Inglourious Basterds opens Friday throughout the Triangle

Quentin Tarantino wanted to make Inglourious Basterds for more than a decadeever since his first burst of celebrity, which culminated with Jackie Brown, the movie world has wondered about his dream World War II project. QT finally got the financing for the film and shot it quickly last fall, rushing it to Cannes this past May. It made sense to bring the film to the site of his greatest triumph, in 1994, when he won the Palm d’Or for Pulp Fiction.

But a similar reception was not to occur. Cannes audiences, perhaps a bit exacting in their standards for Third Reich movies and perhaps jaded after 15 years of Tarantinism, failed to offer much love. A Guardian review declared Inglourious Basterds to be “colossal armour-plated turkey from hell” and concluded that he should “go back to making cheerfully inventive outrageous films like Kill Bill. Because Kill Adolf hasn’t worked out.” What business does this American rube have making a movie about World War II and the Holocaust? Shouldn’t he be confined to his Asia-extreme fetishes and shout-outs to ’70s schlock cinema? And shouldn’t World War II be left to the morally serious, furrowed-brow makers of films like The Reader and Atonement?

So with suitably deflated expectations, I sat down to watch Tarantino’s opus about a fictitious group of Jewish-American commandos behind enemy lines in Europe that ambushes and scalps German soldiers. The opening scene of Inglourious Basterds, set in a French farmhouse, lasts for what seems like 20 minutes as a Nazi investigator interrogates a farmer he suspects of harboring Jews. But it’s a great 20 minutes: tense, expertly paced and thrilling. But this knockout set piece gives way to a second scene that lasts just a few minutes and features Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines, leader of the “Basterds.” His speech to his mendelivered in a desperately unfunny, unconvincing Tennessee hillbilly twangexplains in far too much detail the Basterds’ mission to kill and mutilate “Nazzies.” We later see examples of the Basterds’ gleefully barbaric practices in the German countryside. So far, an uneven movie and, for those who take little pleasure in watching sadistic violence even when visited upon Nazissomething less than a so-so movie.

But then a brilliant, smart and surprising film emerges when the action moves to Paris, where we meet a character we’ve already encountered, a Jewish woman calling herself Emmanuelle Mimieux (the French filmmaker and actress Mélanie Laurent) who owns a movie theater. Because the city is under German occupation, her theater is showing an old Leni Riefenstahl filmnot her infamous documentaries, but The White Hell of Pitz Palu, one of her mountain-climbing movies. A passing German soldier asks her why the marquee features not just Riefenstahl’s name, but the name of the director, G.W. Pabst. “In France, we revere our directors,” Emmanuelle responds.

To our surprise, Inglourious Basterds becomes, among other things, a playful (and more or less historically reliable) study of pre-World War II European cinema and the Nazis’ attempt to co-opt it. The German soldier Frederich Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who chats up Emmanuelle in front of her theater, turns out to be a war hero whose exploits were reenacted in Nazi propaganda films. He develops a mad crush for Emmanuelle, not realizing just how much, and why, she hates him. In time, the objectives of the Basterds will converge with a plan Emmanuelle cooks up in her Paris movie theater.

Seamless plotting has never been Tarantino’s strong suit, and this film has only the most basic of constructions: Motives are established in the first two scenes, and the remainder of the film is a series of long set pieces or “chapters,” during which Tarantino builds his film to a sensational climax. The pleasures along the way are incidental and episodic, as we’re repeatedly treated to a deliciously long scene in which someone’s secret or secret identity is at risk.

Particularly effective is a scene in a basement French pub that involves carousing German soldiers, undercover Basterds and a German film star, Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), who is now working for the English. The scene’s key character is one Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), an English expert on Weimar cinema who is now posing as a Nazi officer. (Yes, a film scholar becomes a heroic man of action in this movie.) The scene is quintessential Tarantino, with smart, funny dialogue and a cauldron of danger slowly heating up underneath.

Inglourious Basterds received an indifferent reception at Cannes, but the festival did honor a singularly brilliant performance by the Austrian actor Christopher Waltz, who plays Col. Hans Landa, the Jew-hunting Nazi officer we meet in the film’s opening scene. Landa is the most terrifying movie character in recent memory: Every time he enters the room, he seems to zero in on someone’s secret (which the audience also knows). Landa is a Nazi caricaturefastidious, faintly effeminate and hyper-cultivatedbut he’s also able to command a scene and terrorize his interlocutors with something as simple as a plate of strudel or a glass of milk. If the Oscar voters can set aside their aversion to irony, comedy and subtlety, Waltz should get best supporting actor in a walk.

Tarantino’s film shows love and appreciation for the European cinematic tradition. The depth of his historical interests may seem surprising in light of his hipper, more contemporary enthusiasms, but his production company has always been called A Band Apart, which is derived from the French title of Jean-Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. Not since R.W. Fassbinder (and Godard) has a filmmaker shown so much clever, creative interest in how the Third Reich attempted to put mass culture in the service of mass slaughter. But Tarantino is also too vulgar to take himself too seriously, so he ends his film with a suitably tacky coda. To me, it’s an anticlimax to the coup de cinema (in the most literal sense) that immediately precedes it. Still, it wouldn’t be Tarantino if he didn’t remember that, hey, it’s only a movie.