Tarantino Rewrites History

Shocking, brash, exhilarating, and humorless, most say Inglourious Basterds is his best work since Pulp Fiction

On The Town | Valerie Crawford-Pfannhauser | October 2009

Whatever else he is, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is certifiably eccentric. So his latest, Inglourious Basterds, is many things: a war movie, but also a fantasy, stylised but also shocking, bold, brash, exhilarating, and humorous.

Tracing two assassination plots against the Nazi leadership – one led by a young French-Jewish cinema owner Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) and the other by Lt. Aldo Raine’s (Brad Pitt) small group of American soldiers, The Basterds – it is an eclectic fusion of genre conventions that pays homage to spaghetti westerns, ‘men on a mission’ movies and elements of film noir and B-movie style embellishment.

And while film critics and commentators are divided on the film, in particular its revisionist version of history in which the Jews exact revenge on the Nazis, most have hailed it as his best work since Pulp Fiction. After all, Tarantino is in the business of entertaining rather than bringing new understanding to the causes of a tragic war or questioning the human capacity for evil. Still…

The title of the film was inspired by Enzo Castellari’s 1978 Dirty Dozen-like war film The Inglorious Bastards; Tarantino has referred to his own ‘misspelling’ as both an artistic flourish and as the ‘Tarantino way’.

The screenplay is a rich weave of characters, but essentially there are three: the Nazi, the Hero, and the Girl. And it is the mannered yet malevolent Nazi Colonel Hans Landa played by Austrian actor Christoph Waltz that steals the show. In a mesmerising performance that dazzled the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, Waltz scooped up the award for Best Actor at Cannes earlier this year, making Inglourious Basterds the only American film to win an award.

The first chapter of the film ‘Once upon a time…’ in Nazi-occupied France showcases this incredible performance of a character who is capable of both great charm and great cruelty. With ‘High Noon’ tension – the music, the German’s slow-motion approach, the panning to the farmer’s face and a look that says trouble, the clock ticking but time somehow standing still – we are in France but it all feels like a western. The position of the camera throughout permits a voyeuristic, intimate view of the action that makes the imagery all the more indelible.

Landa is in the ‘Jew hunting’ business and suspects that several Jewish families may be hiding in the area. He starts out speaking perfect French, flattering the farmer LaPadite (Denis Menochet), his family, the cows and the wonderful glass of milk. Landa then professes to have come to the limits of his French and hearing LaPadite speak English, they switch.

Landa is the quintessential film psychopath in sophisticated guise. He appears smug and assured, yet he can flash to a playful mode: "What have you heard about me?" he asks LaPadite, with childish glee. "I do love rumours." His oversized pipe is absurd and funny in a Marx Brothers kind of way but also reflects his self-assessment as a thinking man’s detective in the ilk of Sherlock Holmes.

The soundtrack also evokes the ‘western’ mood, until the penultimate scene, it takes a very daring turn by using pop music to great dramatic effect. Tarantino’s love of film and film history is played out on every level in Inglourious Basterds from its storyline, references, mise-en-scène, deep rich colours, amazing sound quality and cinematography – there can be no doubt that this has been a labour of love.

Inglourious Basterds is also testament to Tarantino’s penchant for violence. However, it must be said that in general, these climatic moments seem integral to the plot rather than a glorification of the violence for its own sake. The film is well paced and engaging despite a running time of 153 minutes. It is not only an aesthetic feast but a linguistic one in which language takes an elevated role. In nearly all cases, actors are the same nationality as their characters, and there is substantial dialogue in French and German, with English subtitles. The effect is bold and sophisticated and adds an important dimension to the characterisation.

We quickly come to learn that speaking English is part of Landa’s trickery to ‘break’ LaPadite; the Jewish family hiding under the floorboards are not aware of what is being said. Landa has been playing a psychological game of cat and mouse. And they were rodents. The family is callously shot, with only 18-year-old Shosanna managing to escape. Landa holds up his gun to shoot, but then lets her run.

The action then switches to a group of predominantly Jewish–American GIs known as The Basterds and their Lee Marvin style leader, the ‘hero’ of film, Lieutenant Aldo "Apache" Raine. The name Raine references Aldo Ray star of many war films and B pictures. Pitt’s version as a broad caricature, a hard talking southern boy who tells his men "we are in the Nazi killing business," exhorting them to bring him a hundred Nazi scalps. The Basterds have been chosen to wreak havoc in the Third Reich by savagely killing as many German servicemen as possible. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) known to Germans as "The Bear Jew" is a baseball fan and uses a bat to bash Nazis; German-Jewish soldier Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) is mesmerised by knives and has killed 13 Gestapo Officers.

Shosanna later surfaces in Paris as "Emmanuelle Mimieux" the proprietress of a small cinema. She meets Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a German marksman turned war hero, to be celebrated in a forthcoming propaganda film, Stolz der Nation (A Nation’s Pride). Although Shosanna brushes off Zoller’s advances, he engineers the film’s premiere in her theater, with Hitler and his entourage in attendance. This will be her opportunity for revenge and Shosanna resolves to burn down her cinema with nitrate film.

Meanwhile the British have also learned of the premiere and devise "Operation Kino" to take out the Nazis with the help of German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger). But the plan goes awry. All the strands come together in a finale that rewrites history with wish-fulfilling fantasy.

Other articles from this issue

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    the vienna review October 2009