Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds" is about World War II in roughly the same way that, I suppose, Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" is about a haunted hotel. The war is indeed the setting, but that's not so much what the movie is about. I also don't see it as an act of Holocaust denial or an anti-vengeance fable in which we are supposed to first applaud the Face of Jewish Revenge, and then feel uncomfortable sympathy for the Nazis. The movie comes down firmly on the side of the Jews, and of revenge, of an early end to the war and the saving of thousands of lives, with barely a quibble.
But while "Inglourious Basterds" is indisputably a WW II revenge fantasy (and, of course, a typically Tarantinian "love letter to cinema"), a theme that is central to nearly every moment, every image, every line of dialog, is that of performance -- of existence as a form of acting, and human identity as both projection and perception. As you would expect from a film that is also an espionage picture and a detective movie, it's shot through with identity games, interrogations, role-playing and people or situations that are not what they appear to be...
It's all there in the first shot -- the carefully composed image of "typical" moment on a dairy farm: a small house on a hill, a farmer chopping cleanly at a perfectly sawed double stump (with no sign of wood chips or debris from the removed tree), a young woman hanging sheets on a line. And it's there in the final shot, as two of the title characters look straight into the camera after permanently blowing the villain's cover and the ostensible star of the picture declares: "This may just be my masterpiece."
Back to that opening: The sheer perfection of the image -- one that is soon to be shattered by the arrival of SS Col. Hanz Landa (Christopher Waltz) and his men from off-screen, or rather behind the white screen of the sheets as we first see them -- perhaps telegraphs that this scene is not quite what it seems. There seems to be noplace to hide out here, but once the interrogation scene begins, do we ever doubt that Monsieur LaPadite is, in fact, sheltering the Jewish dairy farming family Landa is hunting? (Their name is Dreyfus -- a Jewish name notoriously associated with anti-Semitism in France.)
Farmer LaPadite sets the scene, telling his daughter to fetch him some water to wash up and to join her sisters in the house. He watches the German soldiers approach in the reflection of the window (we see a reverse angle of what he sees). Landa greets him with a ceremonial handshake and requests to move the stage inside the house, where the three girls are lined up formally. Two of them frame Landa and LaPadite, with the other soldiers outside remaining visible through a window. All this business is about preparing for, and putting on, performances. Even Landa's "manners" (asking permission to switch languages, if only to flaunt his fluency, for example) are part of the show -- and the aspect of his job that he clearly enjoys most.
There's something obscene and invasive about the way Landa requests a drink of milk, served to him by one of the girls. (Listen for the "moo" when she pours it. He will later order a glass for Shoshanna -- an act she and we will find profoundly disturbing, though he may be unaware of, or only subconsciously attuned to, its implications.) Aside from the unsettling associations (cattle, daughters) Landa makes by drinking the milk of LaPadite's heifers, he's also letting everyone know that he has been and will be absolutely thorough in his inspection of the LaPadite farm.
The revelation of Landa's Sherlock Holmes pipe has received a lot of attention, a flamboyant gesture that indicates a dramatic nature as well as perhaps a form of overcompensation. Audiences tend to see Landa as the butt of this joke, but Tarantino has suggested (on "Charlie Rose") that he and Waltz agreed before the scene was shot that it's non-smoker Landa's joke on LaPadite -- a way of letting him know that he already knows that the farmer smokes a pipe.
Everything that happens in "Inglourious Basterds" -- from Landa's interrogation methods, to everyone's concern with their myths/reputations, to Shoshanna's application of her make-up, Apache war-paint style, to the Big Show she puts on for her cinema's final audience -- is about preparing for, or putting on, a show for an audience. In Chapter One, the spectators (the three LaPadite girls) are sent outside, at which point LaPadite himself becomes the audience for Landa's performance. But, of course, we soon learn that there are other spectators beneath the floorboards. After an accounting of the members of the missing Dreyfus family, at the mention of Shoshanna's name the camera drops beneath the floor to reveal her terrified face.
