by Willa A. Cmiel
Inglourious Basterds begins with Nazi Colonel Hans Landa, nick-named the “Jew Hunter,” interrogating a French dairy farmer he suspects, or rather he knows, is harboring fugitives. Things happen glacially, it seems, but the scene will rack your nerves and tug at your heart. And while the tone take a fleeting farcical turn when Landa pulls out his cartoonishly large pipe, in the end I’m still haunted – perhaps even more so – by those piercing Jewish eyes beneath the floorboards.
In general, reviewer reactions have been split fairly evenly between offended and uplifted. Christopher Orr (New Republic) calls the first scene a “knockout.” Indeed, it’s slow and calculated, but brilliantly moving. A beautiful beginning. David Denby (New Yorker), on the other hand, refers to the film as an “extravagant jest” and to Tarantino’s body of work as “morally callous.” What Denby isn’t clear on is exactly how the film’s extravagance translates to conclusive derision. For example, Tarantino’s occasional trinkets of absurdity, usually in the form of larger-than-normal inanimate objects–the Colonel Landa’s pipe in the first scene, the German’s boot of beer in the basement bar, the whipped cream on the apple streudel–are unsettling in otherwise formal, highly strung stretches of narrative. In contrast with the overt ridiculousity, sometimes overly so, of the band of Inglourious Basterds, these strokes of carnivalesque suggest or remind that nothing is what it seems; they are simultaneously doom harbingers and flippant reminders that a “serious” film on World War II this is not; as Mick LaSalle (SF Chronicle) iterates, the director “explodes clichés to keep us awake.”
No, Basterds is not a Schindler’s List, Thin Red Line, or Casablanca. But we don’t need any more movies like those. The emotional core, more tangible than in any of Tarantino’s other films, builds from and questions every single war movie ever made. There is humanity in this movie. It is an “extravagant” war movie, sure, but it’s also a war movie about war movies: documentation, memory, and the power of film. [Are the featured films in this film probing art or spiteful revenge?] That’s no jest. And since we won’t stop making WWII sagas, nor should we, reinvention of the standard is hereby necessary. If Tarantino hasn’t done it with Inglourious Basterds (though I think he has) the process has surely begun.