“We in the killin’ Nazi bizness. An’ cousin, bizness is boomin’!” Brad Pitt scalps his enemies, Mélanie Laurent serves up a killer double bill for the Führer, Michael Fassbender is a movie critic turned secret agent, and the amazing Christophe Waltz makes all previous movie villains seem lightweight. Now on 4K Ultra HD, Quentin Tarantino’s brutal-but-funny war movie is really a critique of Hollywood escapism. It’s the ultimate wish fulfillment fantasy for every trigger-happy Audie Murphy Jr. who ever attended a matinee. I thought the movie would be tarred and feathered by America’s guardians of war nostalgia; instead it took eight Oscar noms plus a win for actor Waltz: “That’s a Bingo!”
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment
2009 / Color / 2:35 widescreen / 153 min. / Street Date October 12, 2021 / 29.98
Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Til Schweiger, Gedeon Burkhard, Jacky Ido, Rod Taylor, Mike Myers.
Cinematography: Robert Richardson
Supervising Art Director: Sebastian T. Krawinkel
Film Editor: Sally Menke
Produced by Lawrence Bender
Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Inglourious Basterds remains one of my favorite Tarantino films, although I still squint at the scalping scenes. I’ve read plenty of criticism typing it as pointless, aggravating and in terrible taste (gasp, not that). But I think I may have understood a few of the games that the director was playing with the subject of ‘escapist’ war movies. Mr. Q.T.’s immediate pre-pandemic hit Once Upon at Time in Hollywood has the same wish-fulfillment modus operandi: transcend a particular subgenre by leapfrogging to what audiences really want to see happen on screen. In fact, why don’t we just call this ‘Once Upon a Time in World War II?’
Universal’s new 4K Ultra-HD edition gives us an opportunity to reassess IB. It still holds up. It digs deep into the appeal of combat movies that treat war as a sports competition, where Our Side would never do the terrible things that the Other Side does. In the process, Tarantino juggles film grammar almost as might Jean-Luc Godard.
The eccentricities begin right at the start with a main title sequence that’s an attractive hodge-podge of type styles and music cues. Why are we hearing a soundtrack selection from John Wayne’s The Alamo? Because Tarantino is critiquing a subgenre that’s usually packed with anachronisms and non-sequiturs. The first scene up is one of Tarantino’s most intense dialogue exchanges, patterned after the opening of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Unlike Kill Bill and Death Proof, we don’t get the notion that Quentin Tarantino is amusing himself, performing hipster homage duty.
The show relies on Tarantino’s proven strength of writing great movie scenes that build tension, explore characters and clarify a complex storyline. Each chapter veers off in a new stylistic direction, often with new characters. The movie doesn’t have more than ten or so major scenes, almost like a Hollywood picture from the 1930s; the ratio between dialogue and action is also much more traditional. Fan-boys expecting slaughter on an ADD time schedule are going to be frustrated. Inglourious Basterds was Tarantino’s best work since 1997’s Jackie Brown; it’s topped only by the sublime Once Upon at Time in Hollywood.
“We in the killin’ Nazi bizness. An’ cousin, bizness is boomin’!”
Tarantino both celebrates and dismantles the popular escapist war movies that reshaped wartime combat stories into exciting ‘fun’ entertainments. An early standout in this vein was 1961’s impossible mission yarn The Guns of Navarone. Audiences lined up for the movie stars and spectacle, but the drama and suspense were now lightened by humor, and to be honest, a relaxed attitude toward human life. Ordinary German foot soldiers were fair game and died in great numbers, anonymously. ‘Nazis’ replaced wild Indians as all-purpose bad guys — Evil non-entities on which the moviegoer could project his personal aggression. But the viewer can still feel self-righteously smug by the result: macho heroism triumphs and all turns out okay for our side.
Inglourious Basterds is the first movie to embrace, analyze and transcend the escapist war adventure all in one go. It’s about war, war as propaganda, war in the movies, and our love affair with war movie violence. Movies, film culture, and the Power of Cinema are central to its violent fantasy. The critics that dismiss the movie outright simply haven’t a clue or are allergic to the film’s violence. The ones that approve wave the Quentin-Is-God flag, as they have since Pulp Fiction.
