Which is an awkward reality because Tarantino obviously wants to put away childish things with this new film. Not only does Brad Pitt close the film with the self-regarding line ‘This may well be my masterpiece’, but ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is a little more restrained and a little more quiet than films like ‘Death Proof’ and ‘Kill Bill’.
I say ‘a little’ because much of the film is not quiet at all: when the music comes, it’s loud; when the deaths occur, they’re gruesome, even sadistic; and when the plot kicks in, it’s pure, wild fantasy.
The film moves liberally between French, German and English dialogue and takes us through five chapters. First, in 1941, we see a Nazi, Colonel Hans Landa (played by Austrian Christoph Waltz), known as ‘The Jew Hunter’, discover and kill a Jewish family in France; only the youngest daughter gets away.
Then we’re introduced to the ‘basterds’, a gang of eight Jewish-American soldiers who, while deep undercover, roam Nazi-occupied France, murdering German soldiers and collecting their scalps. They’re led by a Tennessee goodtime boy, played by Pitt, but oddly they’re not on screen much. Pitt is lively but he disappears for a long time and is upstaged by Waltz, who gives a teasing turn of sly comedy and cruel charm. His scenes are the film’s best.
For the film’s final chapters, we leap to Paris in 1944, where the two stories collide. The girl who fled the Nazis, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is now running a cinema (of course) which plays films by Riefenstahl and Pabst. A Nazi private, Frederick (Daniel Brühl), takes a shine to her. It turns out that his gun-toting heroics are being immortalised in a film produced by Goebbels, who decides that Shosanna’s cinema is perfect for the premiere. Shosanna and the ‘basterds’ decide that the screening is their chance to strike.
This might be a period movie, but still we clock Tarantino’s signature style – the extended, know-it-all dialogue, the tricky gunplay, the pop-cultural nods. There’s even a Mexican stand-off à la ‘Reservoir Dogs’ and the obligatory ‘nigger’ reference, this time in French. But this lacks the stylistic pizzazz of Tarantino’s best, and by putting more emphasis than usual on the chatter it makes it more obvious that the talk often lacks wit and verve.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tarantino takes the history of cinema more seriously than the history of Europe. References to films abound: Michael Fassbender’s British spy (who has an amusing, if silly, ‘Dr Strangelove’-like scene with a superior played by Mike Myers) used to be a critic and regurgitates what sounds like a Wikipedia entry on German film, while another character wonders whether he prefers Chaplin or the French silent actor Max Linder.
What’s not clear is what Tarantino wants to achieve: ‘Inglourious Basterds’ is an immature work that doesn’t know whether it’s a pastiche, a spoof, a counterfactual drama, a revenge tragedy or a character comedy. How can we, within a space of minutes, feel adult sympathy for a hunted Jewish family and then childish glee when a Nazi’s skull is crushed with a baseball bat? The one cancels out the other.
But perhaps the biggest faux pas is introducing real historical characters. Tarantino’s inventions are big enough – not least Waltz’s terrific ‘movie’ Nazi – so why does he have to court implausibility by dragging in a loony Hitler (Martin Wuttke, nothing special) and introducing Goebbels? You might imagine, too, that this film was written in the ’60s: Tarantino seems blithely uninterested in more than 60 years of slow reconciliation between Europe and its past.
‘Subtle’ is not a word in Tarantino's lexicon. At the film’s heart is a fatal attempt to conflate fact with fiction and a celebration of vengeance that’s misplaced and embarrassing. Loyal fans expecting a familiar patchwork of Tarantino tics and quirks – ‘Pulp History’ or ‘Kill Hitler’ – might not be disappointed. Those expecting anything approaching progress, cinematically or ideologically, probably will be.