Quentin Tarantino has long considered the original "Inglorious Bastards" to be his "own private little movie." So when he bought the rights to Enzo Castellari's little-seen 1978 Italian World War II flick -- later retitled "G.I. Bro" to capitalize on football-star-turned-actor Fred Williamson's presence -- the assumption was that Tarantino aimed to create another cinematic collage, similar to what he did with his two "Kill Bill" movies, martial-arts mash-ups that wore their references on their kimono sleeves.
But Tarantino's curiously spelled World War II revenge fantasia, "Inglourious Basterds," which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and arrives in theaters Friday, is full of surprises. Instead of following men on a mission, a la "The Dirty Dozen," "Basterds" offers a singular vision, one that testifies to Tarantino's evangelical belief in the power of film.
The film focuses equally on three main characters -- a Nazi officer known as the Jew Hunter (Christoph Waltz), a beautiful Parisian cinema owner (Melanie Laurent) who receives an unexpected opportunity to avenge her family's death, and the good-ol'-boy leader (Brad Pitt) of a Nazi-scalping band of Jewish American soldiers known as "The Basterds."
The trio come together in an explosive climax that might be considered over-the-top -- at least to those who haven't voraciously watched the war-era genre movies that inspired Tarantino while writing "Basterds."
"The idea that cinema can bring down the Third Reich is a really juicy metaphor that you can do a lot with," Tarantino says. "On the other hand, it's not a metaphor at all. It's the reality of the movie."
"Basterds," then, isn't Tarantino remaking a genre. It's Tarantino remaking World War II in five original chapters. To understand the cinematic context and filmic references behind those episodes, we offer our own chapter-by-chapter guide to "Inglourious Basterds." (Warning: Specific scenes and plot points will be discussed, but no spoilers. We promise.)
Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France ...
"Basterds" begins with a protracted confrontation between Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Waltz) and a French dairy farmer he suspects of hiding a missing Jewish family. The lengthy stand-off is pure Sergio Leone -- the quiet menace of the long shots of sparse landscapes, the tense, back-and-forth exchanges between predator and prey, not to mention the extensive use of Leone composer Ennio Morricone's music.
"I just had in my mind the way 'The Good, the Bad and the Ugly' used the Civil War, that it'd be really cool to do a spaghetti western using World War II iconography," Tarantino says. "The spaghetti western landscape in movies is a no-man's land. Life is cheap. Death can be right around the corner. No room for tears. And when death happens, there's some sort of sardonic quip about it."
"It's a brutal landscape," Tarantino adds, "and also a pretty good description of what life was like in Nazi-occupied France at that time."
Tarantino shoots down the rumor that he had contacted Morricone to provide an original score.
"If I'm going to have Morricone score a movie for me, I'm going to do it like Leone," he says, referring to how Leone had Morricone write the music before he began filming. "That would be great, but it would have been impossible in this case. We were already leaving the gate."
The Basterds and the bastard
Tarantino's Hitler (Martin Wuttke), introduced in juxtaposition with meeting the Basterds crew, recalls the wartime movie practice of using Hitler's grotesque image as an object worthy of ridicule and scorn. It's not quite Charlie Chaplin in "The Great Dictator." It's more like the fool seen bumbling around in the 1945 Bugs Bunny cartoon "Herr Meets Hare" or the kidnapped Fuhrer in the 1942 no-budget propaganda movie "Hitler: Dead or Alive."
"Three gangsters go to Germany after an industrialist puts out a million-dollar contract on Hitler," Tarantino says, explaining the "Dead or Alive" plot. "They get him, but the S.S. surrounds them. So they take off Hitler's uniform, shave off his mustache and cut off that big lock of greasy hair that hangs in his face. When the Nazis burst in, he doesn't look like Hitler any more." The Nazis proceed to beat him mercilessly. "It's unbelievable! They're giving him the old Nazi backhand and he's just ranting and raving."
Tarantino says he isn't always using Hitler for laughs, though he loves movies like Ernst Lubitsch's "To Be or Not to Be," which opens with what appears to be the alarming sight of Hitler standing in the middle of Warsaw in August 1939, days before the war began.
"The part of 'Basterds' that always struck me as very 'To Be or Not to Be' is the lunch scene with [Nazi minister of propaganda Joseph] Goebbels," Tarantino says. "Just the Old World sophistication of it. There's a Lubitsch touch there. At least, I went for it, anyway. It feels like a Nazi version of a scene from 'L.A. Story.' "
Leni and Max meet-cute
Joining Goebbels at that lunch is Shosanna Dreyfus (Laurent). First seen in the film's opening chapter, Shosanna now owns a cinema in Paris. One night, as she's changing the titles on the marquee, she meets Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero turned movie star, beating Audie Murphy to the punch.
Safe to say, theirs is the first-ever movie meet-cute where the topic at hand is a debate over the filmmaking merits of Leni Riefenstahl and Max Linder.
The French-born Linder was a star of European silent film, nearly Chaplin's equal as a comedian. Riefenstahl began as the superwoman of German mountain climbing movies, but is best known for directing history's most famous propaganda film, "Triumph of the Will."
"Basterds" shows more than a passing interest in moviemaking in the Third Reich, with Goebbels, its leader, seen aspiring to be like Hollywood producing icon David O. Selznick.
"Riefenstahl and Goebbels despised each other," Tarantino says. "He was in charge of every single person in the German film industry with the sole exception of her."
"We shot on the same stages that Goebbels used during the war," Tarantino adds. "It felt weird, but cool, too, with the way we were rewriting history."
Film commando receives blue ribbon in Pabst
Tarantino has often said that if he wasn't making movies, he'd be writing about them. In "Basterds," he goes so far as to write one into the mission. Described in the script as a "young George Sanders type," Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is a British commando (not to mention a self-professed expert on the subtext of German director G.W. Pabst), very loosely modeled on writer Graham Greene.
"It's a little bit of a gimmick, but it makes sense," Tarantino says. "As an expert on German cinema, this guy could sell himself at a Nazi film event."
Saboteurs and 'Sabotage'
The movie's three main protagonists come together at the premiere of "Nation's Pride," the propaganda movie starring Zoller. Shosanna sees the event, held at her theater, as a chance to exact revenge and comes up with a plan straight out of Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 thriller, "Sabotage."
"I learned from that movie that 35- millimeter nitrate film can be a powerful weapon," Tarantino says. "I've always wanted to use that idea."
One of the key lines of "Basterds," spoken by Pitt, is: "I think this just might be my masterpiece."
Is the actor voicing thoughts of his director?
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, everyone asks about that," Tarantino says, laughing. "Well, what can I say? No one has ever accused me of lacking confidence."