by Ben Walters
From Film Quarterly Winter 2009-10, Vol. 63, No. 2
“It’s a little early in the morning for explosions and war,” Butch (Bruce Willis) tells his girlfriend Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros) in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. He might be right; it depends on your idea of fun. The movie she’s watching on their motel-room television is The Losers, a 1970 exploitationer in which Hell’s Angels take on the Viet Cong. It’s the kind of exercise in two-fisted genre-hopping that influenced Tarantino’s latest picture, Inglourious Basterds, which brings Spaghetti Western tropes to bear on its World War II mission-movie template. But Tarantino also shows Butch, as a child, watching Clutch Cargo, a semi-animated TV show from 1959 that melds animated and live-action elements to unconvincing yet disquieting effect. With its queasy collision of the cartoonish and the real, it has as much in common with Inglourious Basterds as the movie featuring explosions and war.
Even before its Cannes premiere, Inglourious Basterds attracted controversy for its rewriting of history, its blending of fantasy and fact. Set between 1941 and 1944, its five chapters follow two separate plots to assassinate senior Nazi figures, including Hitler, in a Paris cinema. One is orchestrated by Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), sole survivor of a French Jewish family murdered in the opening chapter (“Once Upon a Time … In Nazi-Occupied France”) by SS troops led by Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz); in the third chapter, “German Night in Paris,” we see Shosanna living under an alias and meeting German war hero Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruehl), a famous sniper. In the other plot, outlined in the fourth chapter (“Operation Kino”), British Intelligence sends Lieutenant Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) to liaise with the titular Basterds, a group of Jewish American soldiers, introduced in the eponymous second chapter, led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) and dedicated to the terrorizing and killing of Nazis. This plot also involves German movie star and British secret agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). The final chapter, “The Revenge of the Giant Face,” brings success: Hitler, Goebbels, Goerring, and Bormann are killed and the war ended.
Such cavalier revisionism, coupled with the Basterds’ gruesome violence, has provoked outrage among some critics. On his blog, Jonathan Rosenbaum called the film “deeply offensive as well as profoundly stupid … morally akin to Holocaust denial.” Others thought it formally rather than morally problematic, fragmented, talky, and ill-paced: in his one-star Guardian review, Peter Bradshaw wrote it off as “a colossal, complacent, long-winded dud, a gigantic two-and-a-half-hour anti-climax.” Manohla Dargis of The New York Times thought it “unwieldy,” “interminable,” “repellent,” and “vulgar.” Others, though, relished the movie’s self-consciously cinephile brio, including Rolling Stone‘s Peter Travers (“multi-lingual pulp poetry”) and Roger Ebert, who hailed Tarantino in the Chicago Sun-Times as “the real thing, a director of quixotic delights.” Still others were uneasily ambivalent. In the The New Yorker, David Denby thought the picture “too silly to enjoy” but suggested that “whether the Basterds are Tarantino’s ideal of an all-American killing team or his parody of one is hard to say.” Michael Wood expressed similarly skeptical uncertainty in the London Review of Books: “What’s impossible to know is how Tarantino himself views this story. Irony is not his thing, but stupidity isn’t either.”
Ambivalent seems about right. Just what is Tarantino getting at? The sadistic bloodlust of his Jewish avengers is as unsettling as his revisionist chutzpah is disarming. But when Dargis alleges that “Tarantino is really only serious about his own films, not history,” she is only half-right. It might be true that, without much thought for the reality of war, he saw here an opportunity to map his pet plot of female revenge onto an interesting genre. But Tarantino is serious about other people’s films, too, and the medium’s power. Formally and narratively, Inglourious Basterds is drenched in cinema to a degree remarkable even for a director defined by his movie love. In a Newsweek feature morally critical of the film, Daniel Mendelsohn aptly noted that if the film “represents an evolution for the director, it’s that in this new movie, the movies aren’t just a subtle (or not so subtle) element in an allusive aesthetic game; they are, at last, front and center.”
All Tarantino features offer characters comparing one another to Lee Marvin or Christie Love, splitting hairs about or giving subtextual readings of their favorite movies (as well as songs, comic books, and TV shows). They bulge with stylistic quotations from other pictures, boast in-joke casting, and increasingly draw attention to their own status as cinematic artefacts. The blatantly conspicuous process shots deployed in Pulp Fiction and 1970s-style credit sequence of Jackie Brown metastasized into the wholesale genre-raiding of the Kill Bill films, and the metatextual larks of the Grindhouse collaboration with Robert Rodriguez, whose pseudo-retro exploitation fare came furnished with scratches, distortions, and trailers for nonexistent schlock. Inglourious Basterds retains elements of this: it opens, for instance, with a Universal Studios logo whose vintage hints at neither the film’s setting nor its production date, but the period midway between, the tone of whose genre pictures it apes. The score is filched from other films, characters are named for obscure actors and filmmakers, and there are innumerable references to UFA, G. W. Pabst, and Leni Riefenstahl; there’s even a riff on King Kong as representative of “the story of the negro in America.” Some critics applauded such cineliteracy as its own reward. Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek, suggested that “in a film culture informed largely by mindlessly enthusiastic fanboys … maybe we need Tarantino and other filmmakers who, like him, have some knowledge of the past.”
