Likewise, Inglourious Basterds is by no means universally superior to Tarantino’s predecessors. Yet for me there is one way in which this effort stands alone. Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino picture that made me feel like an insider. It is the first Tarantino movie that, at least during its running time, made me feel as if I might be enjoying it as much as QT himself. That isn’t the only reason I consider Inglourious Basterds to be Tarantino’s masterpiece, let’s be clear, but it goes a long way toward describing how it affected me.
EH: Certainly enjoyment is a big part of it. There’s no shortage of thrills here. But Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it’s not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting. Yes, there are outbursts of violence, much of it enacted by the titular Basterds, who despite their top billing actually thread through the film at intervals rather than remaining at the center of the narrative. These bursts of violence are quick and bracing, often preceded by a lengthy and nail-biting build-up that lasts much longer than the violence itself. Think of the seemingly endless series of shots before “the Bear Jew” (Roth) beats a Nazi colonel with a baseball bat: long, slow tracks in on the opaque black of the tunnel from which the hollow thunk of the baseball bat on the wall emerges, cut together with equally slow tracks into the impassive eyes of the doomed man, thinking about his impending death. Then the violence itself is abrupt and brutal and kind of silly and capped with Roth’s utterly ridiculous ranting about baseball, and the slow-building tension has erupted into something ugly and uncomfortable. The violent climax to the lengthy tavern scene is even swifter, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it frenzy of one-second shots set up by at least a half-hour of patient, probing dialogue.
In fact, the film’s three most tense and exciting sequences—the opening chapter, the interrogation of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) by SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and the tavern rendezvous—are driven by the dialogue, by conversations that dance around hidden subtexts and dangerous topics with that typically Tarantinoesque (or Rohmeresque) patience. The opening scene, a half-hour masterpiece in itself, sets the dominant tone for the film, even if that tone is frequently disrupted and warped by the intrusions of the Basterds or the Hitler caricature. This opening chapter, titled “Once upon a time… in Nazi-occupied France,” is sublime, suspenseful and emotionally devastating. It unfolds slowly, as Landa toys with a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) who’s been sheltering a Jewish family beneath his floorboards. The scene develops so patiently that its stakes aren’t clear for quite some time—the conversation is polite and formal, almost ceremonial in the exchange of pleasantries and compliments. All the while, Tarantino’s camera wheels around the two, capturing the unspoken tension in the scene, finally panning down to the men’s feet and then down even further, into the crawl space beneath the house where a Jewish family is hiding, terrified. Then, from a shot of the family’s eyes peering up through the floorboards, the camera inches back up to the pattering conversation above, which has suddenly acquired a new intensity and urgency. The scene’s denouement is harrowing, particularly the grief-stricken, shamed expression on the face of the farmer as he betrays his charges, a few tears streaking his cheeks.
There’s so much going on in this scene that it’s frankly stunning, and even if Inglourious Basterds had ended right there, with Landa yelling goodbye to the fleeing Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family’s massacre, I think I would’ve left the theater satisfied. It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story. Landa is sinister and charming in roughly equal measure, with a preening, superior manner that shows through in his tight-lipped smile and occasional moments of goofy theatricality. His moment of triumph within the scene, when he reveals that he knows about the hidden family, is undercut when, just at that moment, he whips out a ludicrously big pipe, dwarfing the farmer’s own pipe. It’s both a self-conscious assertion of his authority over the farmer, and a hilarious sight gag whose impact, both times I saw it, was tremendous: the audience was still giggling when Tarantino cuts in for a close-up of Landa as the SS officer chillingly reveals his endgame to the farmer. Tarantino does this kind of stuff throughout the film, nakedly manipulating his audience, letting the film’s multiple tones clash against one another, creating storm fronts where queasy humor and dead-serious suspense crash together. Tarantino also nods to the audience when, after the opening pleasantries have been exchanged, he has Landa make a big show of switching to English for the remainder of the conversation, an acknowledgement of the blockbuster audience’s limited patience for subtitles—and, it turns out, also a component of Landa’s forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can’t understand English. This opening sequence and the other tense conversations like it throughout the film masterfully control the audience’s emotions and reactions: there are long stretches where everyone seems to be collectively holding their breath, waiting for a release that seldom plays out quite as expected.
JB: I wholeheartedly agree that the opening scene with Landa and the dairy farmer is the film’s artistic high point. You’ve already touched on some of the brilliant contradictions in the scene, like the pipe gag and the clumsy excuse to use English that at first seems like an eye-rolling Tarantino indulgence (too cute by half) but then turns out to be diabolically brilliant. But let me back up for a moment to take an even broader view. To me, part of what’s so fascinating about that scene is how Landa is such an archetypical oversized cinema villain, even in the moments when he stimulates thoughts of real-world horror, while the farmer, LaPadite, is straight out of a more historically considerate drama. These are two genres playing out side by side, so different that Tarantino could have used his De Palma-inspired split-screen trick to present them. On one side, in Landa, we have the Tarantino film his previous works suggested Inglourious Basterds would be. On the other side, in LaPadite, we have the reverent World War II film that some Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan devotees feel the historical subject demands. It would be entirely misleading to suggest that Tarantino’s film is a marriage of both of these genres, because from start to finish Inglourious Basterds is pure fantasy with only allusions to textbook history. Nevertheless, it is true that both of these seemingly opposed genre sensibilities share the screen beautifully in this scene. Both sides feel equally invested in, equally realized, equally significant. I’d call it a balancing act, but Tarantino isn’t tiptoeing on any fine lines here. He isn’t interested in such things. He’s simply showing us his cinematic world from his own unique diagonal perspective.