Tarantino takes a knife to history

“Inglourious Basterds” is a frustrating flick. There is so much which is good in Quentin Tarantino’s new film. Yet there is also so much that is just plain strange in his World War II tale. When the film ends it’s unclear what you have just seen.

Tarantino’s story is about a group of Jewish American soldiers who go behind German lines towards the end of the war with the simple aim of killing as many Nazis as possible. They are led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) who has told his men they each owe him 100 Nazi scalps. They efficiently and bloodily begin paying off their debt. The Germans give them their nickname. They misspell it on their own.

We also follow the story of Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a Frenchwoman who has escaped the murderous Gestapo officer Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) who is also known as the Jew Hunter. Shosanna now runs a movie theater in Paris which much to her horror is selected as the venue for the premier of a new Nazi propaganda film. When she learns that many of the German High Command will attend she sets about getting revenge.

And then the Basterds turn up and all hell breaks loose.

First: what’s good. Tarantino, who has said for years that this would be his masterpiece, has assembled a great and very large international cast to tell the two intertwined stories in the film. Actors from all over the US and Europe lend their skills and languages to the mix.

Thus we have Brad Pitt Waltz, and Laurent alongside Daniel (‘Goodbye Lenin’) Bruhl, Mike Meyers, Eli Roth, Michael Fassbinder and even B.J. Novak of “The Office” along with a host of others. It’s a potent mix.

Then we have the classic Tarantino blend of talk and tension. He creates intolerable situations, forcing his characters into impossible choices. Then he just ratchets things to breaking point. Audiences know something nasty and usually gory is coming, and they are along for the ride. It’s horrifying and riveting.

The strange thing about the film is the story becomes so outlandish, and so detached from history that it undermines the film. Historical figures appear for no reason at all. (Someone will explain the Winston Churchill bit someday, but for now it’s mystifying.) Poetic license is a wonderful thing, but this heads off into an alternate reality.

Tarantino makes movies which are homages to films of the past. He’s trying the same thing here and has thrown a lot of marvelous rich ingredients into “Inglourious,”

Yet rather than becoming a thick stew, this one becomes a confusingly thin soup, which leaves a dissatisfying emptiness.