Inglourious Basterds: In Quentin Tarantino’s glorious homage to WWII ‘Men on a Mission’ movies, words & films are more powerful than bullets & grenades

Inglourious Basterds(2009) is Quentin Tarantino’s sixth feature film as a director. The film, starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth and Diane Kruger, is an idiosyncratic mashup of War films and Spaghetti-Westerns, and presents an alternate history of WWII and the assassination of Hitler.

If my initiation into the events of WWII was through Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, then I guess, I would be forgiven for thinking that WWII was all about Allies and Nazis talking each other to death. Though this 153 minute film can be broadly classified as a WWII ‘Men on a Mission’ adventure, and there are ample killings, with blood and guts being spilled in abundance, there are absolutely no big-scale war sequences; there’s nothing remotely resembling a battle sequence as in “Saving Private Ryan” or “The Lonest day”; not even on a scale of Allied heroes taking on the Nazis as in other ‘Men on a Mission’ war-action picture like “Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare”. In its stead, we get lengthy scenes of conversations set inside farmhouses, taverns and restaurants, where we find Nazi soldiers interrogating and intimidating their opponents into submission. This is par for the course for Quentin Tarantino- an auteur, cinephile, litterateur and cinematic iconoclast, known for putting a unique spin on film genres: his first film “Reservoir Dogs” was a heist movie (about a heist gone wrong of course) which never showed the actual heist, so making a war film without any war is perfectly in his ballpark; and his second film, “Pulp Fiction,” a gangster\crime drama, reveled in novelistic non-linear plotting, pop culture references and the portrayal of violence, in which one of the film’s protagonist who dies in the middle of the film is resurrected for the final chapter. So, i guess, making a film about killing a Nazi dictator before his time is also second nature for him. “Basterds,” which adheres neither to historical facts nor genre conventions, is basically pop entertainment at it greatest; it’s a cinephile’s satirical comic-book fantasy, where Tarantino is not only using the cinematic medium to destroy Hitler and his “Third Reich” before their time, but also showing how the highly inflammable (Nitrate) film itself could be a weapon of mass destruction in eliminating evil from the world. Like most of Tarantino films, this film too – like a novel – is divided into chapters, and each chapter is a sort of mini movie in itself dealing with its own characters and plot elements, with the final chapter bringing all the characters together and tying up the plot.

The first chapter- appropriately titled “Once upon a time.. in Nazi occupied France” – makes the fairytale nature of the film rather explicit. In this chapter, we see SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) arriving at a remote dairy farm (in France) to interrogate a family that is suspected of hiding Jews. Landa sits down with the farmer, Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet) and questions him about the whereabouts of the Dreyfus family. The scene is a tense and sneaky psychological mind game in which Landa displays his detective skills. Landa makes it appear that he’s just there for a chat, and to have a glass of milk, but as the ‘chat’ (in actuality an intimidating interrogation) proceeds, tension starts to build. The perturbed farmer starts anxiously smoking his pipe, Tarantino’s camera starts closing in on the poor farmer, and finally boxes him completely, as the noose tightens around him. Finally, Landa drops his courteous ‘act’ and slips into his sinister mode; he takes out his pipe- a huge “Sherlock Homes” pipe- and starts smoking: an explicit indication that he’s got the poor farmer. Landa is sure that LaPadite is hiding the Dreyfus family under the floorboards, but he still toys with him sadistically so that the farmer himself blinks (which he does) and betray the Jewish family. All Landa has to do at the end of this conversation is to call his soldiers in and have them shoot at the areas in the floorboards pointed out by the farmer. But that’s not the end of it: Shoshanna, the young daughter of the Dreyfus family, escapes the gunfire and flees. Landa has her in the range of his gun, but he does not kill her- he just loudly wishes (or promises) her that they’ll meet again. This shows another facet of Landa: a man who revels in the power that he has over his victims; he has the power of choice to kill them or let them live, and in this case he choose to exercises the latter. This whole scene clocks in at around 20 minutes; most scenes in movies are about a third of that length and typically aren’t as dialogue heavy. Tarantino considers the greatest scene he has ever written.

This scene\chapter works as a prologue to the entire film. This does not relate to the ‘Men on a Mission’ angle of the film. This is a parallel plotline, in which the escaped Shoshanna would subsequently turn into an avenging angel out to destroy Nazis. The chapter also proves to be a great introduction for Hans Landa- perhaps, the greatest, most entertaining and delightful (in a very perverse way) character ever created by Tarantino; and through him he also introduces the most important theme of the film, and that’s “language.” In this scene, Landa, a master polyglot, shifts from German to French to English. The reason he shifts from French to English is because he claims his French is poor, but the real reason is that he doesn’t want the Dreyfus family to understand what he’s saying. This is the first WWII movie to explicitly state how important knowledge of several languages was in winning the war, or even staying alive during that period; and as we will see later, an incorrect accent or slang and even the wrong choice of gesture would mean death. Through Landa, we also get a peek into the workings of the Nazi mind regarding Jews: Landa compares Germans (or Nazis) to hawks and Jews to rats, and thereby exploit our (rather involuntary and incomprehensible) hostility towards rats, even though we don’t feel that much hostility towards a squirrel, which is also a rodent and looks very similar to a rat. It just shows Landa’s (and thereby the Nazis’) natural predatory instincts: they just like killing, and don’t care whom they kill; they also like to play mind games with their victims and win.

