Inglourious Basterds: Tarantino’s First Alternate History

Inglourious Basterds was Quentin Tarantino's first slice of alternate history in which cinema takes revenge on the Nazis.

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

This feature contains major spoilers for Inglourious Basterds from the very start.

As a filmmaker, Quentin Tarantino is given to making splashy and subversive films. Right through his new film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he tends to show us the kind of genre movie he grew up watching before turning it upside down and seeing what comes out. Ten years after it was originally released, his Oscar-winning World War II movie Inglourious Basterds may still represent the greatest product of his filmmaking whims.

The marriage of his sensibilities and the historical arena of WW2 Europe rankled (and continues to rankle with) his critics, but his painstakingly developed men-on-a-mission movie blooms into a truly audacious series of vignettes, which is most commonly labelled by its admirers and detractors alike as an “alternate history.” 

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In purely factual terms, that’s the most polite way to refer to the film’s climactic vision of the main movers of Nazi Germany perishing in a burning cinema in 1944, but the film itself transcends most pleasantries. Everything from the misspelled title, which is borrowed from Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 film The Inglorious Bastards, to that finale suggests the twice-removed nature of the film concerning both history and genre.

                     Buy Inglorious Basterds on Blu-ray Here

Starring Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent, Inglourious Basterds is split into five intertwining chapters looking at the convergence of Jewish fugitive Shosanna Dreyfus and the various Allied forces, including the titular Basterds, as they all move against the German high command in 1944.

The film was shot in late 2008 and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May 2009, with Tarantino making further edits to the theatrical cut before it came to general release. It’s an auspicious way for the film to come into the world, especially when it’s infinitely more interested in European and American cinema than it is in chronicling the Second World War.

Mocking portrayals of the Nazis on film range from Mel Brooks’ The Producers to Taika Waititi’s upcoming comedy Jojo Rabbit, but Tarantino has a more scorching treatment in mind. The result is a feature that, in all senses, explores the incendiary qualities of film and uses cinema itself to settle some historic scores.

Inglourious Basterds - Brad Pitt threathening a Nazi

Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France

Tarantino first started writing the film in 1998, after completing Jackie Brown. The script would take almost ten years to complete, as he kept fine-tuning the story in search of a satisfactory ending and instead wound up writing and directing Kill Bill and Death Proof first. According to the writer, Shosanna was more of an action hero in earlier versions of the plot, but he borrowed from himself while creating the Bride, prompting a rethink in later drafts.

At one point, his sprawling script was going to be turned into a TV mini-series, but he eventually went back in and honed the story to a manageable movie-length screenplay, using his own Pulp Fiction as a guide. With production set up between Universal Pictures and The Weinstein Company, Tarantino began casting the film for an October start date. 

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He had felt early on that Pitt might be a good choice to play Lt. Aldo Raine, and the script took long enough to complete that the star was just the right age by the time production was set to begin. Aiming to “discover” someone, he also cast Laurent, a relative newcomer, as Shosanna.

read more: Every Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Easter Egg

But at the time and in the years since, Tarantino has credited Christoph Waltz (who would later win a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his breakout performance) as the missing ingredient in the long-gestating film’s production. Having initially sought Leonardo DiCaprio to play Col. Hans Landa, the wolfish, multilingual SS detective who prowls throughout the film, the director was starting to think the pivotal part was “unplayable” until Waltz turned up.

Some near-misses in casting included Simon Pegg as film critic-turned-soldier Lt. Archie Hicox, Natassja Kinski as actress Bridget Von Hammersmark, and Adam Sandler as Donnie “The Bear Jew” Donowitz. All three were engaged elsewhere, and those roles went to Michael Fassbender, Diane Kruger, and Eli Roth respectively. The supporting cast is rounded out by familiar, if not well-known Jewish-American character actors and comedians, including B.J. Novak, Paul Rust, Michael Bacall, Samm Levine, and Omar Doom.

Just like the scripts for Kill Bill, Django Unchained, and (most notably) The Hateful Eight, the final draft of Inglourious Basterds leaked online ahead of principal photography in 2008. Up until that point, there had been some debate about whether or not the film would be a straight remake of Castellari’s film, but the leak revealed more of the deconstructive angle played out in the finished film.

Even by the standards of a Quentin Tarantino movie, it trades on unusually extended scenes of dialogue, with distinct but overlapping chapters. As well as a guide to length, Pulp Fiction seems to have offered a template for the intertwined storylines, although Basterds is significantly more urgent and propulsive in its story than his seminal 1994 film.

