“You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.”
Those are the closing lines of dialogue in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, and the taunting pretension therein speaks for itself. Before even leaving the set, Quentin Tarantino had declared his sixth film to be his very best. And while it is certainly a contender, I suspect many would be just as happy to make the case for Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs as being his greatest triumph.
Nevertheless, one can understand where the subversive auteur is coming from. Inglourious Basterds is a tremendous achievement in moviemaking that seven years later still holds up as a crackerjack, three-hour war movie without any actual scenes of war. It is meatier than Django Unchained and more fun than The Hateful Eight, two strong movies that nonetheless feel like spiritual follow-ups due to scenes of revenge and dialogue-based thrills.
Inglourious changed the trajectory of his career in the same way that Kill Bill ushered in its own grindhouse era after the first triumvirate of crime pictures (Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown). And the reason why is also the cause of Tarantino’s immediate, self-congratulatory ending: Inglourious Basterds is the filmmaker’s final word on the power of cinema.
At the risk of sounding grandiloquent myself, I am not suggesting that Tarantino doesn’t have other stories to tell or new filmmaking techniques to explore. The Hateful Eight’s extravagant use of Ultra Panavision 70mm photography for what is essentially an Agatha Christie-styled oater is proof that there will always be more cinematic genres and formats left to challenge. However, Basterds provides the clearest and most eloquently caustic articulation of Tarantino’s ideology to date.
Movies are awesome, and their effect supersedes everything else.
The “everything else” in this case just so happens to be little things like history, the legacy of World War II, and the very visage of 20th century evil incarnate itself—the Nazi Party. This is a movie that steers its good ol’ boy charm right through the entrance of “History” with a Capital H’s china shop and then proceeds to smash everything to dust. By the end of the film, the Second World War has concluded a year early in Nazi Occupied Paris, and the power of cinema and storytelling has overcome the nastiest of cataclysmic realities.
The perversions of Inglourious Basterds are immediate, right down to how the title is a purposeful misspelling of a 1978 Enzo Castellari picture by the same name. Despite ostensibly having a similar set-up of “men on a mission,” Inglourious Basterds rarely focuses on its titular band of American badasses. Playing as almost a mockery of the type of World War II movie that popped up in abundance throughout the 2000s after the success of Saving Private Ryan, Brad Pitt’s squad of Jewish Americans raining hellfire down on the Germans behind enemy lines makes up about only a third of the picture’s considerable 153-minute runtime.
Much of that spectacular ending, where Hitler is literally swallowed up whole by a celluloid inferno, has little to do with the traditional Allied Powers who are (understandably) depicted as the heroes in most World War II pictures. Rather, Inglourious Basterds primarily belongs to two characters: Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa and Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna. Giving Waltz the spotlight needs no explanation since the combination of actor and screenplay created one of the best screen villains of the last decade, as well as a showcase that took Waltz all the way to the Oscar stage. But while Waltz provides a hypnotically garrulous SS officer as the picture’s central villain, Laurent is its true protagonist.
The movie begins on the fateful day that Shosanna is introduced to the Nazis. As the fabled “Jew Hunter” of the SS, Hans Landa opens the film by brutally and psychologically breaking French farmer LaPadite (Denis Ménochet) with simple words. Fearing for his daughters’ safety, LaPadite gives up the Jewish family that he hides in his cellar, including Shosanna. Yet serendipitously, Landa spares Shosanna’s life on a whim.
Walking out of LaPadite’s farmhouse in a shot that deliberately replicates the closing frame of John Ford’s The Searchers, Hans Landa stands in a doorway when he chooses not to fire his Luger. Instead, he taunts Shosanna’s complete isolation as she runs into the distance with her family’s blood on her face. The echoing of Ford’s 1956 Western in itself creates interesting parallels: one film ends with John Wayne choosing also not to kill a girl (his niece) who has “gone native” after living with the Comanche Indians for most of her adolescent life—he instead abandons her to distant relatives who are little more than strangers as they take her into a dark house that he cannot enter. And this is supposedly a “happy ending!”