It’s in Chapter Two that the titular Inglourious Basterds are introduced. Like “The Dirty Dozen,” these men are recruited by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). to go behind enemy lines to form an “Apache Resistance” and kill and scalp Nazis. Though Aldo himself is not a Jew, all his recruits are, and in a profanity laden, swaggering, ‘Take-no-prisoners’ speech that seem to channel George C. Scott’s opening act from “Patton,” Aldo commands his recruits to deliver him 100 Nazi scalps each. The scene then shifts to Berlin, where an exasperated Hitler is banging away at his generals for their ineptitude in not stopping the advancing Basterds. He’s particularly irritated with one member of the team, Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) known as the ‘The Bear Jew’ who seems to be spreading terror in the minds of the German soldiers by beating his victims to death with a baseball bat. After transmitting a message to all units in France to not to refer to ‘The Bear Jew’ with that title anymore, Hitler is visited by Private Butz, who had a nasty encounter with the Basterds. After conveying the horrors he had to witness while in the custody of the Basterds, Butz shows him his forehead, which has a Nazi swastika carved into it by Aldo with his Bowie knife.

It’s in this section that the film becomes a proper ‘Men on a Mission’ film, with the generic tropes like recruitment of a team, the leader’s speech, plunging them in action etc. ; we also get to see the big villain that they’re fighting against, but it’s nothing like what we have seen before. We do not see the battle between Basterds and Nazis, only the aftermath- when Nazi’s are being scalped, and it’s rather graphically shot. All the performances here, whether it’s Aldo’s, Donny’s or Hitler’s, are intentionally exaggerated to resemble a caricature. This is also the section where we first see references to cinema. In the introduction scene of the renegade German soldier, Sergeant Hugo Stiglitz(Til Schweiger)- who was imprisoned for murdering a number of Gestapo officers, Basterds visit him in prison and frees him by killing the guards; Aldo proclaims that he and the Basterds are ‘fans’ of Hugo, but his ‘work’ until now has been amateur, and that by joining them he would become a pro. In this chapter we also see ‘The Bear Jew’ Donowitz getting into action by clubbing a German soldier to death- Aldo says that Donowitz’s ‘actions’ are the only entertainment they have that’s ‘close to the movies’ while fighting Nazis. That’s a strong commentary about the ‘cinema cinema’ nature of Tarantino’s films; he makes it clear that this kind of exaggerated, comical violence is something that happens only in movies, it’s not realistic. In reality, Nazis never got this treatment from Jews, though they very well deserved it for the atrocities they committed on the Jewish race. But now, through the medium of cinema, and using American-Jewish characters, Tarantino is going to right those wrongs; the American-Jews are going to take vengeance behind enemy lines- and in a way- that their European brothers, uncles, aunts cousins and friends couldn’t. The contrast between the reality of the Jews under the Nazis, and the violent exploits of the Jews in this fictional world of WWII created by Tarantino sets up the satirical nature of the film: revenge is what the Nazis deserved but they did not get it in reality, so let’s rewrite history through cinema and give them the vengeance they deserved. It’s a truly brilliant conceit, and people who are criticizing the film for turning Jews into Nazis, and for even ignoring the ‘Holocaust,’ are missing the point. Another subversion Tarantino attempts here is by making the leader of the Basterds a red neck Hillbilly. We usually expect someone like that to be a racist, anti-Semite, but here he’s exactly the opposite; and he recruits Jews so that this will be a personal, ‘Holy War’ and not just about a soldier doing his professional duty. Also, the Basterds here are presented as coarse, barbaric and an ultra-violent bunch, which stands in stark contrast to the portrayal of the Nazi, Landa, as an extremely well-mannered, sophisticated and intelligent man.