When Shoshanna escapes at the end of the scene, she is seen running off through a black-framed doorway. It's the last shot of "The Searchers," of course, with Shoshanna leaving her shelter in an inhospitable landscape, destined to wander forever between the winds... as a fugitive. She is leaving one frame, one movie, to enter another, with a new name and a new life as Emmanuelle Mimieux (after the '70s softcore classic "Emmanuelle" and Yvette Mimieux), owner and proprietor of Le Gamaar Cinema in Paris. But that's not until Chapter Three. (I've previously gone into some detail about the strategies Tarantino uses to constantly remind you, the "Inglourious Basterds" viewer, that you are watching a movie, a work of artifice.)
We could go through the movie shot by shot to see how the dialog, the actors, the camera and the editing are continually framing and re-framing the action in terms of performance. (I've done it with Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," too -- another movie about life as acting, acting as life -- all in pursuit of the titular "good life.") But I'll just skip through a few highlights from the remaining chapters:
Chapter Two begins with Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who claims to be a direct descendent of the legendary "Mountain Man" and teller of tall tales Jim Bridger, explaining to the actors/Basterds what their roles will be. Their unit is to act as real-life propaganda film behind enemy lines. The stories of their bloody exploits will put fear into the hearts of the Nazis, weakening their morale and their will to fight. Like Landa, they are concerned with creating a myth, a reputation that will precede them, then spread in their wake ("Do you know who I am/we are?" is a repeated refrain), that will become a far more powerful weapon than they themselves are, even if each man in the squad does get 100 Nazi scalps.
When we are first introduced to the Führer himself, he is not so much concerned with the war's military campaign as with the propaganda campaign, which he feels is a serious threat to the Third Reich. As an artist works on a mural portrait that dwarfs the man himself, Hitler forbids any reference to the Basterds' so-called "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth), who is infamous for beating German soldiers to death with a Louisville Slugger, and orders the survivor of an encounter with the Basterds not to breathe a word of what happened. (Of course, this soldier has been released specifically to spread the Basterds' myth amongst the Nazi high command.)
The scene in the ditch begins with a re-enactment of the Basterds' legendary reputation for carnage, into which three captured German soldiers are escorted. The landscape is littered with dead Nazis whose bodies are being scalped and otherwise mistreated. Raine sets the scene ("There's two ways we can play this..."), attempting to persuade Sgt. Werner Rachtman (Richard Sammel) to give up German positions. But Rachtman -- excuse me, "Werner" -- "respectfully" refuses:
RACHTMANYou can't expect me to divulge information that would put German lives in danger. RAINEWell, Werner that's where you're wrong because that's exactly what I expect.
This is the occasion for the introduction of Donny Donowitz, aka "The Bear Jew," who gets quite an entrance, the sound of his bat echoing off the stone walls as he emerges from a dark tunnel. When Rachtman again refuses to crack, Raine is unruffled, indicating that perhaps this is what he was really expecting: "Actually, Werner, we're all tickled you said that. Frankly, watching' Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to goin' to the movies." The other Basterds laugh and cheer their cohorts' various performances. (This segment is interrupted by a Samuel L. Jackson-narrated flashback on the background of the former Nazi turned Basterd, Hugo Stigitz [Til Schweiger]. Other Basterds were, no doubt, also given their own mini-dossiers, but only Stiglitz's remains in the U.S. theatrical release of the film.)
As Sgt. Rachtman gets his brains bashed in, we're introduced to the most important audience for this act -- two captive German soldier, hands behind their heads, one of whom, Pvt. Butz (Soenke Möhring), is crying and clearly terrified. "About now I'd be shitting my pants if I was you," taunts PFC. Hirschberg (Samm Levine, from "Freaks and Geeks" -- also, some say, the artist painting Hitler's massive portrait). Moments later, the other soldier is shot dead (the Basterds, you may have heard, are not in the prisoner-takin' bigness) and Pvt. Butz, who will later be interrogated by Hitler himself, is pointing out the locations of German military on a map.
Chapter Three begins in 1944 with Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent) on a ladder, changing the marquee of her cinema, which has been showing G.W. Pabst's¹ 1929 mountain film, "Die weisse Hölle vom Piz Palü, starring Leni Riefenstahl, later to become the Nazis' favorite propaganda filmmaker (The Triumph of the Will"). Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) attempts to engage her in conversation about the cinema: Pabst. Riefenstahl, Chaplin, Max Linder... He wants her to accept him as a fellow cinephile; she treats him as a Nazi occupier. He may be able to play both roles, but to Shoshanna/Emmanuelle, the latter is more significant.
