The Basterd Child of Glourious War Movies

08/21/2009 9:09 AM |

Brad Pitt in Quentin Tarantinos Inglourious Basterds

Hey, it’s Blockbluster, our seasonal feature in which Benjamin Sutton and Henry Stewart kill their art house dictators and find out during what sort of movies regular people all over the country are eating popcorn. This week they laugh off history’s burden with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, a World War II movie about movies (and WWII, a little).

Despite its brazenly misspelled title and the amped-up Spaghetti Western score that plays over the opening credits (and throughout much of the film), what do you think the odds are, Henry, that people will still manage to take offense at the gleeful disregard for historical accuracy and period detail in Tarantino’s new film? After all, the incredible fifteen minute-long first scene — a tense conversation between a French farmer and SS agent Col. Hans Landa (a superb Christoph Waltz) in 1941 that becomes a thousand times tenser halfway through — presents a fairly plausible, if slightly poppy World War II scenario. Or, to be more accurate, it’s a virtuoso (Hitchcockian, even) revision of a classic WWII movie convention: the calculating Nazi officer disarming the honorable simpleton as the terrified Jewish fugitives hide in horror under the floorboards.

Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s war movie about war movies. His work remains too cloaked in parody, self-conscious comedy and layered meta-narratives to ever take history too seriously. Depending on which vaguely factual narrative paradigm is being shredded onscreen, I might have had a problem with this, but in the case of World War II movies (especially those whose focus is mostly on the military, as opposed to the Holocaust) the field is already so heavily littered with poorly made shooters (like this one) and emotionally overwrought epics (like this one, or this one) that I ended up enjoying Tarantino’s spectacular historical revenge fantasy.

Though Basterds evokes innumerable war films and several WWII parodies in particular — Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator and Mel Brooks’ To Be Or Not To Be for instance — I think the Italian cowboy movie score offers a useful hint as to this film’s closest ancestors. We have two groups: the outlaws (Brad Pitt’s titular kill squad of Jewish-American soldiers disguised as civilians who use Apache war tactics) and the ostensible forces of the law (the men in Gestapo uniforms) whose methods are often crueler than those of the men they’re hunting. Their epic confrontations are played out in the treacherous wilds of Nazi-occupied France, a substitute for the Western’s ominous desert mesas. Both groups are headed for a violent showdown on the French equivalent of a dusty frontier Main Street: a cobblestoned Parisian square. In this case the spot where Landa and Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt, being awesome as ever) will finally meet also happens to be a movie theater, one belonging to Shosanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent), the only surviving member of the Jewish family discovered under the floors in the opening scene.

I’ll stop myself short of comparing Basterd’s meta-cinematic ending to that of another Mel Brooks film (not incidentally, Blazing Saddles, his Western). What other parallels did you catch in this allusion-riddled war comedy?

You know me, Ben: I can’t stand W.W.] II movies; lately, each one, domestic or foreign (the lovely Kaibei excluded), has been a cliché-ridden exercise in facile tear jerking and/or Hollywood Prestige award-baiting. Inglourious Basterds, too, is chockablock with genre clichés, but Tarantino’s ingenious coup is to replace one set of tropes with another: as you point out, his latest is a Western, spaghettisploitation with a National Socialist twist, merely disguised as a war movie. When Landa shows up at the Frenchman’s house in the first scene, it’s like a railroad baron appearing at a dirt farmer’s cabin. With one frame, he pays obvious homage to the last shot of The Searchers, and the whole movie, like the Kill Bill dyad, feels like one long tribute to Once Upon a Time in the West. (The opening title card even reads, “Once Upon a Time in Occupied France”. He must watch Leone’s movie, like, every day.) As such, he gives the W.W. II movie a much-needed kick in the ass.

When the movie focuses on Brad Pitt’s gang of elite Natt-see scalpers (risibly cast with some famous television schlubs, from Freaks and Geeks’ Samm Levine to The Office’s B.J. Novak), it’s like a revisionist oater, filtered through a revenge fantasy and thus rewritten from the Indians’ point of view—Tarantino drawing an analogy between Jew and Apache. Q.T. claims a bit of Cherokee ancestry on his mother’s side, so I guess it’s possible to see how he could relate to a marginalized, genocided population. There’s a palpable fury driving Inglourious Basterds and the unfathomable violence into which nearly each scene eventually erupts. (Ben, you neglected to mention one of the best: that basement barroom scene, a wartime-era European equivalent of the swinging-doors saloon.) You especially see the anger in the eyes of Eli Roth, the goremeister and occasional actor who plays Brad Pitt’s right-hand man, a baseball bat-bearing Nazi basher known as The Bear Jew. It’s easy to get the audience amped for Nazi killing: nobody but Nazis likes Nazis; it’s not hard to lap up the black-and-white morality.

But ultimately the movie’s not really celebrating, or advocating for, violence. Tarantino is singing the praises of cinema itself—which makes sense, in light not only of the script’s digressions on Reifenstahl and G. W. Pabst, and the (who’s gonna get this?) joke about the difference between Louis B. Mayer and David O. Selznick, but also of the already infamous finale. (Spoilers ahead) When the film offs Hitler, Goebbels, Goering and 350 other Nazi party members in that spectacular conflagration at the end—when a cinema burns down, set off by a cigarette put to a pile of flame-thirsty 35mm nitrate strips—it’s film itself, literally, correcting a historical injustice. Within a movie. That suggests something about the cinema’s power to provide vicarious catharsis without any actual blood spilled. Talk about your happy endings; I don’t know about you, but I left the theater feeling much better about that whole Nazi thing a few decades ago.

Yes, once I got over the sensory assault of Basterds — if the film treats historical trauma, it does so with shock therapy — I absolutely felt more optimistic about life (and cinema) than I have coming out of any other war movie. Beyond the facile catharsis of killing modern history’s biggest, baddest evil dude (as you point out, offing Nazis is the kind of bloody fun we can all agree on) I think Tarantino is also out to kill (or at least injure) the war movie. For instance, a few minutes into the opening interrogation Landa states (in exceptionally good French) that he has reached the limits of his capacity in the language, and could he and the Frenchman switch to English please. The farmer agrees and the discussion continues sans subtitles, an amusing acknowledgment of that most grating of American war movie habits whereby everyone (whether German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.) speaks English. (Basterds, as our colleague Nicolas Rapold notes, displays “proud multilingualism.”)

By the film’s climax, Tarantino’s means of cutting mediocre war movies down to size have become much more extreme. Shosanna’s cue for burning down her theater filled with Nazi film industry folk is a Big Brother-ish message that she splices (Tyler Durden-style) into a Joseph Goebbels film that looks suspiciously similar to a scene in Saving Private Ryan. Shooting Hitler in his theater booth, Lincoln-style, before burning the house down screen-first, becomes tantamount to destroying all the thoughtless films that have been made about Der Führer’s version of history.

Shortly thereafter, as Landa bargains for his life, he asks Raine: “What shall the history books read?” The question sounds like a rhetorical one posed by Tarantino to the audience, something like: Aren’t you tired of seeing the same version of military history remade every few months with bigger explosions and different stars? In his fierce and not always successful quest to continually break the mold, Tarantino has crafted something that (on paper at least) seems impossible: an original WWII movie. As if anticipating the audience’s outrage, a few minutes later Landa yells at Raine after the twangy Tennessee native casually kills a German soldier: “You’ll be shot for that!” Speaking for Tarantino, as his protagonists often do (see our colleagues Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich on that very subject), Raine responds: “No. More like chewed out, and I’ve been chewed out before.” Likewise, many will undoubtedly give Tarantino an earful over this film, but few (none?) will say that he shouldn’t have done it.

One Comment

  • Re: “Hitchcockian”. In Film Comment, Scott Foundas points out that the pan down from the farmhouse table through the floorboards, revealing the hidden Jews, specifically references the definition of suspense (as opposed to surprise) that Hitchcock gave Truffaut: suspense is when we in the audience KNOW there’s something under the table, and wait to see when, and how, it will become known. (I actually picked up the reference too, but Foundas got to it first and people will just assume I’m ripping him off.)

    So what we have here, and this is interesting, is a pointed homage made not to another movie or movie legend, but to a moment in film theory and criticism.