“That’s a Bingo!”
SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is one of the top ten best-written villains ever. He’s like Alexander Granach’s clever Nazi detective Gruber in Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die, only far more intimdating. Landa’s Nazi security agent dominates every scene, taking great pleasure in his ability to inflict instant mental torture. His air of courtesy toward farmer LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is a mask to confuse and intimidate; soldiers with machine guns are never far away. The jarring episode establishes Landa’s pride in his identity as ‘The Jew Hunter.’ Exploitation movie law states “Thou shall keep all violence on-screen”, but Tarantino cuts the scene off before we know the fate of LaPadite and his daughters, effectively leaving us in a state of unresolved tension.
The entrance of The Basterds pitches Inglourious back into the cheap seats, with Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in farce mode as he delivers a Patton– like pep talk to his handpicked squad of Jewish G.I.’s. The setup is pure Dirty Dozen and the speech is full of allusions to wild Indian massacre mentality. Raine’s neck scar reminds us of Anthony Mann and Sam Peckinpah characters that carry reminders of rope burns and scalping attempts. The scalping idea is the basis of The Basterds’ hold on the German imagination. It even gives Der Führer nightmares. Tarantino’s Grindhouse fans get their dose of bloody carnage. Tarantino uses his instant flashback sidebar technique to fill us in on the career of Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), a Wehrmacht renegade fighting for the Basterds.
The gross scalpings and other (petty?) atrocities carry weight because Raine’s guerilla methods are how most real in-country combat is fought. With insurgents, civil wars, etc., things can devolve into outright savagery unfit for the seven o’clock news. Sending enemy soldiers back with Swastikas carved in their foreheads is basic poetic barbarity. That the Nazis are branding Jews with numbers is only the least of their atrocities. As a way of sending threatening messages to the enemy, the Swastika handicraft points toward real Apache terror as portrayed in Major Dundee or Ulzana’s Raid. As Raine says, he didn’t parachute into hostile territory to teach the enemy good manners. Bizness is boomin’!
With the entrance of Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) we arrive at the complaint that Inglourious Basterds is a swamp of falsehoods and anachronisms. Duh! That’s the whole point of the show. With few exceptions, war movies after 1955 or so always impose revisionist attitudes, music and style onto spectacular bloody combat. I doubt that stirring symphonic Sousa marches and service anthems were really present at Wake Island or Bataan. The escapist war comedy Kelly’s Heroes injects hippies and ‘Man With No Name’ jokes into the mix. Inglourious Basterds is an even wilder fantasy but it never misrepresents the character of the participants. Hitler’s “cheesencracken sauerkrauten” tirades and Aldo’s extreme backwoods twang are jolting, but not exaggerated. When we hear source music it’s always from the period; Tarantino’s eccentric editing choices and eclectic music cues are imposed from the outside. Morricone’s The Battle of Algiers theme establishes The Basterds as guerilla pros, while Afro-French film projectionist Marcel (Jacky Ido) prepares his firebomb to an Elmer Bernstein cue from Zulu Dawn.
When he’s on his game Tarantino’s films are far greater than the sum of their found and borrowed cinematic parts. His movie-score choices are more than downloads from his fave mix list. A stylish montage shows a fatal lady-in-red preparing her makeup, putting on rouge as if it were Apache war-paint. The accompanying track reverberates with a David Bowie song. What sounds like an unlikely audio choice for a scene happening in 1944 comes off as inspired. It’s no more inappropriate to put ’80s pop over 1944 Paris than it is to put scat vocal jazz over Bolivia in Butch Cassidy in the Sundance Kid. Both work in context.
The key moment in many escapist war movies is when some authority figure tells the hero that his particular suicide mission is really a holy crusade that might end or shorten the war. The reality of war is usually much less noble. Inglourious Basterds goes goofball with its high-level briefing scene. General Fenech (Mike Myers) doesn’t exactly play his phony Brit in Austin Powers mode, but with Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) a casual participant we’re reminded how ridiculous (and exposition-laden) these scenes are. Lt. Archie Hickox (Michael Fassbinder) plays a Film Critic-turned commando leader, who tosses off highly anachronistic references to ‘subtextual’ meanings in German cinema, and uses movie titles as punch lines: Paris When It Sizzles. It’s our films versus their films — this is war!