Later, in a cafe encounter, he tries to persuade her that he's "not just a uniform." "You are to me," she replies. In fact, although he wears an undecorated private's uniform (he is, in effect, in disguise), Zoller is, in fact, a celebrity, a war hero, and soon to become a movie star -- "the German Seargent York" (or Audie Murphy) -- playing himself in Nazi Propaganda Minister (and UFA studio head) Joseph Goebbels' would-be masterpiece, "Stolz deer Nation" ("Nation's Pride").
One of the Nazi autograph seekers in the cafe (setting the scene for movie star Bridget on Hammersmark's napkin-signing in the next chapter) assumes that Shoshanna is the famous Fredrick's girlfriend, but Zoller corrects the mis-casting. Shoshanna is soon whisked off for a meeting with Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) himself at a Parisian restaurant. (My favorite Shoshanna moment: Her goofy, incredulous expression when Goebbels and Zoller engage in some affectionate rough-housing at the table.) It is here that Landa re-enters the picture and Shoshanna meets him, face to face, for the first time. Again, he puts on a flamboyant show -- always seeming to imply more than he actually says. In the end, he frightens her with the threat of a question, only to dismiss it as something he can't quite remember so it must not have been important. This may well be the case. Perhaps there's something familiar about Shoshanna that he can't quite call to mind. Or maybe he just does it to f**k with her. Or both.
Chapter Four introduces us to former film critic, Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), who is briefed by General Ed Fenech (Mike Myers) about Operation Kino -- in the presence of Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor) himself. The British, however, don't know that there's another operation (see The Piranha Brothers), masterminded by Shoshanna with the assistance of her black projectionist and lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) for the same occasion: the premiere of "Nation's Pride" at Le Gamaar. Hicox says he's never heard of the Basterds, who are cooperating with the operation, and Gen. Fenech reiterates their purpose: "Whole point of the secret service, old boy, you not hearing of them. But the Gerrys have heard of them..."
In its most daring and suspenseful set-piece -- the "basement" scene set in La Louisiane tavern -- "Inglourious Basterds" reaches its role-playing apotheosis.⁴Movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) plays an identity-guessing card game with a group of Nazi soldiers celebrating the birth of a son to one of their comrades. Each has a card with the name of a person or fictional character stuck to his forehead and, in turn, is allowed to ask a series of questions to determine his own identity. The "characters" include: Winnetou (Native American hero of a series of popular German novels written by Karl May), Pola Negri² (UFA and Hollywood silent-movie vamp), Edgar Wallace (British crime writer and creator of King Kong), Mata Hari (exotic dancer and WW I double agent), Beethoven (a rather well-known German composer -- conspicuously not Wagner, who may have been too easy)... and Bridget von Hammersmark as Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongolian warlord.
It's supposed to be an intelligence meeting between Fraulein von Hammersmark, Hicox and two of the German-speaking Basterds, Stiglitz and Wicki (Gedeon Burkhardt), who will pose as Bridget's escorts to the "Nation's Pride" premiere. But all Raine worries about is that the "goddamn rendezvous" is in a "basement." Before Bridget can deliver the big news to her contacts -- that Hitler himself will be in attendance at the gala -- they are interrupted, first by the new father, Master Sgt. Rudolph Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), then by the sudden reappearance of the sinister Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl), who collected Shoshanna for the meeting with Goebbels.
In an attempt to suss out who's really who, Hellstrom proposes another round of the identity game. "Real or fictitious, it doesn't matter," he says, again emphasizing Tarantino's approach to the movie he's in. Hellstrom quickly and correctly deduces that, since he is not "the story of the Negro in America" (brought from the jungle to America in chains and against his will), he must be King Kong. But not until Hicox orders three more glasses of some vintage scotch does Hellstrom determine, once and for all, that Hicox is not, in fact, a German. (Though Archie's accent is odd, it's a gesture that gives him away.)
