Before a word is spoken in Quentin Tarantino’s already-controversial Inglourious Basterds, the legend “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France” appears on screen, our first clue: This movie isn’t grappling with history, but reinventing it.
In his extravaganza about a band of Nazi-scalping Jewish-American soldiers led by Brad Pitt (what’s a war movie without a mega movie star?) and femme fatale Resistance fighters plotting to blow up Hitler, Tarantino creates a bizarro universe with a World War II that is vaguely like the real one. And good for him. Because this is not just another genre-loving Tarantino indulgence. It is a surprisingly witty, unsurprisingly bloody action movie about revenge, about the director’s unquenchable passion for film, and ultimately about how Americans come to know history. It is also his most audacious and entertaining film since Pulp Fiction; nothing he has done in the 15 years since that career-making moment has come close until now.
Like most acts of daring, Inglourious Basterds has evoked love-it and hate-it responses. It is trademark Tarantino, filled with allusions to old movies and several storylines that eventually converge. Pitt may be the commercial lure, but the film’s five separate chapters don’t even begin with him. We start in a farmhouse in 1941, where the Nazi Hans Landa interrogates a farmer he thinks is hiding a Jewish family. Christoph Waltz plays Landa with such chilling immediacy that you fear he can read minds.
Complaints about the film’s irreverence—the attacks that call it “stupid” or “offensive,” the how-dare-he-reinvent-history arguments—seem actively wrong-headed.
And Pitt, perfectly in sync with Tarantino, plays Aldo Raine in the bigger-than-life acting style of old Hollywood. With his bristly, unglam moustache and cornpone accent, Raine compares his misspelled band of take-no-prisoners basterds to Apaches, but this is Tarantino-land so he’s invoking the Apaches of cowboy-and-Indian Westerns. Of course, we see scalpings, and swastikas carved on foreheads, too. Come on, Tarantino is bloody even when he’s not at war.
• Paul Cullum: Tarantino's Glorious Nazi• Lloyd Grove: Tarantino's Star Also a Critic• Kim Masters: My Father, The Inglourious Basterd• Lee Siegel: Tarantino's Hollow ViolenceEverything on screen is cartoonish and meant to be, from Pitt’s scowl to the character of the Bear Jew who kills Nazis by bashing them with a baseball bat. Yes, a U.S. soldier wipes out Nazis using the symbol of the American national pastime. I don’t know if Tarantino intended this to be a tongue-in-cheek metaphor, but he’s so in tune with the culture that his movies can take on meanings he never intended.
Pitt vanishes for stretches of time as the other, equally intriguing plots are spun out. In 1944 Paris, Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), the girl we saw fleeing from the French farmhouse at the start, is running a movie theater, determined to avenge her family, and trying to avoid the attention of the smitten Nazi soldier and movie star Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl).
Diane Kruger, as a glamorous German actress with the comically perfect name Bridget von Hammersmark, is involved in a different destroy-Hitler operation. She is at the center of a long, suspenseful set piece in a dark club, in which undercover agents pass themselves off as Nazis right under some actual Nazis’ drunken stares. Inglourious Basterds is paced like a miniseries, in a good way; each chapter could be a half-hour episode in which Tarantino gives the characters room to breathe.
The women and the basterds come together in a big, explosive ending that hangs on a plan codenamed Operation Kino. But for all Tarantino’s talk-show chatter about cinema saving the world, you don’t have to be a movie geek to appreciate what he’s up to. The music behind the “Once upon a time... ” legend happens to be “The Green Leaves of Summer” from the 1960 Western The Alamo; hardly anyone knows that, but everyone will recognize a sound that is defiantly more ‘60s than ‘40s. You don’t even need to have grown up watching Tarantino’s beloved spaghetti Westerns (like Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, another reference) or war movies like The Dirty Dozen; we’ve all absorbed them by osmosis. (And this isn’t always true of Tarantino’s films; his Kill Bill movies were too hermetically martial-artsy.)
If people don’t like Tarantino’s movie-studio artifice, that’s simply a question of taste. But complaints about the film’s irreverence—the attacks that call it “stupid” or “offensive,” the how-dare-he-reinvent-history arguments—seem actively wrong-headed. Tarantino’s rock-bottom moral assumption about the war is unimpeachable. The Nazis are still the bad guys here; the heroes are the Jewish-American soldiers and the Resistance fighters. Everything else, including history, is up for grabs and should be. It’s a movie.
Behind all the finger-wagging is the idea that movies about history need to hew to facts. But why should they? It’s not Tarantino’s fault if history teachers are less-effective storytellers than moviemakers, not his responsibility to compensate for that. And he shouldn’t have to cater to humorless viewers or critics.
Yet even the viral marketing for Basterds has come under attack. A mock trailer promotes Nation’s Pride, the fictional movie-within-the-movie Zoller stars in, produced by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. The fake trailer is so comic—“His legend was baptized in blood,” a stentorian voice says of Zoller—it couldn’t be mistaken for the real thing; it’s sending up Nazi propaganda as the melodramatic horror that it was. (That video and the Nation’s Pride scenes were directed by Tarantino protege Eli Roth, who, in addition to playing the Bear Jew, directed the ultraviolent Hostel films.)
The moral question some thoughtful critics have raised—why make the Jews as vicious as the Nazis?—is worth considering, but better to let the film inspire that debate than to suggest Tarantino shouldn’t be toying with history. There’s room on screen and in the culture for Schindler’s List and for Inglourious Basterds in all its invigorating, bizarro glory.
Caryn James is a cultural critic for The Daily Beast. She also contributes to Marie Claire and The New York Times Book Review. She was a film critic, chief television critic and critic at large for The New York Times, and an editor at the Times Book Review. She is the author of the novels Glorie and What Caroline Knew.