There is a moment in the first scene of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds that is not what it appears to be. A Nazi colonel named Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is interviewing a French farmer (Denis Menochet) he believes to be sheltering Jews. Landa is conducting the inquiry in more than passable French (yes, with subtitles and everything), when he pauses. He's come to the limits of his francais, he claims. Does the farmer speak English and, if so, might they continue in that tongue? He does, and they do.
At the time it seems an absurd contrivance, and a dispiriting concession to the belief that American audiences won't shell out ten bucks to see any film so presumptuous as to present itself in another language. Moreover, it's hard to shake the suspicion that Tarantino wants us to believe it is such a concession. But it is not--Landa has his reasons for the switch--and the dialogue in Inglourious Basterds is not, for the most part, conducted in English. Tarantino has taken the common-sense, but nonetheless radical, step of casting German (and Austrian) actors in the German roles and French actors in the French roles, and allowing them to speak in their native tongues, with the result that perhaps just 30 percent of the film is in English. It is one of several early signs that Tarantino's ambitions for the film are broader than for any he's directed since Pulp Fiction--and of just how far he comes in fulfilling those ambitions.
That first scene is a knockout, one of the tautest cat-and-mouse exchanges since Dennis Hopper discussed Italian genealogy with Christopher Walken in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance--the surface bonhomie heightening, rather than concealing, the lethal tensions beneath. Though he overplays his hand on occasion in the latter portions of the film, Waltz is a genuine revelation as the smugly insinuating Jew-hunter Landa. If the actor were not already well-known in Europe, one would call it a star-making performance; instead, we can settle for star-importing.
Not everything in the film is quite so appealing, though the ratio of good Tarantino (the sharp dialogue; the structural inventiveness; the encyclopedic enthusiasm for historic cinema) to bad Tarantino (the bloodbaths-as-narrative-escape-hatches; the indecisive border between homage and parody) is considerably higher than it has been post-Jackie Brown. For any who might worry that Inglorious Bastards is, as the film's marketing seems to promise, a Holocaust-revision variation on Kill Bill, a gory, unimaginative slog by baseball bat and bowie knife through acres of Nazi corpses, the movie is a very pleasant surprise. For those who were looking forward to such a Kill Wilhelm, well, you do still get a bit of batting practice.
The movie's animating premise is perhaps its weakest element: Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a self-described Tennessee mountain man, assembles a special team of eight Jewish soldiers to parachute behind enemy lines to kill and terrorize Nazis. Those whom the "Basterds" kill are scalped (Raine is also part Apache); those they let live have swastikas carved into their foreheads, a Nazi "uniform" they will never be able to take off. Like most of Tarantino's more aggressive provocations--e.g. his delight in the novelty of having women butcher other women in Kill Bill--this is an idle one. There's no moral weight to the violence in the film, nor any meaningful resonance of the Holocaust or the war itself. It's merely a gimmick, a heavy stacking of the deck so that we will forgive, and perhaps applaud, the Basterds' ritual mutilations. The true moral universe in which the film unfolds is that of the spaghetti westerns to which Tarantino has frequently compared it: a world in which the strong are above the law and the way to tell the good guys from the bad guys is not by their acts but by the kind of hats they wear. (On a related note, if the film's score occasionally sounds as though it was assembled from old Ennio Morricone tracks, that's because, to a considerable degree, it was.)
From this dubious core, however, the film sprawls in improbable directions, becoming, among other things, Tarantino's most explicit movie about the movies to date. A French Jew (Melanie Laurent) escapes a death squad and reinvents herself as the proprietress of a Paris movie house, only to find herself romanced by a young German war hero and budding film star (Daniel Bruhl) who plays himself in a Nazi propaganda film. Meanwhile, another German star, Bridget von Hammersmark (a very good Diane Kruger), is conspiring with the Allies against Hitler, her primary contact being a British commando (Michael Fassbender) who is also a film critic (!) and an expert on German cinema. (One of Tarantino's better inside jokes is to have the German-born Fassbender playing a Brit who impersonates a Nazi and jeopardizes the mission with his imperfect accent.) There is a discussion regarding whether Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), who among other duties oversaw the German film industry, preferred to be compared to Louis B. Mayer or David O. Selznick. Several characters are named in homage to B-movie stars (Raine, a play on Aldo Ray, and Hugo Stiglitz among them), and the Italian western and crime-film director Enzo G. Castellari, who directed the original 1978 Inglorious Bastards (from which this movie borrowed its title but nothing else), has a cameo as a mid-century version of himself. The whole affair culminates with a massive, murderous set piece at the movie house, which testifies to the purifying power of film as a political medium and film stock as a combustion agent.