At one point in Inglorious Basterds, Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, played impeccably by Christoph Waltz, asks: What shall the history books read? Well, no history book is going to read this version of World War II. Inglorious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s fantastical, outrageous, frustrating but ultimately audacious rewriting of history.
The film, divided into five chapters, begins in Nazi-occupied France. Landa, known as the Jew hunter, waltzes into a quiet farmhouse to flush out hidden Jews. After drinking two glasses of milk, Landa, quietly, chillingly, calls his men in and has them shoot a Jewish family hiding under the floorboards. Only the daughter, Shoshana, escapes.
Chapter 2 introduces us to the Basterds, a group of American-Jews who are brutal avengers. Led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine, played by Brad Pitt, the Basterds pulverize Nazis by killing as many as they can, in the most hideous way possible, and then scalping them.
These and several other tracks eventually converge in the climactic chapter in which Shoshana, who now runs a cinema theater in Paris and the Basterds, incinerate Hitler and the entire Nazi top brass while they attend the movie premiere of the latest film by the minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The theatre is set alight using highly combustible nitrate prints. In the Tarantino universe, cinema triumphs all and even puts an effective end to World War II. Like all of Tarantino’s films, Inglorious Basterds is a treasure trove of references.
The film’s title is taken from a 1978 B-movie. The soundtrack includes tracks by Sergio Lenoe’s legendary composer Ennio Morricone and the Basterds themselves echo The Dirty Dozen. But even if you don’t pick up the allusions, the film is, for the most part, high-octane entertainment. There is of course a lot of talking.
Entire chapters are based around conversations that test your patience. There is also a lot of violence. Even though the Indian censors have edited out two and a half minutes of the gory scalping scenes, there are several grisly moments. And what’s troublesome is that the violence has no moral dimension. The good guys, in this case the basterds, are as viciously cruel as the bad guys. In fact, in one scene, in which one of the Basterds, clubs a Nazi soldier to death, I was actually afraid for the Nazis.
Inglorious Basterds is a brilliantly orchestrated cartoon. It has no emotional core but Tarantino’s mastery of the medium won’t let you look away.
The film’s centerpiece is Waltz’s performance as Hans Landa. Waltz, who picked up the best actor award at Cannes, is so artfully sinister and seductive that he reduces Brad Pitt to wallpaper.
Inglorious Basterds will polarize viewers. You will either love it or you will hate it. But don’t miss it. That would be really cruel.