Back in his days as the geek god of clerks at Manhattan Beach Video Archives, Quentin Tarantino must have looked at all those World War II movies, especially the ones about plots to kill Hitler, and realized what was wrong: everybody knows the ending. Bad guys lose. Hitler died in his bunker. Where’s the suspense? Where’s the ambiguity? Most films about the war treat the historical record as sacred, which often serves as an excuse for lofty moral judgments. Only a few bold souls created alternative versions, like the 1963 film It Happened Here, in which Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo imagined a Nazi-occupied Britain. Tarantino’s rewrite is more brazen still, with a twist that’s pure Hollywood. Hitler will die where? In a movie theater. And who will kill him? Some Jews.
Inglourious Basterds the anomalies in spelling are to distinguish Tarantino’s film from a not-so-hot 1978 Italian movie variation on The Dirty Dozen convenes Resistance fighters from Germany and France and soldiers from Britain and the U.S. in a scheme to destroy the Third Reich. The Basterds are a unit of Jews American and German under the command of Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a tough, jovial hillbilly who sees his mission as the killing and scalping of Nazis. Any German soldiers, in fact. They’re all the same to Aldo.
The scalping is appropriately detailed, and several guns are pointed at the tender areas of adversaries. But this is a 2 1/2-hour war movie without a single scene on the front lines. No long tracking shots of soldiers in foxholes or marching across an open field with a chorus of rifle fire. Fans of the operatic violence in Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill movies eager for a thick new slab of steak Tarantino will be disappointed. There are glimpses of Q.T.’s deft cinematic footwork: a quick flashback to the Basterds’ springing of a famous Nazi killer from prison; a moment in bed with a German officer and his French interpreter; a crowd shot in which high-ranking Nazis are ID’d with their names printed over their heads. Most of the film, though, reminds you that Tarantino may be a world-class director but what he really wants to do is write. Here the most explosive confrontations are verbal long dialogues, often admirably tense and usually in French or German. The chats take the form of interrogations. A German officer probes; a Resistance fighter evades.
The officer, Colonel Hans Landa , is a nastily smooth operator: oozing charm like pus, with a courtly tone and a preening self-regard. Known as the Jew Hunter, he calls himself a detective, trying to stop a war crime. Among his suspects are a French Jewess, Shosanna Dreyfus , who has escaped Landa’s grasp and now runs a movie theater in Paris; and Bridget Von Hammersmark , a leading lady of German cinema who is secretly in league with British intelligence. Many Tarantino movies are female revenge fantasies, in which strong women plot the deaths of men who wronged them. In Shosanna and Bridget, the writer-director has fashioned two of his steeliest, most principled femmes fatales.
Laurent, Kruger and Waltz are the soul of the film. Their conversations percolate with menace because Tarantino plants plot elements that blossom later for maximum impact. When Colonel Landa asks one of the ladies for her shoe and, at a restaurant, orders milk for the other, you feel nooses tightening around their necks and yours. In these scenes and another in a basement bar where the smallest wrong gesture cues a bloodbath, Tarantino shows how to achieve drama through whispers and forced smiles. The parallel plot of a budding romance between Shosanna and a German war hero has a similar trajectory the pot simmers, then the lid blows off and the same artful mix of subtlety and surprise. These vignettes work much better than the big set pieces, with the Nazis in the movie theater or the Basterds in the field. You needn’t scalp a man to make his hair stand on end.
It’s just possible that Tarantino, having played a trick on history, is also fooling his fans. They think they’re in for a Hollywood-style war movie starring Brad Pitt. What they’re really getting is the cagiest, craziest, grandest European film of the year.
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