Yet cinema provides not only incidental references: it is also the meat of the plot. The heroines of Death Proof (Tarantino’s half of the Grindhouse double bill) were stunt-women by profession; here, nearly everyone works in movies. Operation Kino relies on Hammersmark, a star, and Hicox, a critic. The Basterds pose as Italian filmmakers. Shosanna runs a cinema (“we respect directors in our country,” she insists) where she plans to interrupt the premiere of Nation’s Pride, starring self-described film fan Zoller as himself, with her own film, a prologue to the Nazi audience’s death in an inferno caused by flammable nitrate film. Goebbels is referred to as “the leader of the entire German film industry,” and compared to Mayer and Selznick. Even Hitler, introduced posing for a portrait, seems more star than politician. “I like that it’s the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis,” Tarantino has said. “But not just as a metaphor, as a literal reality.” To some, this film-saturated world is not a denial of reality but a hymn of praise. “It’s not an ego trip,” according to Rolling Stone’s Travers. “Tarantino’s power punch comes from cinema itself … for anyone professing true movie love, there’s no resisting it.”
Movie as WMD, destroying the Third Reich, ending the war—an alluring idea, indeed, but a flagrantly fantastical one. You can almost hear Tarantino snigger up his sleeve when he has a character ask: “What shall the history books read?” But not even those outraged by Tarantino’s revisionism should be surprised by it. He has already hinted that he finds nothing sacred by rewriting scripture itself: the version of Ezekiel 25.17 so vigorously quoted in Pulp Fiction is not in any Bible. In that film, Vincent (John Travolta) suggests to Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) that miracles happen “when God makes the impossible possible,” and Tarantino relishes the storyteller’s comparable ability: Vincent, like Melanie (Bridget Fonda) in Jackie Brown, dies, but is resurrected by choppy chronology. Given these seigneurial precedents for reworking gospel and undoing death, it’s no great leap to rewrite history to hasten a downfall. The question is whether Hitler is fair game, or whether to monkey with the facts of World War II is to cross a moral line. Dargis thinks so, as does Mendelsohn, who reminded readers that “these bad guys were real, this history was real, and the feelings we have about them and what they did are real.” Any license taken with the facts, then, jeopardizes the mantra “never again.” But is irreverence the same as indifference?
Today, few subjects are as culturally hallowed as World War II, enshrined in popular culture as the locus of the greatest sacrifice, the greatest heroism, the greatest evil, and the greatest tragedy. At the time, things were different, as Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not To Be demonstrates. In particular, Hitler was considered fair game for satire. In his Sight and Sound review of Inglourious Basterds, Kim Newman regarded Tarantino’s ending as “a torture porn take on the celebrated British screen wish-fulfilment moment when George Formby thumped Der Führer in Let George Do It (1940).” Other moments of irreverence include the Captain America comicbook cover in which the hero biffs Hitler, Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, and the genitally fixated lyrics set to the “Colonel Bogey March.” After the war, with the danger passed and the extent of Nazi atrocities evident, lampoon was less useful, and by 1968, The Producers could prompt arguments about bad taste. But genre escapades and Nazis stock villains continued to appear afterwards: from 1970s thrillers, Marathon Man and The Boys from Brazil, to the Gestapo farce of the 1980s BBC sitcom, ‘Allo Allol. Only since the 1990s, when the generation who experienced the war ceded political and cultural dominance to their children, have piety and sentimentality become the dominant cultural registers.
The challenge of Inglourious Basterds, then, lies in its assertion that war films—and indeed war—can be fun. As well as framing the movies as a mode of combat, it presents combat as a variety of entertainment, for both participants and viewers. The Basterds are war criminals, explicitly denying Nazis’ humanity, targeting them for summary execution, and desecrating their corpses by scalping. They are, as J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “a cross between the Dirty Dozen and a Nazi death squad,” and they love their work enough for Rosenbaum to call the film a “gleeful celebration of savagery.” It is even suggested that to collaborate in such barbarity is equivalent to watching its depiction. “Quite frankly,” Raine tells one victim early on, “watching Donnie beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies.” But for sheer delight, even the Basterds can’t top Hans Landa. Universally acknowledged as the film’s stand-out character, he has an alluring, alarming mix of brilliance, cruelty, and strangely childlike glee. Forever clapping with joy or collapsing in hysterics, he is, as Hoberman writes, “not only the movie’s villain, but also its master of revels … Eichmann as fun guy!” In fact, the amount of fun he has is downright unnerving.