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The film marks Tarantino’s final collaboration with long-time editor Sally Menke, who sadly passed away in 2010, and the way the film is shot and edited lends it a roaring pace, even though so much of the runtime is dedicated to characters talking. The film contains two of the best, most brilliantly sustained scenes in any Tarantino film; namely, the extended prologue in which Landa interrogates La Padite, and the La Louisiane tavern sequence.

Frankly, this was never going to be a straightforward war movie, not only because Tarantino has never done a straightforward genre film in his entire career but also because he’s more interested in exploring an unmined era of cinematic history.

Michael Fassbender in Inglourious Basterds

Operation Kino

References to other films provide important texture in all of Tarantino’s films, even when they’re incongruous to the particular genre in which they reside. For Inglourious Basterds, the film’s intertextuality is largely limited to period-appropriate cinema, ranging from King Kong to Piz Palu. Furthermore, the film owes a considerable narrative debt to Ernst Lubitsch’s 1942 comedy classic To Be or Not To Be, a similar exercise in revisionism that was dismissed as “too soon” in its time.

But more than any of his other features up until Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the process of filmmaking and watching films is part of the story. Even beyond the audacious narrative strokes, the characters are talking about this as much as in any other Tarantino film. For instance, a scene in Chapter 2 has Aldo gleefully observe that “watching Donnie kill Nazis is as close as we get to going to the movies.”

But the larger strokes come into play in the following section. Last seen running out for her life at the end of the first chapter, Shosanna resurfaces in Chapter 3, “A German Night In Paris,” posing as Emmanuelle Mimieux, the manager of a Parisian picture house frequented by credulous film bro and Nice Guy Nazi Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl).

read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Ending Explained

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Elsewhere, Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is the de facto studio head of the Third Reich. In his capacity as Minister of Propaganda, Goebbels oversaw the production of more than 800 movies, many of which had subliminal or overt Nazi and anti-Semitic messaging seeded through them. Here, Tarantino paints him as a movie mogul who is comically precious about his productions, and specifically about moving the premiere to Shosanna’s cinema.

His latest, the film-within-a-film, is Nation’s Pride, the propaganda-friendly true story of Zoller, a sniper who shot 250 Soviet soldiers over three days. The six-minute concentrated version of the film, which is available as a bonus feature on Basterds’ DVD and Blu-ray, plies in many of the tropes seen in this era of propagandistic filmmaking, including one absurd moment with a mother with a pushchair during the battle. In another self-referential touch, Castellari and his original Bastards star Bo Svenson also make cameo appearances.

Shosanna, who has previously dismissed Zoller’s advances, takes the opportunity to hatch a revenge plot, making a short interjection (a film-within-a-film-within-a-film) to show to the Nazis on their “German night.” On the night of the Nation’s Pride premiere, she plots to ignite the cinema’s library of 350 nitrate film prints, destroying the building and killing the entire high command, including Hitler, Goebbels and most of the SS.

Meanwhile, the Basterds are engaged in an entirely unrelated plan, codenamed Operation Kino, and the parallel plots never crossover until they both combust at the same time. When this additional plot is first introduced, it’s not until the mid-point of the film, in a scene that almost seems to be expressly about the artifice of cinema.

As Hicox is taken through the details by Mike Myers’ heavily made-up, plum-voiced general and Rod Taylor’s Winston Churchill (the star came out of retirement for his final performance, at Tarantino’s urging), it’s clear that his status as a German cinema nerd is what makes him the best man for the job.

Ironically, one of the few areas in which cinema can’t cover everything is that Hicox takes his backstory from a film, which coupled with a shaky German accent and that incredible “he asked for three, we ask for three” giveaway, shows him up. But even then, he’s only stumped by a Gestapo officer who’s apparently just as into films as he is.

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In fact, in a film where various characters on the Operation Kino side of things are found out while acting like someone they’re not (“Bawnjourno”), Shosanna more or less gets away with doing the same.

Inglourious Basterds Character Shoshanna

Revenge of the giant face

Although the film’s various chapters cover a sprawling ensemble, there’s a case to be made that Shosanna is the real protagonist of the film. She’s not only the one who most successfully infiltrates Nazi-occupied France in order and, as Landa puts it, “brings the tyranny of the National Socialist Party to a swifter-than-imagined end,” but also the character we follow most ardently throughout the story.

By contrast, the Basterds are broadly sketched archetypes, enlivened by QT’s writing and the comic timing of the cast. Even Landa, who stands as the best villain Tarantino has written to date, is played as a theatrical detective; a heel Hercule Poirot who’s quicker and smarter than anyone else on-screen for almost the entire running time.