In Chapter Five, Operation Kino becomes "The Revenge of the Giant Face" as Shoshanna's sabotage effort (using actual footage from Alfred Hitchcock's 1936 film "Sabotage," that features an explosion and fire at a London movie theater) intersects with a newly improvised version of the British plan. This one entails having Basterds Raine, Donowitz and PFC Omar Ulmer (after the Austrian director of "Detour" who came to America with F.W. Murnau), accompanying Bridget von Hammersmark up the red carpet, posing as an Italian director, cameraman and assistant. (Shades of Groucho, Harpo and Chico.)
All the scenes in "Inglourious Basterds" consist of combining and recombining the characters in various configurations. At the "Nation's Pride" premiere, one shot unites all the major characters. In the bustling lobby, Shoshanna approaches Zoller and Goebbels, who introduces her to the great German actor Emil Jannings (Marlene Dietrich's co-star in Josef von Sternberg's "Der Blaue Engel," and the star of Murnau's "The Last Laugh, who appeared in some of Goebbels' Nazi propaganda efforts during the war). The camera follows a passing cigarette girl and then a waiter with a tray of champagne flutes up the stairs to the balcony, where Landa surveys the scene. He sees something and descends the stairs on the other side of the lobby to greet (fictional) movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (in foot cast) and the three tuxedoed Basterd impostors ("imposters"?).
During the premiere screening of "Nation's Pride," Fredrick excuses himself and attempts to join Shoshanna in the projection booth. Why does he do this?³ Is he, as he suggests to her, really abashed by watching his own exploits? If so, the pretense doesn't last long. When she tries again to shut him out, he explodes with arrogance and rage: "I'm not a man you say 'no' to!" he exclaims, and invokes the 300 men he famously killed as a means of demanding her respect. Fortunately, she responds by shooting him.
But then, as he lies motionless on the floor, Shoshanna looks out at his image on the screen and feels some kind of... regret? Compassion? Misdirected cinephiliac emotion? Zoller moves, she approaches him, and he shoots her dead. In the most poignant scene Tarantino has ever filmed (OK, he's not known for evoking the tender emotions), the lifeless bodies of the two movie lovers sprawled on the floor while, above them, the fourth reel keeps inexorably unspooling. All the events these two have set in motion will now come to a climax without them. The show must go on.
Some have said (and even Tarantino has hinted at this) that the slaughter of the bedecked and bejeweled Nazi elite (including Hitler, Goebbels, Hermann Goering and Martin Boorman) in the cinema audience is supposed to be met with ambivalence by the audience for "Inglourious Basterds." (Some have even claimed to detect this in "Kill Bill" and "Death Proof," but feeling a little sorry for pathetic and wounded Stuntman Mike as he is outclassed by stuntwomen at the end is not quite the same as questioning the cathartic nature of the women's righteous anger -- and the vicarious revenge of their unknown sisters, Mike's victims in the first half of the movie.)
I don't see anything in the movie to support this claim, though I understand the impulse behind it. For one thing, the flaming finale deliberately recalls "Carrie" (one of Tarantino's favorite films, by one of his favorite directors, Brian De Palma), which does indeed "punish" the audience for sharing Carrie's uncontrollable rage. As she wreaks her vengeance, burning down her school (and metamorphoses into a blood-soaked Nosferatu), she kills the innocent along with the guilty -- in particular, one of the film's most sympathetic characters, the coach played by Betty Buckley. But to say that same dynamic is at work is, perhaps, wishful thinking for those who would prefer to feel at least a little bit guilty about the revenge scene, especially inasmuch as it deliberately recalls the ovens of the Holocaust.
Tarantino is a savvy, skillful art-house exploitation filmmaker. (You can't separate one from the other or it wouldn't be Tarantino.) If he wanted to undercut Shoshanna's revenge by inflicting sharp pangs of ambivalence on his audience, he would have made sure he shot his film that way, and you would feel it beyond any doubt. But he doesn't. There's some room for ambiguity, but not a whole helluva lot. For most of the sequence, as the place goes up in flames and the giant face of Shoshanna glories in her revenge (first on the screen, then as an image projected in smoke), Tarantino shoots the Nazi audience as if they were lemmings -- bearing down on them from above, or looking up at the Basterds firing their machine guns at them. Most significantly of all, we rarely even see their faces. They are shot from behind or above as they attempt to flee through the blocked exits. Tarantino does not choose to shoot them coming toward the camera, or to single out individuals in the crowd (see Eisenstein's Odessa Steps sequence, quoted in "Nation's Pride"). When the cinema explodes, we're treated to a spectacular shot of a body flying through the round window above the marquee. The effect of the entire sequence is more cathartic (and kinetically thrilling) than anything else, no matter what undertones you may also read into it.⁵ Because it's patently unreal, a movie metaphor.
