There is no question that writer-director Quentin Tarantino is a brilliant film-maker. But there is some question about whether he has yet made a brilliant film. No one takes a more visceral pleasure in movies than he does but there is always a chilly irony and a look-at-me distance. Movies are more Tarantino’s mirror than his window.
This film takes its title from a little-seen Italian movie made in 1978, but starting with the intentional misspelling, it has little in common with the original except for a WWII setting and a Tarantino’s characteristic pulpish sensibility. It shares even less in common with history. About the only thing it gets accurately is that the Nazis spoke German and the Americans spoke English.
Tarantino calls the movie a revenge fantasy. Brad Pitt plays Lieutenant Aldo Raine, who assembles a squadron of Jewish soldiers with one goal, to kill as many Nazis as possible, in as horrifying a manner as possible. “We will be cruel to the Germans and through our cruelty they will know who we are,” he tells them. One of his men is a former German soldier they rescued from prison after he killed his superior officers. Another is nicknamed “The Jew Bear” (played by horror director Eli Roth), and he kills Nazis with a baseball bat.
Meanwhile, a Jewish woman named Shosanna Dreyfus (MÃ©lanie Laurent) owns a movie theater in Paris. She escaped from the Nazis and has a new identity. A handsome German war hero who is interested in getting to know her better arranges for the premiere of the new movie about his triumph in battle to take place at her theater, putting her in danger, but giving her the opportunity to put the Nazi dignitaries who will be attending in danger as well. Tarantino’s almost fetishistic fascination with movies, from the fine points of the auteur theory down to the combustibility of the film stock, gives this section of the film an extra charge.
Tarantino’s opening scene is brilliantly staged, as a German officer (Austrian actor Christoph Waltz) visits a French dairy farmer in search of Jews who may have escaped his predecessor. Waltz, winner of the Cannes prize for acting, instantly joins Hannibal Lecter, Darth Vader, and the Wicked Witch of the West as one of the all-time great movie villains with a mesmerizing performance that shows off his fluency in English, German, French, Italian…and evil. Like Lecter, his venom is even more disturbing because of his urbanity and courtliness. Other scenes are also masterfully shot, especially an extended scene in a bar, when a critical meeting of Allied forces working undercover find themselves among a drunken party of German soldiers celebrating a new baby. Others, like the viscious killing of a group of what Raine calls Nah-sies, suffer from Tarantino’s tendency to go for showmanship over substance.
And that is the problem at the core of the film. If the misspelling of the words in the title was a signal of some kind, like the backwards letter intended as a warning and a small sign of protest in the sign over the gate at Auschwitz, then we could look for meaning in the reworking of historical events and the actions taken by real people. But Tarantino does not care about that. He is still about sensation, not sense. He appropriates the signifiers of WWII because they are easy, and because they are both scary and safe. His Nah-sies are like dinosaurs, unquestionably dangerous and unquestionably vanquished. Tarantino is a film savant. He knows and understands and loves the language of film. He just doesn’t have much to say.