Rearview Mirror: “Inglourious Basterds”
Quentin Tarantino’s Nazi-killing fantasy turns ten today.
Welcome to Rearview Mirror, a new monthly movie column in which I re-view and then re-review a movie I have already seen under the new (and improved?) critical lens of 2019. I’m so happy you’re here.
Today, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a title of which Spellcheck is not a fan, turns ten years old, yet it couldn’t be timelier. “Yet it couldn’t be timelier” is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, overused phrase when it comes to talking about the art of the past, but in this case, it’s actually true. It’s about Antifa. It’s about Nazis. It’s about propaganda. It’s about female film directors. With Taika Waititi’s Hitler satire Jojo Rabbit on every must-see list for the fall, these themes are clearly on the film-going audience’s mind. So let’s get into it.
Prior to watching it for this column, I’d only seen Inglourious Basterds once, in theaters. It was my first exposure to Tarantino’s filmmaking, and since at that point I associated him with the grisly trailers for Grindhouse, I was surprised by how watchable it was. My takeaways at the time were: 1) Mélanie Laurent is the most beautiful woman on the face of the earth 2) The Bear Jew is an excellent name for a character 3) It’s kind of pretentious to have misspelled words in the title of a movie and 4) that was fun, if apocryphal. Cut to ten years later, and Tarantino’s once again stirring up conversation with a blonde bombshell, a tough-talking Brad Pitt, and a bit of revisionist history, three key ingredients in Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. But more on that later.
Okay, more on that now. Once Upon A Time…In Nazi-Occupied France is literally the title of Inglourious Basterds’ first chapter, the well-known interrogation of a dairy farmer by SS officer Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Unfolding in real time, this opening salvo/prologue plays out the same way the later bar scene does: someone’s got a secret, and our characters talk and talk until that secret is revealed, at which point bloody hell breaks loose. Aristotelian in its simplicity.
In between these tense vignettes we’ve got The Basterds, a band of mostly Jewish Americans playing “injun” and scalping Nazis. They’re not in some Greek tragedy; they’re in a good old-fashioned cowboy Western (again, the OUATIH connections aren’t hard to find). They literally engage in a Mexican standoff, a figure of speech I’m not sure your average German soldier would actually have understood, but let’s chalk that up to poetic license.
At some other point in my life, I might have said that a fictional band of soldiers having a grand old time hunting Nazis in a film that, frankly, appeals to people who get off on gun violence was in poor taste, and that the sacrosanct Holocaust shouldn’t be invoked for this kind of entertainment. But in the intervening decade, there’s been a shift, either in the cultural conversation or in my understanding of it (or both). I used to think that the disagreement was between people who thought the Holocaust was too tragic to fictionalize and people who thought it was long enough ago that it was fair game. Instead, the split seems to be between people who understand the gravity of Hitler’s massacre and people who are instead engaging in some sort of philosophical debate about freedom of speech and reverse racism and tolerance of intolerance and other bullshit bad faith arguments. Speaking only for myself and not for my people (American Jews, shalom), the question of whether or not it’s okay to play with movie history takes a backseat to the far more pressing matter of whether or not it’s okay to punch Nazis. And it is! It’s okay to Punch Nazis! It’s okay to do it on the street, it’s okay to do it in a movie, it’s okay to watch Eli Roth beat an SS officer to death with a baseball bat and think it’s fucking awesome because like, yes, that is what the American armed forces should be doing: murdering evil. The Basterds don’t just hold up; they’re heroes, and I have a crush on all of them.
But the heart of the movie belongs to Shosanna Dreyfus (Laurent), the young Jewish girl who escapes death in the first scene only to return, be drawn behind enemy lines, and ultimately sacrifice her life to have her revenge. She screens films, watches films, and finally makes her own film, a refute to the Third Reich propaganda she’s supposed to be exhibiting, because as with so much auteurist work, it’s a movie about movies.
At some other point in my life, I might have said that a fictional band of soldiers having a grand old time hunting Nazis in a film that, frankly, appeals to people who get off on gun violence was in poor taste, and that the sacrosanct Holocaust shouldn’t be invoked for this kind of entertainment.
Elsewhere, a German movie star (Diane Kruger) puts her acting skills to a much higher test as a double agent for the British, her survival hinging upon her ability to blind others in the glare of her fame. A Nazi soldier plays himself in a movie about his own exploits. Everyone’s undercover; everyone’s in costume; everyone is in a role; everyone has lines to deliver. But Shosanna, especially. Shosanna, the most classic protagonist of all: the unlikely hero. In fact, it only takes her and her employee/boyfriend to pull off what dozens of trained military men could not: killing the Nazi elite and ending the war. Everything in Operation Kino is essentially redundant; they’re blowing up a theater owned by a woman who meant to set it on fire anyway (ah, how like Hollywood for a man and a woman to have the same idea, and the man to take all the credit). There’s even a line about how the Jews control Hollywood, and I would personally like to thank Tarantino for reminding audiences that this sentiment isn’t just a cute little joke, it’s a literal Nazi talking point.
Shosanna’s nemesis, the evil Landa, does ultimately escape—but he’s not unscathed, thanks to Lieutenant Raine’s (Brad Pitt) knife, which he uses to carve a swastika into the officer’s forehead. A swastika on a forehead. There’s really no escaping Charles Manson in all of this, is there? Okay, so back to OUATIH and the grand unified theory of Tarantino movies. I don’t know who came up with it, and I don’t remember where I heard it, but the version I know goes something like this: the “realistic” movies take place in one universe, and the “fantastical movies” like Death Proof and Kill Bill are the movies that the characters in the first universe would watch. And those films’ hyper-violence is justified, according to the theory, by the revisionist history presented in Inglourious Basterds. If, in fact, World War Two ended when a cinema in Paris exploded, then there is necessarily a connection between film and violence, and audiences in, say, the world of Reservoir Dogs would be primed for an extra-bloody story—because this is the legacy and the history and the world that they’ve grown up in.
There’s even a line about how the Jews control Hollywood, and I would personally like to thank Tarantino for reminding audiences that this sentiment isn’t just a cute little joke, it’s a literal Nazi talking point.
Make of that theory what you will. I’m not sure how much it adds to the experience of watching a Tarantino flick, but it’s an interesting idea, especially when you consider how the same dynamic plays out in his latest offering: the bad guys (Nazis, Manson acolytes) are violently defeated before they can cause the additional harm we know they would have wrought. So, I’m not saying that Tarantino is saying that we need to violently destroy ICE or whatever. I’m just saying, you know, maybe get a knife…just in case.
A decade after its release, Inglourious Basterds ranks, in my opinion, at or near the top of the list of Tarantino’s work, and is some of the best work from the actors involved. (Please, for the love of awards season, can someone get Christoph Waltz out of these tepid Woody Allen movies?). Best of all, there’s minimal ladies’ feet, and the one foot we do spend some time on is actually part of the plot. This is, sincerely, high praise. FL