In the final three chapters, we find ‘Cinema’ coming more and more to the forefront of the narrative, until it takes it over completely. Here we find Shosanna Dreyfus- whom we saw escaping from Landa in the opening chapter- now living as a Cinema owner in Paris. She is romantically pursued by a War-hero turned Movie-star, Frederick Zoller, who in turn influences Dr. Joseph Goebbels, the head of film industry, to conduct the premier of his propaganda film “Nation’s Pride” at Shosanna’s Cinema. We also see Shosanna coming face to face with Landa again- in another tense interrogation scene- in which Landa seems to buy her new disguise. So even as Goebbels decides to hold the premier- which will be attended by the Nazi top brass- at Shosanna’s Cinema, the British, having got information about this event from their spy, famous German movie-star Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), devises a mission, “Operation Kino,” to be lead by Film critic turned commando, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender). The mission, in which they will be helped by Aldo’s Basterds, is to invade the Cinema theater and kill all Nazis attending the premier (similar to the mission of “The Dirty Dozen”). Meanwhile, Shosanna also plots with her Afro-French lover and projectionist, Marcel, to set the cinema ablaze during the premiere.

But the meeting arranged by Bridget- between her, Hicox and the Basterds in a basement tavern in the town of ‘Nadine’ – goes horribly wrong when a bunch of Nazis- which includes a cunning Gestapo officer, Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) – crashes the place. The British Hicox, due to his strangely accented German, catches the attention of Dieter, and soon enough, Hicox gives himself away, as he uses a British hand gesture for the number 3 instead of the German one. A gunfight ensues in which everyone in the Tavern, with the exception of Bridget, and a young German Sergeant Wilhelm, are killed. Aldo successfully negotiates with Wilhelm to release Bridget, but once Bridget is released, she kills Wilhelm. Bridget’s original plan was to have Hicox, Stiglitz and Wicki, an Austrian Jewish member of the Basters, escort her to “Nation’s Pride” premier, but since all of them are dead, she decides to take Aldo, Donowitz and and Omar Ulmer (disguised as Italians) in their stead to the said premier, which, among other Nazis, will now be attended by Adolf Hitler himself.

The final chapter of the film is completely set in Shosanna’s Cinema, on the night of the “Nation’s Pride” premier. Shosanna has already planned to use the 350 odd nitrate film prints she has in her possession to burn down the cinema. Marcel would lock the doors of the theater and set fire to the film prints on Shosanna’s signal- which she will be giving through the film footage which she herself has shot, and now spliced into the print of “Nation’s Pride.” Bridget attends the premier with Aldo, Donowitz and Omar (with timed explosives strapped to their ankles) as planned, but they are intercepted by Hans Landa, who by then had investigated the incident at the Tavern and deduced that Bridget was Allies’ spy. Landa allows Donowitz and Omar to take their seats in the theater, and then slyly takes Bridget into another room and strangles her to death. Then he has Aldo, and another Basterd, Smithson Utivich, taken prisoners and brought to him. Through Aldo, Landa cuts a deal with the Allied superiors: he will allow the mission to proceed in exchange for his safe passage through the Allied lines, a full pardon, and other privileges. Back at the Cinema, things don’t go as Shosanna has planned- Zoller proves to be a pest that she had to eventually exterminate, but in the process, Shosanna has to sacrifice her own life (in a Romeo & Juliet kind of double-suicide). Following this, Shosanna, though dead in real-life, comes alive on screen (another nod to the magic of movies) and she gives the order to burn down the place; Marcel obliges and the whole Cinema goes up in flames. Omar and Donowitz also gets into the act- they barges into the opera box and guns down Hitler, Goebbels and others. Landa takes Aldo and Utivich into American territory and surrenders himself. Realizing that Landa plans to give up his Nazi uniform and settle down to a comfortable life in Nantucket, Aldo carves a swastika into his forehead- to remind everyone that Landa was a Nazi.

Tarantino ends the film with Brad Pitt’s Aldo speaking the line: “I think this just might be my masterpiece!” Now assuming that Tarantino is making an arrogant self-reflection about the movie he has made, then he could be forgiven for that, because he’s not far from truth. “Pulp Fiction” remains Tarantino’s masterpiece; I don’t think he’s ever going to top that, but “Inglorious Basterds” is my favorite Tarantino film, simply for the fact that it’s so much fun. It’s fun, and it also has multiple layers and tackles serious serious socio-political-historical issues, which is not the case with “Pulp”. It’s much less self-conscious than “Pulp” and much more looser in terms of plotting and characterization. The downside is that each chapter in the film, as entertaining they individually are, does not become an organic whole like “Pulp”; there the whole was greater than the sum of its highly interesting parts, here the parts are more fun than the whole, but oh man! what delicious parts it has. Whether it’s unmasking the extend of Nazi terror and the hypocrisy of the ‘French Resistance’ through dark humor in the first chapter; or exaggerating the violence perpetuated by the Allied soldiers (fighting the good fight) in WWII in a broad, cartoonish manner; or whether delving deep inside the Third Reich via films and the German film industry- treating Josef Goebbels, not as the architect of evil, but as a wannabe David O’ Selznick in his job as the head of German film industry; Goebbels had personally supervised the production of more than 800 movies during his time; all these are stuff that everybody knows, but has never been tackled on film, especially in an American film. We also get a German “Audie Murphy” in Fredrick Zoller- a war hero who ends up becoming a hero in the movies. It’s through the film within a film conceit (“Nation’s Pride”) that Tarantino shows the barbarity of Germans (or the heroism of Germans from their POV) in the war- as a counterbalance to all the ‘real’ activities of the Basterds. Even more weird, but potent, is the idea of a British film critic, who has written books about G. W. Pabst, going on a mission to kill Nazi’s at the premier of a propaganda film; a premier at which the only German actor ever to win an Oscar, Emil Jennings, is also present. Only a true cinephile like Tarantino can think up these incredible, and so bloody interesting ideas. Using Cinema as a means to bring down the Third Reich is one grand homage to the power of Cinema.