In an Atlantic profile I quoted previously, QT reacted rhetorically when it was suggested his depiction of "Jewish revenge" might be too much: "I was too brutal to Nazis?" (This and "The Bear Jew" remind me of Woody Allen's line from 1979's "Manhattan": "Well, a satirical piece in the Times is one thing, but bricks and baseball bats really gets right to the point.") "IB" is quite deliberately "putting out the fire with gasoline" -- QT knows what he's doing -- and has few, if any, qualms about it. There's room for ambiguity, but
Ever concerned with his public image, Landa concocts a plan to go down in history as the hero who ended World War II. He even extracts an agreement from U.S. brass (phone voice by Harvey Keitel) to present him as a double-agent working undercover as a Nazis all along. Turns out his legendary status as "The Jew Hunter" just isn't enough for him. (Nice bit: He insults Basterd PFC. Smithson Utivich [B.J. Novak] by saying he's been nicknamed "The Little Man.")
But the movie's final twist, its last laugh (and it is meant to be a laugh) belongs to Lt. Raine, who tarnishes Landa's dreams of a new identity by carving the mark of his old one -- a Nazi swastika -- into his forehead so he can never deny his past, or who he really is. And, thus, the Basterds' legacy, "inglourious" as it is, will endure. As Raine begins to cut, a jaunty, semi-military tune begins to play in the background, as if taunting Landa. It swells into a rousing theme to accompany the end credits.
No, Tarantino doesn't feel sorry for Landa in the least, and the movie isn't suggesting the audience should, either. The guy's a f**kin' Nazi, after all...
* * * *
¹ This is the first of several Pabst "cameos": The director is the subject of film critic Archie Hicox's book, "Twenty-Four Frame Da Vinci," and "Piz Palü" will become Hicox's alibi for his peculiar German accent in Chapter Four.
² The name may also be intended to recall the word "Negro." Both Goebbels and Major Hellstrom make comments about how America has built its power and reputation on the backs of African slaves.
³ Personally, I think he realizes he might have a chance with Shoshanna if he makes his move while his movie is still playing. The reluctant hero routine is just a piece of acting he does for Goebbels and Shoshanna. There's a suggestion -- if only for a moment -- that he may even have an impulse to rape her in the booth: "It's nice to know you can feel something, even if it's just physical pain."
⁴I can't help but think some of this has to do with Quentin Tarantino being, and playing, "Quentin Tarantino" -- a man whose reputation now precedes him wherever he goes. When does he get to take off the quotation marks, and what would it mean to do that? Or is it even possible anymore?
⁵ I've mentioned again and again that "Inglourious Basterds" exists on a plane of cinematic unreality, an alternative movie-movie universe. Ed Howard, who likens "IB" to Philip Roth's alt-WWII novel The Plot Against America, perfectly describes how this affects the way we view Operation Kino and Shoshanna's Revenge: "Tarantino's vision of a fiery end to the Third Reich is only powerful when it plays off of the knowledge that this isn't what really happened, that this is a "what if" scenario. Tarantino knows he can't rewrite history, but he can create a cinematic alternate history that resonates in various ways with the real world, with real ideas."
Jason Bellamy makes another distinction I think is essential: "My point is, if you watch the theater scene and come away confused, conflicted or distressed, I think that speaks more to your ethics than to Tarantino's. Atypically for a QT picture, the climactic chapter of 'Inglourious Basterds' seems designed not to unveil Tarantino's feelings but to put us in touch with our own. Or am I giving Tarantino too much credit?"
Below: Conan poster, Basterd poster...
UPDATE: Be sure to read these two excellent conversations about Tarantino and "Inglourious Basterds":
Dennis Cozzalio and Bill R. at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule.
Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy at The House Next Door.
Opening shot of Clint Eastwood's "Unforgiven":