Archie finds himself in a Parisian pub full of Germans, with Deutsche movie star / double agent Bridgit von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) … a situation as ridiculous as any WW2 espionage movie where glamorous spies hoodwink the Nazis over cocktails. The basement bistro scene is another extended Tarantino masterpiece-in-miniature that generates suspense the old-fashioned way. Halfway through the proceedings, SS investigator Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) arrives, ratcheting up the dramatic tension.
Hellstrom’s entrance was perhaps inspired by the SS menace played by Derren Nesbitt in 1968’s Where Eagles Dare, another key escapist war fantasy involving an absurd commando mission. The scene that Nesbitt interrupts, with spies Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood, is a fine set piece of the kind that Quentin Tarantino specializes in. It used to get applause in theaters, if only because the audience for Where Eagles Dare didn’t expect anything so sophisticated.
Aldo Raine attends the premiere in a white tuxedo, a wonderful jibe at unlikely impersonation scenes, as when Charles Bronson played a Nazi officer for Robert Aldrich. Smirking like a hick imitating Cary Grant, Aldo would of course be spotted by a blind man, a dead blind man. It’s ridiculous yet we’ve seen it a million times before. The rest of the big premiere scene is rigorously realistic, but it doesn’t matter … Tarantino generates tension with his clash of discordant elements.
In Paris Tarantino connects the dots for his main strategy, to compare historical reality against movie-version glorified reality. Venal Nazi opportunist Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has made himself into a power-mad Hollywood mogul, the kind who can cover up star indiscretions, even an occasional murder. Goebbels’ latest propaganda film Nation’s Pride has an uncomfortably ‘American’ feel. Wehrmacht sniper hero sniper Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) shoots hundreds of Americans from an Italian tower, much like our own Texan madman Charles Whitman. Zoller’s exploit and the biopic has made him a star with a polticial future. They call him the German Sergeant York, even though that film wouldn’t have played in German occupied territories until after the war. Instead of York’s equating German soldiers with turkeys (“Gobble Gobble”), Nation’s Pride shows American bodies piling up in absurd numbers — a ‘fun’ spectacle that Germans (and Mexicans, and Japanese, and American Indians) have had to watch in American movies for half a century.
Freddie Zoller’s real historical counterpart is Audie Murphy, our Medal of Honor recipient credited with 240 German kills. Several years later Murphy became a popular movie star and a recruitment Godsend for the U.S. armed forces. Produced as propaganda during wars and as nostalgic distortions between them, war movies are an irreplaceable PR factor for the hero-making industry that keeps war recruits coming.
War movies allow us to re-experience stylized combat over and over, re-interpreting it for new generations. Vintage war stories avoided ethnic complications via the convention of the ‘melting pot platoon,’ which always contained a cowboy, a Jew, an Italian-American, etc.. Inglourious ignores all that and instead gets right down to the basic issue of Jewish revenge. The Basterds’ comrade-in-arms, whom they’ll never meet, is Shoshanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), the only surviving member of her family after one of Hans Landa’s murder raids.
Never mind that Hitler visited Paris only once, for about an hour. By late 1944 he was a paranoid drug addict, mostly locked away in bunkers. The combined Basterds / Shoshanna counterstrike against Nazidom fulfills the adolescent fantasy of every schoolboy (Jewish or not) of my generation — to kill Hitler. Give the audience what they want …
Yes, a pop movie subgenre wins the war and saves the world. You’d think that Inglourious Basterds was inspired by filmmaker Guy Maddin. Hitler can be overthrown by the power of KINO! Tarantino conquers Nazi Germany with subversive filmmaking and the power of editing. A projection changeover becomes a major suspense device. Movie film of the 1940s is itself explosive by nature, as Tarantino explains in another expositional sidebar. Forget 3D: Shoshana Dreyfus’s movie screen lashes out to strike back at Evil in a wish-fulfillment demonstration of the power of pure Cinema. Critics lament liberal moviemaking’s pitiful record a tool of social change, but Mlle Dreyfus’ ‘experimental’ filmmaking effort really makes its point … with a few bombs included in the overall presentation, of course. Tarantino has long been accused of playing infantile movie games, but this picture assembles his eclectic pulp scraps into a coherent and original thesis — Film conquers Evil.