The film is also a homage to Tarantino’s movie god, Italian movie-maestro “Sergio Leone”. Though this film appears to be a War drama, it’s actually a Spaghetti-Western with WWII iconography. The title of the opening chapter maybe a nod to Leone’s “Once upon a time in the West,” but the film itself is influenced by, and structured on the lines of “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”- a film that Tarantino believes to be the greatest ‘directed’ film in movie history. The opening chapter\scene is structured exactly like the introduction scene of Lee Van Cleef’s bad guy “Angel Eyes” in that film; there Angel Eyes arrives at soldier, Stevens’ farm to interrogate him about the whereabouts of a fellow civil war soldier, Jackson; here Landa has come to interrogate LaPadite about Jews he’s hiding. While the scene in “The Good..” is almost 10 minutes long, this one is twice as long. While Leone sets up most of the scene through long silences, Tarantino does it through words; and both scenes ends with a shocking burst of violence. This concept is taken to an even extreme level in the ‘Tavern scene’, where the sequence goes on for almost 27 minutes of dialogue, and then ends in bloodbath. The scene is actually a nod to a similar scene in “Where Eagles Dare,” where Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood finds themselves in a Tavern full of Nazis; while there the ‘language’ factor is completely ignored- all nationalities speak English- here that becomes the pivotal point Tarantino also borrows the three character structure of “The Good..”: here Brad Pitt’s Aldo the Apache is the “good,” Christoph Waltz’s ‘Jew Hunter’ Hans Landa is the “Bad” and Melanie Laurent’s Shosanna is the “Ugly”- all working towards the same goal. While the main themes of Leone’s film is “war and Greed”, with the climax taking place in a military graveyard where the three principals battle it out for a buried treasure, Tarantino’s main themes are “War and Cinema”, hence the final battle is staged in a Cinema theater.

Apart from Tarantino’s cinephilia, terrific dialogue, quirky characterizations, devilish humor, brightly saturated cinematography (courtesy the great DP, Robert Richardson) and a penchant for cartoonish violence, the main standout is Christoph Waltz’s performance as Hans Landa. It’s an extraordinary performance that’s deliciously over the top, but never crosses the line to becomes camp. He towers over the rest of the film, because no other performance matches up to him. Every character in the film is ‘playing a role,’ at one point or the other, in the narrative (once again the ‘meta’ reference to Cinema). So there’s their true self and their ‘in character’ self, and very few actors are able to carry off this dual quality in their performance. Waltz can do it brilliantly, and so does Diane Kruger as the glamourous movie star\spy- she’s phenomenal in the role; and even Michael Fassbinder does it really well. But this is definitely not Brad Pitt’s strong point. Brad is really good at being cool and ironic- watch his brilliant performance in “Once upon a time in Hollywood,” but his performance here is too broad and self-winking; it’s fun in parts, but just doesn’t gel with the film. The same goes for Eli Roth as well, who’s miscast as ‘Bear Jew.’ Melanie Laurent is also kind of hit and miss- she’s convincing in some scenes not so in the others; perhaps, the role needed a more seasoned actress. Tarantino had been working on this project for almost 8 years, and at one time the script became so big that he had ideas of doing it as a miniseries. But eventually he found a way to trim it down to a feature film length. The trimming definitely shows, because one can feel a much bigger film hiding inside all this abundance of rich material. I hope that Tarantino either makes a sequel, or a miniseries, or at least publish a full novel of this film someday. I felt that the film was terribly undervalued at the time of its release- the film was a big box office hit, but it received mixed critical reaction. The film was nominated for 8 Academy awards- including Picture and Director, but Waltz was the only winner; i thought it deserved Oscars for screenplay and Direction (at least). Tarantino still hasn’t got a best Director Oscar, and he has only one more film to make. Whether he will win for it, i don’t know, but if he didn’t then he will still be in the company of directors like Hitchcock and Kubrick- cinematic geniuses who never won a competitive best director Oscar.


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