In the opening sequence of " Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino directs an emotionally shattering scene with brilliant camera work, delicate performances and almost-unbearable tension as a Gestapo officer in Nazi-occupied France visits a farmhouse where he suspects Jews are being hidden.
But during much of the rest of this very long (2 1/2 hours) hallucination of a World War II story, Tarantino relies on his trademark use of cartoon violence, outlandishly theatrical characters and clever but shallow dialogue. The result is a film that is sometimes brilliant, even daring, yet often self-indulgent, occasionally repulsive and ultimately cruel.
Released on DVD this week (1- and 2-disc versions, Universal Studios Home Entertainment, $29.98/$34.98 special edition/$39.98 Blu-ray, rated R), "Inglourious Basterds" combines realism with fantasy in its five-part structure. As writer-director Tarantino explains in a DVD discussion with his star, Brad Pitt, and film critic Elvis Mitchell, his first three stories (or chapters) introduce the three leading characters. By the fourth and fifth chapters of the movie, they start to "interact" and "comingle."
(The rest of the DVD's limited bonus features include a few extended and alternate scenes, the full film-within-the-film titled "Nation's Pride," and some additional minor items.)
The aforementioned first part of "Inglourious Basterds," set in1941, introduces suave Gestapo Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz, winner of the best actor prize at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival for his performance), a charming but murderous beast who relishes the nickname the French have bestowed upon him, "The Jew Hunter."
In Chapter Two, we meet Brad Pitt as Aldo "The Apache" Raine, the swaggering American commander of a special team of Jewish-American soldiers operating behind enemy lines to kill and terrorize German soldiers. Raine's methodology includes having his men scalp German POWs or, in the case of one Jewish soldier, Sgt. Donny Donowitz, aka "The Bear Jew" (played by fellow film director Eli Roth), bash in their heads with a baseball bat.
In Chapter Three, the setting shifts to 1944 Paris, where a young Jewish woman, Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), who we saw escape from the farm house in Chapter One, now lives under an assumed name and operates a movie theater.
As in his other films, Tarantino takes frequent opportunities to show off his knowledge of movie history. The film's title is an intentionally misspelled homage to Italian director Enzo Castellari's 1978 World War II film "Inglorious Bastards," starring Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, which was itself a low-budget knock-off of Robert Aldrich's "The Dirty Dozen." (Both Castellari and Svenson have cameos in Tarantino's movie.)
Tarantino fills "Inglourious Basterds" with references to actual figures and films in movie history. Some are onscreen, such as Pitt's Aldo Raine, whose name is a play on Aldo Ray, a World War II veteran turned actor, and anti-Nazi fighter Hugo Stiglitz (played by Til Schweiger), an homage to a famous Mexican actor of the same name.
Others are just mentioned, like German actress-director Leni Riefenstahl (notorious for her Nazi propaganda film "The Triumph of the Will") and German actress Lilian Harvey, who fled Germany in 1939 after helping a Jewish choreographer escape to Switzerland.
In addition to all of these movie references and in-jokes, Tarantino found prominent roles in his story for Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth), and a smaller part for Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor).
All of the major characters come together in the film's second half, set in 1944, when the Germans decide to hold the world premiere of "Nation's Pride" in Paris, and choose Shosanna's movie theater as the venue. It's a premiere that will be attended by the Nazi high command, including Hitler, Goebbels, Martin Goring and Martin Bormann, which in turn attracts Raine and his soldiers and inspires Shosanna to plot her revenge.
Up to this point, the revenge fantasy of "Inglourious Basterds" had focused on the actions of Raine and his men. But here Tarantino takes a counterfactual leap and pursues a plot line that, had it actually occurred, would have changed the course of the war and the Holocaust.