And it’s no great leap from fun to funny. Tarantino has often used extreme violence for comic effect: every Pulp Fiction audience surely laughs at the line, “Oh, man, I shot Marvin in the face!” But what about torture as entertainment? Reservoir Dogs was initially denied U.K. certification because of the scene in which Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) sets about a captive cop with a razor, a can of gas, and recreational relish; yet we were encouraged to sympathize with the horrified onlooker who shoots Blonde dead. By Pulp Fiction, things get muddier: when Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) declares to his rapist his intention to “get medieval on your ass” with a blowtorch and a pair of pliers, Wallace’s status as victim lends an air of righteous triumphalism to the move. In the Kill Bill films and Death Proof, homicidal vengeance is heroism, and deliberate infliction of pain part of the package. It’s unclear whether Raine’s use of torture on von Hammersmark—he aggravates a bullet wound when suspicious that she might be a traitor—is meant to put his heroic status in doubt; in practice, probably not. The character can seem like George W. Bush as played, indulgently, by Clark Gable. Both times I saw Inglourious Basterds, the audience laughed along with the violence, which is consistently framed as comedy, from baseball-bat attack and torture scenes to shootings and scalpings.
But it remains ambiguous whether such tactics are, as Rosenbaum and Mendelsohn suppose, meant to be approved rather than indulged. The film explicitly invites us to take a break from historical reality, and presents itself under an obviously incorrect title (a co-option of Raine’s misspelling: the carved lettering that adorns his rifle butt is also used as the movie’s title card). Perhaps it is also offering a kind of ethical holiday—a vicarious immorality that it knows is wrong, but might be fun to try on, just for kicks. For all the film’s troubling ambiguity, there are hints that Tarantino is not blind to the parallels between the Basterds and their targets: in Nation’s Pride, Zoller carves a swastika into a floor as Raine does to German foreheads, including in the movie’s final shot. Many critics have seen the American’s accompanying line—“I think this just might be my masterpiece”—as chest-puffing on Tarantino’s part, but, if it is, he is placing himself, and Raine, in dubious company: it echoes an earlier line, in which Zoller says of Nation’s Pride that “Josef [Goebbels] thinks this film will prove to be his masterpiece.”
Inglourious Basterds, then, is less interested in the ethics of war, let alone the substance of history, than in the power of cinema, its ability to lure us into moral quicksand or hold us in suspense. Interestingly, even as he apes certain aspects of genre, Tarantino neglects other conventional pleasures. Todd McCarthy noted in Variety, with that publication’s eye on the bottom line, that “the preponderance of subtitled dialogue might put off a certain slice of the prospective domestic audience.” And, whether intentionally or not, the multilingual, dialogue-heavy longueurs that precede each chapter’s concluding ecstasy of violence map onto Landa’s taking his time with his victims, stringing out the small talk, having another glass of milk, not eating the strudel before the cream arrives (another—deliberate?—mistake, at least for Viennese culinary purists). Calling the film “unforgivably leisurely, almost glacial,” Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times also intimated that “that lack of vigor almost seems to be what the writer-director is after.” Tarantino’s motto here could be: “Wait for the cream!”
When it comes, the story’s climax is as blunt an assertion of the phantasmagorical power of cinema as the medium has ever delivered. Shosanna and Zoller kill each other but are resurrected as filmic images—themselves agents of death—before flames consume the screen and then the audience. What remains is a weird form of film as fatal dominatrix, a close-up of Shosanna projected onto smoke—the giant face of the chapter’s title—laughing as her viewers burn. It is at once absurd and overwhelming, hollow and irresistible, like that other giant face in The Wizard of Oz; like any big-screen close-up. Perhaps this is why so much time is spent carving swastikas into foreheads, removing scalps, pumping bullets into Hiter’s face. In this hypercinematic world, what could be worse than being rendered unfit for a close-up?
Inglourious Basterds both salutes and problematizes the power of film, appreciating that bad guys as well as good can adore and exploit this potency, and recognizing that to be a spectator is not without moral consequence: only a thoughtless viewer will not see him or herself reflected in shots of Hitler cackling as he watches Americans being slaughtered in Nation’s Pride. Yet it also suggests that what one will do and what one will watch need not coincide. While the Nazi audience laps up his on-screen slaughter, Zoller excuses himself from the theater. “I don’t like watching this part,” he says. Perhaps he felt it was a little late in the day for explosions and war. Like so many things, it depends on your idea of fun.
BEN WALTERS is the author of The Office (BFI TV Classics, 2005).