As part of our Ultimate Playbill project, each week a faculty member will take the time to extol the virtues of one of the beloved films on this list. This week, I tackle hltchk’s #1 pick, Inglourious Basterds (2009).
In our little collective there is something revered about Quentin Tarantino’s movies. When I first got into film, I remember listening to the HolyBee tell us how he and his friends dubbed the local Lyon’s restaurant they frequented “Jack Rabbit Slim’s” because of their love of Pulp Fiction. DJ Lazybear, too, was so deeply struck by Pulp Fiction that he went on (an extremely brief) hunger strike when it inevitably lost Best Picture to Forest Gump. I get wistful hearing these stories, a part of me romanticizes the 90’s when QT was just getting started, when the Old Guard of IT were young men watching the landscape of cinema get injected with buckets of fresh blood. I may have missed out on that, but I now have the privilege of living in Los Angeles, home of Tarantino’s New Beverly Theater, where every Friday is “Boss Night” and one of his films play at midnight, which is how MeanOldPig and I got to rewatch Inglourious Basterds.
Putting on one of Tarantino’s movies for the first time is the film geek equivalent of the first time you hear Dylan or eat pizza: it’s a huge, definitive rite of passage. Now that’s not to say there aren’t issues with the violence of his themes, or that his movies are perfect, but his craftwork is masterful. His visual dynamism and the rich referential nature of his style reflects back ideas about storytelling and film history; character types, settings, literal shots from other movies-all these things we’re familiar with are purposely recomposed into a new, exciting context. And most importantly it’s fun. It’s played out to say, but the closest live-action movies get to Warner Bros. cartoons are QT flicks. It was surprising that only one Tarantino film made this list, but not surprising which one.
A few weeks ago I went on a long rant about how The Big Short is kind of like a heist movie, albeit a more boring one than usual. I talked on and on about the thrill of bringing a team of characters together in an effort to find good things to say about a movie that’s execution is ultimately more interesting than its content.
Now with Inglourious Basterds, I can honestly talk about the thrill of bringing a team together, and even further, the thrill of an ensemble cast. Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) is maybe the clearest Tarantino proxy in any of his films, an American leading Jewish soldiers on a Nazi hunt, his mission a reflection of the filmmaking, as Tarantino leads the Weinstein company through the production of this historical fairy tale. Michael Fassbender plays Archie Hicox, whose pre-war occupation as a film critic makes him the ideal agent for operation Kino, the Allies’ operation to kill the Nazi hierarchy at a film premiere. Diane Kruger flips the script on the old Nazi femme fatale as Bridget Von Hammersmark, a queen of the silver screen and a secret agent of the Allied forces. The Basterds themselves don’t get too much screen time, but the one’s we do inspect, Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), an Anti-Nazi German, and Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), “The Bear Jew,” are some of the most memorable supporting characters in modern cinema.
All of these characters are colorful and interesting. Even though they all clearly use Tarantino’s dialect, the strong performances create a sense of individuality. Writing interesting characters is the first half of the battle, and casting is the second, and QT excels at both. It’s rare for me to watch a movie and find every character so compelling that I wonder what their own 80-minute movie would be like. It’s a testament to the talents of the performers, as well as Tarantino’s writing and direction of the actors. If you leave the audience wanting more, I think you’ve succeeded at good entertainment. To do that with an entire cast of characters is phenomenal, especially if one of the characters you want more of is an evil, meticulous Nazi.
Christolph Waltz’s performance as the SS Officer Hans Landa is reason enough for this movie to be acknowledged on the Idle Time Playbill. His performance earned him an Oscar, and even after multiple viewings there is something so striking about the character. Tarantino has a a bit of sadism in him, and I feel like he delights in creating a character that audiences can’t help but be fascinated by, even though he’s obviously evil. The opening chapter is really the scene where Waltz flexes, as he unsentimentally convinces a farmer to betray his morals, and the Jewish family he’s been hiding in under his floorboards, assuring their demise. The predatory nature of Waltz’s character is further revealed later when he breaks his obsessively mannered behavior and strangles the life out of Von Hammersmark after he’s learned she’s a spy. There is no denying Landa is a villain, yet we’re able to enjoy him regardless, mostly due to the fact Tarantino let’s us know it’s all for fun.
Basterds thrives on its self-reflexivity, it’s aware that it’s a movie. Tarantino never hides the fact we’re watching a movie (particularly one of his movies), but none of his prior films so fully embrace self-reflexive cinema the way this one does. From the moment we fade in to the title card, “Once upon a time in Nazi occupied France,” it’s explained that we’re experiencing a fantasy. Most WWII movies get mired in the history, with terrific results, but Basterds is revisionist history to the extreme, and though the politics and violence of the actual war are serious, in this film, killing Nazis is just a good time (Aldo at one point explains that watching Nazis get their heads busted is the closest the frontline soldiers get to the movies). Nazis are the quintessential on screen villains – you can literally do anything you want to them and not feel guilty, and so Tarantino overlooks the real history of The War and doubles down on pure vengeance.
Nothing in his oeuvre better illustrates Tarantino’s penchant for self-reflexivity and revenge cinema than the climactic theatre scene of Inglourious Basterds. In it, the top Nazi officials are gathered to watch their latest piece of propaganda, only to be engulfed in flames and bullets thanks to Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) and the Basterds. Tarantino plays with some devilish irony, as the audience in the film watches a Nazi soldier gun down American soldiers, only to have the real-life audience watch as the audience in the film is gunned down by Jewish warriors.
There’s something particularly haunting about the image of Shoshanna projected on the smoke of the burning theater, evoking the torment of the Nazi concentration camps. It’s as if Tarantino wants us to simultaneously enjoy the fantasy, while remembering the horror of the real history. For most of the movie, he makes up facts about WWII, but in its final moments, he makes us conflicted. We become the same as the Nazi audience in the film, laughing as our enemies are gunned down. We remember that war movies themselves are pieces of propaganda, and that even though we’re not the same as Nazis, our sense of nationalism is somewhat similar.
Both patriotic and satirical, Inglourious Basterds may be the best, most complex movie Tarantino has ever made. Its ensemble cast is a spectacle that makes each viewing enjoyable, while the reflexivity of the script adds a depth that makes analyzing it more rewarding. I find it very amusing that Hicox is a film critic, someone versed both in war and cinema, someone who would most likely have a mouthful to say about this film if he could watch it. Regardless of his charm and dignity, Tarantino kills him off. Just as it’s fun to watch a bunch of Jewish dudes kill Nazis, there is equal ironic satisfaction in watching a filmmaker kill a film critic. Each time I watch it, I find something new to enjoy, but this time around I was struck at how complicit Tarantino makes us in the violence, how he calls us out for enjoying propaganda. As Aldo finishes carving a Swastika into Landa’s forehead in the final shot of the film, the audience assumes Landa’s point of view, looking up at Aldo, the Tarantino proxy, who hovers above then admits, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
I definitely agree.