But the form of her revenge is pyrrhic and destructive for everyone in the cinema at the time, whether good or bad. Shosanna seemingly intends to get out alive (we see her projectionist and lover, Marcel, leave after barring the doors, while she dies in an unexpected shoot-out with Zoller in the projection booth), but the out-of-control suicide mission consumes absolutely everyone in the cinema at the time.

This sequence remains one of the most maligned aspects of the film by its critics, either because of its violent content or what’s perceived as an ahistorical “immaturity” in the director’s approach. Because of the nature of the atrocities that the Nazis committed, there’s usually a historical reverence, but Tarantino bypasses that as easily as flipping a switch. 

Still, the “alternate history” label doesn’t reflect this almost unique approach, because the moment any historical event becomes the subject of a film, it is alternative to real events, because all media is an interpretation of something else. Whether it’s Goebbels-produced propaganda or Hollywood men-on-a-mission pictures, no narrative film about a real event can ever be a completely accurate account of what went on. 

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For entertainment’s sake, you usually wouldn’t want it to be. Embracing the hyperreality of cinema, Tarantino decides to go all the way and grants his characters the chance to give history what for.

Heck, the film’s particular brand of subversion couldn’t be better timed, coming out the summer after 2008’s Valkyrie, the Bryan Singer-directed, Christopher McQuarrie-penned thriller in which Tom Cruise’s Klaus von Stauffenberg notably fails to kill Hitler. It’s a perfectly valid approach that wrings tension out of a situation in which you know Cruise historically can’t win. Unlike Valkyrie, Basterds‘ finale blows up expectations (along with the whole damn location in which it takes place) and uses the cinematic fallacy to have the heroes both win and lose.

read more: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Post-Credits Scene Explained

Tarantino knows you’ll probably cheer when Donowitz empties a machine gun into Hitler’s stupid dead face, which is precisely why it’s prefaced with an entire scene in which the Nazis laugh and cheer at Nation’s Pride‘s depiction of their enemies being destroyed. 

It may seem a bit rich for a filmmaker like Tarantino to question the destructive nature of revenge movies and violence, but the film finally grapples with the contrast between our responses to screen violence and real violence. This is what qualifies it as far more than mere cinematic wish fulfilment.

The cinematic construct is underlined by the final scene, where the only characters who escape the ironic inferno come to a final reckoning. Despite his role as a double-agent in the preceding scenes, Landa is not the film’s most important villain, nor are Raine and Utivich its most important heroes, but the latter’s branding of the former makes it a suitable epilogue. 

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It’s a comeuppance on top of the conclusion of the moral arc in the previous sequence. The surviving Basterds take away the most powerful character’s key talent for understated cruelty by carving a swastika into his forehead as a permanent sign of his misdeeds. How else could a film this brazen end but with a trademark trunk shot, as Raine stares right down the barrel of the camera and says…

Inglourious Basterds Movie Still

“I think this might just be my masterpiece”

In an interview given at the time that the film was released, Tarantino enthused: “In this story, cinema changes the world, and I fucking love that idea!” 

While you may find Inglourious Basterds problematic or self-indulgent in its treatment of history, it does everything it sets out to do as a genre deconstruction and stands up as an audaciously entertaining watch in its own right.

It doesn’t presume to be a chronicle of the Holocaust, but neither does it omit the Nazis’ myriad atrocities. In that regard, it’s less frivolous or exploitative in its depiction than, say, the first and third Indiana Jones movies, which go so far as to have Indy bump into Hitler at a book-burning in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, just for the gag. It’s a fantasy, but arguably less so than those movies, given how it adopts and reconfigures the divine retribution that appears through those adventure movies.

In fact, by the finale, cinema itself is to this film what the Ark of the Covenant is to the climax of Raiders of the Lost Ark – an almighty power that destroys everyone that intends to wield it. Film is as close to godliness as the Basterd-verse gets. Both inside and outside of its hyperreality, the movie projector’s light is what fettles the Nazis, with Goebbels’ use (or rather misuse) of cinema being the metaphorical sword by which they live and die.

Even on repeat viewings, the 153-minute film turns out to be a deceptively concise comic thriller, but more than its outwardly bombastic revisionism, it’s about using the tools of filmmaking, film acting, and film genre to redress history in a bold and irreverent fashion. There have been many more films about World War II in the last decade, but there’s still only one Inglourious Basterds.

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