The murder raid aims to blow up Goebbels, Goering and Bormann at the premiere, a big step forward from The Dirty Dozen’s mandate to incinerate a paltry few generals. When Hitler joins the premiere guest list Shoshanna and The Basterds’ vengeance becomes a delirious ultimate trip. The Nazis gloat over their propaganda film, which then turns around to immolate them for their sins, while Jewish-American guerillas blast the main villains into bloody hamburger. All that’s left is for Tarantino to resolve the issue of double-dealing Nazis, the ones that bartered cozy deals with the Allied Command … with a neat and tidy comeuppance finish.
All this and economy too: Inglourious Basterds looks several times more expensive than it is. The movie doesn’t require that many sets. The premiere scene is fairly lavish but there are no large army battles to stage. The real work has gone into the casting, which collects a simply amazing array of interesting talent and arresting faces. German-language TV star Christoph Waltz totally deserved his Supporting Actor Oscar. He’s only the top name in a list of terrific talent: Mélanie Laurent, Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, Daniel Brühl, Sylvester Groth.
Tarantino is also to be applauded for respecting his audience. He doesn’t withhold information and then leave us to figure things out. Viewers that might not recognize Emmanuelle as being Shoshanna from the first scene are given a quick identifier title. He even makes fun of the process, identifying Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann with hand-scratched pointers … why waste time with standard, lumpy exposition? Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds succeeds glouriously at a real suicide mission — making an exploitation war movie that stands up as superior world-class cinema.
Universal Pictures Home Entertainment’s 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital of Inglourious Basterds is a stunning encoding; the picture looks great on Blu-ray but this makes me recall the experience of seeing the show in a perfect theater presentation. The audio is a knockout as well. Although the sound effects leap all over, I was most taken by the ability to hear all the Ennio Morricone cues so well integrated, and newly equalized.
The edition repeats the extras from the 2009 Blu-ray. A few extended and alternate scenes will interest those who study his methods. I’m not an Elvis Mitchell adherent so I didn’t watch too much of the round table discussion with Tarantino and the very pleasant Brad Pitt. The original Italian film Inglorious Bastards receives a generous nod. Along with galleries of international posters, Tarantino includes two funny collections of slates, two interviews with actor Rod Taylor and a “Killin’ Nazis Trivia Challenge” game.
We also see the uncut sniper scene from Nation’s Pride, which we learn was directed by Eli Roth. A comic short subject presents Roth as Goebbels’ fictitious ace director, touting the Nazi propaganda film as if the Germans made EPK’s for their product. Another roundup of posters for films seen in Shoshanna’s theater offers some relevant history behind pictures like The White Hell of Piz Palu and Le Corbeau, a famous movie filmed in France during the occupation.
The second Blu-ray version is included, along with the code to access a Digital Copy: “Stream or Download to Watch Anywhere.”
I never even tried to figure out the irregular spelling of the title … perhaps Weinstein and Universal discovered that changing one letter of the second word would keep discriminating newspapers from rejecting their ads. Tarantino is on record saying it’s an artistic flourish. Any director who can get away with saying ‘artistic flourish’ in an interview should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital rates:
Video: Excellent with HDR10+
Supplements: Extended & Alternate Scenes, Roundtable Discussion with Quentin Tarantino, Brad Pitt And Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times Talks, Nation’s Pride – Full Feature, The Making of Nation’s Pride, A Conversation with Rod Taylor, Rod Taylor On Victoria Bitter, The Original Inglorious Bastards, Quentin Tarantino’s Camera Angel, “Hi Sallys,” Film Poster Gallery Tour with Elvis Mitchell, Inglourious Basterds Poster Gallery, Trailers, “Killin’ Nazis Trivia Challenge.”
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: October 6, 2021
Text © Copyright 2021 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith on the Tarantino film: