Inglourious Basterds, an analysis
For those of you who haven't seen 'Inglourious Basterds' yet, you might as well stop reading this review right now, since I'm going deep into spoiler territory and I would hate to ruin any of the surprises of this wonderful movie. Let me just state, though, that it's not the ultra-gory, Nazi-killing action movie that it seems to appear to be from the trailers. Sure, it's ultra-gory. And sure, a lot of Nazis meet hilarious and violent ends. But it's not an action movie by any stretch. But the violence is doled out in concentrated, self-contained moments amidst Quentin Tarantino's meditation on film as a vicarious experience. Since the film is split into five chapters, I'll break my review/essay into five pieces as well.
Over the last two years at the Oscars, the supporting actor award has gone to a classic villainous performance: Javier Bardem's Anton Chigurh, and Heath Ledger's Joker. This streak will hopefully continue this year with Christoph Waltz's Colonel Hans Landa, the "Jew Hunter." Tarantino is often praised for his creative casting, often taking semi-washed up or semi-forgotten actors (maybe just 'unconventional choices' is a better way of putting it) and giving them tremendous roles. The most high-profile example of this is John Travolta, but let's not forget the likes of Pam Grier and Robert Forster in 'Jackie Brown,' or David Carradine and Daryl Hannah in 'Kill Bill.' In those cases, at least, the actors were known quantities. In IB, Tarantino and the casting directors took an actor who's a total unknown outside of the German/Austrian theatre and TV world, puts this guy in the most crucial role in the film, and Waltz then proceeds to knock it out of the park like a Viennese Babe Ruth. Probably the best character and best performance in any Tarantino movie, and that covers a lot of quality acting ground. In hindsight, it's really not a surprise that QT had to look far and wide for the perfect Landa. A mixture of charm, intelligence, humour, evil, sociopathy and mastery of four languages isn't easy to find. Waltz dominates every scene he's in, starting right from the instantly legendary opening scene where he just systematically breaks down a well-meaning French farmer. Landa refers to himself as a detective at one point in the film, and that's an ingenious idea for a villain; a guy with the logical mind of a Sherlock Holmes or a Hercule Poirot, except he uses that logic as a hammer to beat his adversaries into admitting whatever it is that he already knows or suspects in the first place.
The opening scene is the only portion of the movie that's played straight, so to speak. In the other four segments, Tarantino tosses in a few moments of modern levity that are purposely intended to jar the audience out of being 'in the moment,' which I'll discuss more later. But the opening scene is necessary to establish the heroine and the villain, and really, if Tarantino is going to spend the other 130 minutes deconstructing war movies, first he has to build the frame. Aside from the one little touch of Landa lighting an absurdly large pipe, IB's first chapter is a straight-forwardly dramatic scenario of an S.S. officer interrogating the farmer about a neighbouring Jewish family that has disappeared from the area. We learn halfway through the scene that the family is actually hiding out in the crawlspace between the floorboards right under the table at which Landa and the farmer are sitting --- I presume this is QT's little nod to the old Hitchcock line about how surprise is a bomb under a table going off, and suspense is knowing the bomb is there but not knowing when it will go off. This entire 20-minute sequence is a masterpiece unto itself, and reportedly was the first scene that Tarantino wrote in his 10-year process of finishing the script. According to legend, QT was so pleased with this scene that he kept coming back to it and feeling the pressure to have the rest of the movie live up to its opening. Mission accomplished.
The Basterds themselves play a surprisingly small part in the movie. The lieutenant, Aldo Raine, is played by Brad Pitt, in yet another one of those great comic performances of his that convinces me that he could've been a great comedy star if he hadn't been so gosh-darned leading-man handsome. His dialogue is a nonstop barrage of southern twang, delivered so humourously that it's supposed to distract you from the fact that the Basterds are all....well, a bunch of crazy motherfuckers. Not in a bad-ass soldier way, though they are clearly that, but rather in a genuinely psychopathic way. That line in the trailer where Pitt says that his men each owe him 100 Nazi scalps? Yeah, you'd better believe he doesn't just mean it as a turn of phrase. Tarantino is putting his own twist on the tropes of how war turns men into monsters, or how there are no 'good guys' in a war given the number of atrocities committed on both sides.
What's interesting is that Tarantino puts this message into a movie that is quite specifically marketed as a massive Nazi-killing revenge fest, and even just the fact that it's QT himself, one of the masters of stylish movie violence. But yet, here's a scene where Hitler yelling is intercut with shots of the mustachioed, dark-haired Raine barking orders to his men, or here's a scene of the Basterds scarring and torturing their Nazi prisoners. Now, this isn't to suggest that Tarantino is sympathetic to the Nazi characters. Believe me, the Nazis don't get off easy by any stretch, and their evil is certainly enforced enough in the film that their eventual doom is more than well-deserved. What I think QT is suggesting is that even though vengeance may be deserved, it's still pretty horrific stuff no matter who's doing it to whom. The general anonymity of the Basterds may play into this, since as the characters are intended as nothing more than instruments of vengeance, Tarantino doesn't even bother introducing us to more than a couple of them, and outside of Pitt, they're all pretty faceless unless you're a fan of The Office or the Hostel movies. In fact, I only just realized as I'm writing this that we don't even find out what happens to three of the nine Basterds. It's the eight Jewish soldiers and Aldo Rayne, so nine in total. Two are involved in the bar basement incident in the fourth chapter, four are involved in 'Operation Kino' at the movie theatre and the other three guys literally vanish from the movie after that initial lineup scene where Rayne is yelling about scalps. Maybe there was some stuff left on the cutting-room floor, or we're to believe that the other three Basterds were off on a separate mission to....I dunno, kill Mussolini or something. These guys get around.
I went on at length about Christoph Waltz, so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the other central character and actor of the film. Melanie Laurent is another virtual unknown who gives a great performance as Shosanna, the survivor of the massacre at the LaPerdite farm. The entire scene where she is invited to lunch with Landa, Joseph Goebbels and her would-be suitor Fredrick Zoller is a master class of great face-acting from Laurent. It goes from a great mixture of disgust and WTF-ness upon meeting Goebbels to just complete shock and barely-contained rage when Landa is introduced. It's no coincidence that Laurent looks kind of like a younger version of QT's favourite actress, Uma Thurman, and has the same single-minded revenge motive as the Bride (though Shosanna goes about it in a much stealthier manner). This may be more just a case of studio marketing but hey, I'll just presume it's some intentional misdirection from Tarantino; it's cool that he casts big-name Brad Pitt as the leader of the ragtag group of soldiers, thus making you think that their story is the thrust of the whole movie, but it's not. It's really about the personal battle waged by a Jewish girl in hiding against the man who killed her family, with both sides of this battle played by anonymous European actors.
Again, I reference the Basterds' overall semi-uselessness to the film, but it's interesting that their whole mission is dealt with completely separately from that of Shosanna's plot. She never meets Bridget, Raine or any of the Basterds, nor does she have any idea about their separate plan to kill the Nazi high command. And just as well, since it was her plan that actually succeeds without any interference. Sure, the Basterds win in the end because Landa decides to go into business for himself and cut a deal, but even if Landa had had them killed just as he choked out Bridget, then Shosanna's plan still would've succeeded. OR, there's another way of interpreting it. Landa's heart-stopping order of milk when he and Shosanna are dining together is his way of telling her that he knows exactly who she is, but he is letting her live because a) Zoller, a fast-rising star in the German regime, is sweet on her and her death could cause some blowback on Landa or b) since Landa wants to end the war anyway, he is willing to let her engage in whatever scheme she has in mind and then uses the Basterds as his own personal way out. I actually think I like this theory a bit more, since it makes Landa look even smarter than he already is. By the way, Landa ordering the glass of milk was probably my favourite line in the movie. It made the 500 people in the packed movie theatre all sharply gasp in unison; you could've heard a pin drop. Even if my theory about Landa recognizing her isn't true, that's still a great line from a suspense standpoint. The dude just likes milk and it makes us all crap our pants with terror. Between loving milk and hunting Jews, I guess you could say Landa is (**puts on sunglasses**) lactose intolerant. YEAHHHHHH.....
The fourth chapter is the section of the film I could see people having the most problem with, since it admittedly drags a bit and falls victim to the same problem that I thought weakened Tarantino's last movie, Death Proof. It's very hard to write a dialogue-heavy scene that takes things from point A to point B plotwise in a script. Tarantino is better than most at this, and in fact, perhaps his greatest strength is being able to add depth and humour to seemingly mundane scenes. But he's not perfect. The middle of Death Proof is weighed down by the conversation between Rosario Dawson's crew at the diner, and then the drawn-out negotiation to buy the car. Likewise, the game of verbal cat-and-mouse that goes on between Hickox/Bridget/the two German-speaking Basterds and the Nazi officers is just a bit....too....laboured. There were still some interesting things going on here, but the scene scored a solid 0.6 on the "When Are They Going To Get To The Fireworks Factory?" scale for me. It was a scene that felt like it was extended just to hit all the plot points, albeit the major point of just how Landa figured out the hole in Bridget's story (and the hole in her leg, to boot). I also loved that what gave Hickox away, even moreso than his accent, was his incorrect hand signal for the number three. It wasn't just the German officer being overly suspicious, it was something specific that Hickox did. It's interesting, since I indicate 'three' by holding up my pinkie, fourth and middle fingers, not the apparently-British three middle-fingered way or the German thumb-index-middle finger method. I would've made a lousy spy.
The chapter's beginning, oddly enough, avoids the problem of the laboured dialogue. QT needs a scene to introduce Lt. Hickox, and to set up his involvement in Operation Kino. So, he adds a layer of absurdity to a five-minute expositional scene by casting Mike Myers and a half-assed Churchill impersonator as the British superior officers informing Hickox of the plan. The audience gets the info we need, plus some incredulous tittering at hearing Myers slip in and out of a pseudo-Austin Powers voice. Actually, to be specific, it's not Austin Powers, Myers is really playing Basil Exposition, which is an even funnier idea. This is a vintage Tarantino casting move, akin to Christopher Walken's monologue in Pulp Fiction about smuggling the watch up his ass. Good stuff all-around.
And then finally, the grand finale. The climactic showdown at the movie premiere. For those of you who might've skipped a few history classes in grade school, IB plays a bit fast and loose with the actual ending of World War II. Just a wee bit. The ending is basically Tarantino's version of the Gordian Knot. In most war movies based around an actual war, the filmmakers battle the problem of how to create suspense when the audience knows how the war ends. For example, look at Tom Cruise's Valkyrie. The only suspense is in how Cruise's character's plot to kill Hitler will fail, since we all know that Von Stauffenberg's assassination attempt didn't succeed. Tarantino, however, takes out his big-ass knife and slices the problem in two by simply having Shosanna and the Basterds actually pull off their plans. Talk about a genuinely surprising ending. There are those who might find QT's rewriting of history to be so jarring that it breaks your suspension of disbelief. Well, guess what....surprise! That's what Tarantino has been doing for the entire film. This is Landa's pipe, Mike Myers' cameo, Samuel L. Jackson's voiceover and all of the other anachronistic moments of IB cranked up to the nth degree. Tarantino never wants you to forget that you're watching a film. You're watching what the movie advertisements refer to as a "roaring rampage of revenge." Why should the protagonists and the audience be denied their ultimate moment of satisfaction just because it didn't actually happen? It's a film --- anything can happen in a film. If people can meet aliens in the movies or encounter talking animals in the movies, then surely Hitler can be murdered in the movies. Or, in IB's case, Hitler dies at the movies. This is a world where 'inglorious' is spelled with an extra U, 'bastards' is spelled with an E, and where the Allies won World War II when Hitler, Goebbels and basically all the big-name Nazis were all murdered in a Paris movie theatre in 1944. Hey, why not?
I found it interesting that Tarantino singled out Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda chief, to get the 'special' treatment of being personally gunned down face-to-face style by the Basterds. For a cinemaphile like Tarantino, this is his ultimate revenge against a man who used the art of filmmaking for evil purposes. I can see Tarantino at his computer, typing away while delivering a running commentary in his mile-a-minute tone: "You're going to try and turn movies into propaganda celebrating people like this Zoller asshole? Not so fast, motherfucker!" Also of note is that Emil Jannings is introduced as a character, and subsequently as a victim of the fire. Jannings is a bit of a black mark on Academy history, as he was the first-ever winner of the Best Actor Oscar, but then went on to star in several Nazi propaganda films once his Hollywood career was ended by the advent of sound films. Maybe by noting Jannings and killing him, Tarantino is trying to get into the Academy's good graces without needing Harvey Weinstein to mount a costly Oscar campaign. Smart move. My 'Hitler dies at the movies' line extends to Goebbels and Jannings too, and in their cases, it's perhaps even more apt. They die at the movies, they die in the movie and they even die because of movies, given that the fire is set by flammable old film stock.
Did Shosanna need to die? I dunno. It was sort of implied that she and Marcel considered the operation to be a suicide mission anyway, so maybe it was inevitable. Maybe it was a case of wanting Shosanna to not quite get the satisfaction of seeing her plan through to the end, which goes to my earlier point about showing how this kind of bloodthirsty vengeance is horrific. Being trapped in a burning theatre while your murderer delivers a Joker laugh from the big screen is a pretty nasty way to die. Then again, the terrified screams, the pounding on the locked doors --- Tarantino is making a parallel to the Nazi death camps, another example of the eye-for-an-eye mentality that fuels the movie's protagonists. Or, maybe Shosanna's death scene was done to give some finality to her relationship with Zoller, who otherwise would've been cut down by a hail of the Basterds' bullets. Maybe QT thought that Zoller, an interesting character in his own right, deserved a more interesting fate. If you think about it, it's pretty hilarious that the entire downfall of Nazi Germany in the IB universe takes place simply because Zoller wanted to get laid. That's some quality dramatic irony right there. Zoller shoots off his gun hundreds of times in that clock tower and becomes a national hero, but he wants to shoot off his, er, 'gun' with the pretty local theatre owner and look what happens. This is why I stay single....too many complications.
The other aspect of Shosanna's plan that didn't quite work out is that Landa himself, her arch-enemy, didn't die in the fire, though obviously he doesn't get off scot-free. If Landa is supposed to be an evil detective, then his fate is inevitable once he leaves his deductive path. Landa has figured out the plot (maybe both plots) to kill the Nazi leaders, but instead of revealing the enterprise, he arranges his own deal to escape prosecution. It's a staple of detective fiction that every detective has his own code of ethics, and the shit hits the fan when these ethics are broken. Agatha Christie's famous sleuth Hercule Poirot "doesn't approve of murder," so when he is tempted to kill to solve his final case, bad things happen. Landa has spent his career following the Nazis' code of justice, but even when he breaks that perverted code, that's a violation of the detective's ethos that must be punished. Landa's real problem is that he leaves behind his ethics while in the company of Raine, who is still very much following his own Nazi-killin' code. Landa doesn't die, but let's be honest, he probably committed suicide given that it's very hard to get into a good restaurant when you have a swastika carved into your head. Maybe that's why the Basterds got the movie title in spite of being a relatively minor part of the overall story. At least two of them lived, and as we all know, the winners write the history books.
So, that's Inglourious Basterds. This review ended up being massive, but I could talk about this picture all day. Definitely the most fascinating film I've seen in a while, and one that just further cements Quentin Tarantino as a master filmmaker. It's glourious.
Quentin Tarantino is one of those directors that thoroughly divides people: You either love to hate him, or hate to love him. As an artist, this might be the best place to find yourself because no matter what you create you are guaranteed a high level of critical attention. The problem for artists lucky enough to find themselves in this predicament is that when they do create something truly wonderful, when their genius comes into full flower, the critical community lacks the vocabulary to adequately celebrate the work. Everyone resorts to talking about the work in the ways they are most comfortable. Inglourious Basterds is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece and my job here will be to introduce a glossary of sorts with which to discuss the director’s most important work.
I know the usual criticisms. His work is too violent. He steals from his predecessors. His films are morally suspect. Easily the most enduring and perceptive criticism of Tarantino’s work is that he makes the films that he wants to see. Lucky for us, as Tarantino edges closer to 50, his taste has matured along with his crow’s feet.
So why is Inglourious Basterds, itself a carrying case for all these criticisms, Tarantino’s masterpiece? First, because he tells us so, and if there is one thing to keep firmly in mind when discussing Quentin Tarantino, it is his extreme literalness. Lynn Hirschberg of The New York Times Style Magazine caught up with Tarantino in April of last year and asked whether there was a reason for the frenzied pace of filming. Tarantino boldly and without a hint of irony responded: “Yes. I wanted to have a masterpiece before the decade’s out.”
But more importantly than anything the director might tell us, Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s masterpiece because he effectively ended—or if we want to get all intellectual, deconstructed—the WWII film. Bob Clark, in a brilliant, if exhausting, review for The Aspect Ratio, wrote the following: “Tarantino has given the world a pulse-pounding WWII story that everybody but neo-Nazis wish was the truth. And now that he, and we as a culture by association, has gotten it out of his system, everybody can move on.”
It may come of a shock to those who view Tarantino as nothing more than a teenage cinephile’s wet dream that the director even had the capacity to deal with such issues. Given the niche-propagandizing of Tarantino’s last few directorial and producing efforts, I’d even grant that Tarantino’s art has progressed in fits and starts rather than in a linear fashion. He has done his part in obstructing a proper critical and popular appreciation of his work.
Inglourious Basterds is an agglomeration of everything Tarantino has learned as a filmmaker up to this point, a perfect synthesis of his penchant for mischievous violence, delectable dialogue, plot structure, his obsession with classic film scoring, and, most especially, the performances he coaxes out of his actors.
Take, for instance, Tarantino’s well-documented obsession with the feet of his female characters. From Mia Wallace’s (Uma Thurman) infamous, though unseen, foot massage at the hands of Tony Rocky Horror in Pulp Fiction, to Beatrix Kiddo’s wiggling of her big toe in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino has always created space in order to indulge his foot fetish. In Pulp Fiction, the foot massage merely provides a story for Jules and Vincent to ruminate over. In Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Beatrix’s foot calisthenics provide the director an opportunity to explore the character’s back story.
With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino finally locates a way to elevate his foot obsession into a significant plot device. Lost in the chaos of the shootout in the Tavern, it is Bridget’s shoe that clues Colonel Landa into to her duplicity. As soon as he slips her shoe, Cinderella-like, back onto her foot, the viewer and actors alike know the game is up. Landa has what he needs to pounce upon Bridget and strangle her to death, mere feet away from the Nazi gathering. Unlike Beatrix Kiddo’s feet, source of the Bride’s power and harbinger of her revenge, Bridget’s (Diane Kruger) foot leads not only to the unmasking of Operation Kino, but to her mortal undoing as well. Tarantino finally learned how to harness his cinematic tics.
So, not only do we have Tarantino doing what is artistically necessary in order to advance, he is also using film to advance the medium itself, to move it beyond his chosen genre’s obsessions that we, as a culture, have decided to keep returning to. He’s calling for a new kind of War cinema.
The “use of film” is an important metaphor in Inglourious Basterds. When Shoshanna burns her cinema down, she does so using her adopted collection of nitrate film stock. Is this not a stand-in for the history of film being used as a weapon of mass destruction? Of course, in this instance, the target is an appropriate one, as who wouldn’t love to see the Nazi High Command incinerated and mowed down like fish in a barrel? Tarantino wants to see it, and though this solidifies the criticism of Tarantino as entertaining himself first and the rest of us after, it remains endlessly satisfying.
The way in which he’s decided he wants to be entertained this time around is by grabbing the culture by the balls and pulling us all into the 21st century, telling us what we can and can’t have. He is very clearly saying, “Let’s move away from WWII, let’s move away from glorifying this era, we’ve done it to death, all of us. Now it is time for us to move on.” But in order to get us to move on, he had to slay it first. To that end, he filled his film with the tropes necessary to firmly establish that what we were watching was indeed a film about the war. And then he goes and turns everything on its head.
So what is familiar to us about the film? The fear and terror we feel at the plight of the Jewish family as they are machine-gunned to death by Nazi storm troopers. The sophisticated and coldly calculating SS “Jew hunter.” The heroic American band of brothers, answering the call of history not because they want to, but because they have to. The British spies and their schemes to prematurely end the war.
But then there are the fantasies. Those heroic Americans we know so well from generations of filmmaking are instead bloodthirsty Jews on a revenge mission, out to turn the Nazis’ own fear and intimidation against them. And the sophisticated German agent? Well, he’s just lying in wait for his chance to collaborate with an Allied General, to allow Hitler to be assassinated and end the war so he can have his house on Nantucket. (Reminds one of Sam Neil’s Captain Borodin from The Hunt for the Red October, who, after all, just wanted to visit Montana.) Those intellectual British spies scheming and plotting in Edwardian drawing rooms back in London turn out to be feckless agents—and peacetime film critics!—who blow their own covers.
Inglorious Basterds is one of those films that contain something for everyone. And, more so than any of the director’s previous films, warrants returning to again and again. The layers in this film are so surgically rendered, that, even having only scratched its surface, elucidating Tarantino’s achievement is as easy as presenting the facts and getting out of the way. I think the biggest shock to most people is that Tarantino ever had it in him.
And as long as I am calling the film Tarantino’s masterpiece, I may as well remind you, that if you don’t take my word for it, take Brad Pitt’s Aldo “The Apache” Rains, who in the last reel of the film is captured in a neo-Kubrickian image. Patiently kneeling over Colonel Hans Landa’s newly swastika-emblazoned forehead, Aldo says nothing other than, indeed, “This just might be my masterpiece.”
Zachary Adam Cohen is a writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, and HyperAllergic. He also runs a boutique social media strategy firm. In other words, he’s a busy guy. He can also be found on Twitter.