denis Menochet), Shoshanna, Von Hammersmark and Raine. Some of these chats could use either punching up or scrupulous editing. In fact, on the basis of sheer entertainment value, this movie can't match the two hours Tarantino spent onstage in Cannes last year talking movies with French critic Michel Ciment.
In such a large cast, Pitt all but disappears into his mountaineer accent and laconic sadism; the other Basterds are mere war-film window dressing. This conflict is fought mainly between nasty Nazis and resourceful women. In her slinky dresses and fancy footwear (sometimes just one shoe), Kruger is steely glamour incarnate. And Waltz has the purring efficiency of a sleek German vehicle, not a tank but a Mercedes-Benz; he could take Cannes' Best Actor prize on Sunday night. The movie is pretty scrupulously played in the languages its characters would speak except for one odd moment early on, when Landa tells the French farmer, "I ask your permission to speak English for the rest of the conversation." (He and the film have a reason for this.)
Tarantino, who finished his script last July, rushed the movie into and through production because he wanted it to be ready for this multilingual Babel of a festival. At the press conference, he said he loved Cannes because, here, "cinema matters. It's important. It means something here. All the world's film press are here. There's something about all of them seeing it at the same time. The cat is out of the bag for the Planet Earth. I am not an American. I make movies for the Planet Earth. And Cannes is about that."
Other directors might want to put a different interpretation on the film's climax: that the Nazis in the theater audience are like the critics watching Tarantino's film, and they deserve the same fate. But let's buy into Tarantino's lovely fantasy, of the festival and his new work, and say that a film can save the world. Just not this one.