The bulk of story takes place in 1944, three years after Aldo the Apache (Brad Pitt) and his squad of eight Jewish killers arrived in Europe resolved to scalp 100 Nazis each. Aldo’s men have clear cause to fight; as for the Tennessee hillbilly himself, his reasons are unspecified, though the inch-thick scar around his neck implies he doesn’t play well with strangers. To them, a good Nazi is a dead Nazi. But that sounds less ass-kicking awesome than you’d expect since a German officer named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), aka “The Jew Hunter,” made the same sweeping argument about the Jews in the scene just before.
Tarantino isn’t trying to undermine the horror of the Holocaust. He’s trying to do something trickier that few people want to hear: remind us that personal tragedy is unswayed by politics. “Most German soldiers are somebody’s son,” yelps a captured SS man when Aldo and his Basterds order him to give up the hiding spots of the German troop one orchard over. He won’t betray his men, and so he’s doomed to get his skull bashed in by the “Bear Jew,” a feared legend who turns out to be utterly mundane—a baseball bat-wielding twerp from Boston (Eli Roth). This scene has all the cruelty and bravery of a classic World War II flag-waver, but here the Yanks are the thugs and the ill-fated German officer could be played by Gregory Peck. Even Hans the Jew Hunter commands respect and—against our will—even admiration. He’s smarter than the Basterds. And more charming, too. Waltz, who won Best Actor at Cannes for the role, plays him debonairly. He’s what people once called “continental,” full of delight for small pleasures, suave and alert, unbalancing his prey with his good manners even as he studies them for betrayal. By contrast, Hitler (Martin Wuttke) is a vainglorious brat in a cape, and Aldo, just a hick with a knife. Pitt plays him like a cartoon, but I still can’t look away from him on screen—less and less because he’s ridiculously handsome, but because he’s one of the only modern actors whose body language doesn’t apologize for being in front of the camera. Even when sitting, he sits with a purpose; his confidence is irresistible.
Tarantino has described the film as a spaghetti western under the Nazi empire and he’s packed the film with flourishes like songs that layer “Für Elise” over Ennio Morricone’s galloping guitars and shots lifted straight from an intro class on John Ford, as when Hans takes aim at a fleeing Jewish girl from inside a French farmhouse. Of course, Tarantino isn’t a man who limits himself to only one influence—there’s rap on the soundtrack, Luis Bunuel in his set pieces, blaxploitation in his humor and five different fonts in his opening credits alone. In case we forget to be aware of the man behind the camera, he puts a panting black poodle in the foreground of a long scene at a restaurant (his favorite set piece). Half of his scenes could be cut in half—doubling the impact of the film—but while I’m not going to agree with Tarantino that his meanderings serve a purpose, I’ll swallow them down if he’ll keep making movies. (Even if I fast-forward through them, like I do with Deathproof.)
The comedy often makes Basterds feel like a prank, but it’s vital and even-handed in its cruelty. The Nazis are brutes, but the Allies aren’t much better—and while we’re all bursting to make the argument that at least the Allies were killing to prevent more killing, no one on the screen says it for us, or even alludes to the camps and their fears for their Jewish relatives still stuck in Europe. People talk about how to win the war, not why. The violence here exists only in a tit-for-tat vacuum, like the whole of France was just a frontier town in Arizona.
The only character who lays claim to a personal reason to take down Hitler is a young Jewish girl posing as a French movie theater owner named Emmanuelle (Melanie Laurent) who saw the Germans mow down her entire family. When a German war hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) becomes infatuated with Emmanuelle, nee Shosanna, he arranges with Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to use her theater to host the premiere of his propagandist biography, the story of the three-day sniper shootout where he killed 300 Allied soldiers. Shosanna realizes this is the perfect moment for her to avenge herself on the German heads of state—especially since Hitler is rumored to be in attendance—but she doesn’t know that the Basterds along with two double agents (Diane Krueger and Michael Fassbender) have their own plot for the evening.
What isn’t heroism? In today’s newspapers, you’d say strapping bombs to your legs to kill a room of mostly civilians. Tarantino doesn’t ask us to question whether clear terrorist tactics are worth it to end WWII. He assumes we’ll think they are, and they might well be. But he won’t make ending the war easy on us—imagine seeing a Jewish fighter spraying a crowd of German women with his machine gun. These ladies and their dates have just whooped with joy as the onscreen Zoller mowed down one soldier after another from his sniper perch—an orgy of cinematic violence we’re meant to see as ghoulish. Do we about face and cheer like them when it’s our guys holding the guns? Some in my theater did, but to me it felt like they were trying to be in on a joke Tarantino isn’t making. Basterds isn’t a deep film—honestly, what Tarantino flick is?—but it has moments as sharp as a bayonet and as perverse as war itself.