In contrast, Inglourious Basterds opens with Hans Landa also choosing to spare a young girl’s life, except she is fleeing his civilized abode in favor of the wilderness. In many ways, she escapes the darkness of the house that swallowed up Natalie Wood’s young heroine in The Searchers, but Shosanna is just as alone when her family is massacred by Hans Landa’s order (not unlike the family that also dies at the beginning of John Ford’s Western).
But it’s in that wilderness that Shosanna finds relief and even reclamation at the only place where escape is possible: the cinema. Through rather fortuitous circumstances, Shosanna ends up inheriting a movie house in the heart of Paris, and under the false name of “Emmanuel,” Shosanna quietly hides in plain sight for four years in Nazi Occupied France; she even entertains German patrons in her theater.
It is for this reason that she becomes the unfortunate fixation of a Nazi hero named Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who attempts to woo Emmanuel through their shared language of cinema. In fact, everything Zoller does plays to the template of filmmaking shorthand for lovemaking. Acting like the lead of any other romantic comedy, Zoller attempts to break through Emmanuel’s icy and despondent exterior via grandiose gestures like getting Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) to premiere their latest shared propaganda piece, Nation’s Pride, in Shosanna’s tiny theater.
Of course, the sly elegance of this is that Zoller is still a tool of the Nazis, and even if he meets the immediate qualifications of Hollywood’s “nice guy” template, he is still a threat, which becomes all too apparent by the end of the movie when his persistence proves creepy, domineering, and ultimately fatal since it leads to Shosanna and Zoller both killing each other. In essence, this depicts the limitations of fiction since relations are much more nuanced than a two-hour courtship could ever convey, and the niceness of “nice guys” must inevitably reach its finite fade-to-black.
Still, it is Zoller’s insistence of screening the film in Shosanna’s theater that allows Tarantino to provide his central thesis for the overriding glories of moviemaking. For in that theater, Shosanna plants the seeds for a flight-of-fancy revenge the likes of which could only work in the movies. She and her true love, French-Algerian Marcel (Jacky Ido), pile up thousands of celluloid reels behind the movie theater’s screen, and when all of the Nazis have entered the theater, including Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Martin Bormann, and Adolf Hitler himself, it’s barbecue time.
The true purpose of the film is to audaciously suggest that if Tarantino’s fictional characters had existed, they could have won World War II by themselves, and they would have done it with the literal reach of the big screen. Indeed, Shosanna might be lying dead in the projection room, but on silvery celluloid, she is newly risen as the immortal face of a Jewish Armageddon. In a pre-filmed sequence she had manually spliced into Goebbels’ propaganda, Shosanna gets the last laugh. As the proud and self-professed daughter of Holocaust victims, she literally comes out of the screen (and back from the dead) to escort the Nazi high command into the mouth of Hell.
The war is won as fire and smoke spill out, engulfing an audience that has been locked and barred into this ashen place with the vengeful face of cinema. Even as the smoke rises, Mélanie Laurent’s delightfully wrathful face cackles into the fumes, projecting a hellish affect on the spreading gas. The only thing the titular “basterds” contribute to this victory is that they deliver the coup de grace on the Fuhrer themselves by breaking into his and Goebbels’ private balcony and sprawling the Third Reich out.
Yet, satisfaction in Eli Roth’s Bear Jew blasting the remnants of ol’ Adolf’s skull into oblivion is almost preemptively tempered. Prior to the slaughter of Germans, Inglourious Basterds’ core American audience witnessed the rather uncomfortable sight of Hitler and his fellow patrons reveling in the images of Nation’s Pride, which depicted Zoller’s war exploits in Italy where he slaughtered dozens of Americans.
In a movie that has allowed audiences to take catharsis in the spectacle of a Louisville slugger being placed against the brow of a captured German officer, suddenly the tables were turned as we watched fictional Nazis laughing themselves silly at the massacre of yet more movie-within-a-movie fictional Americans.
This meta-irony still does not prevent Tarantino or most real-life moviegoers from finding entertainment in a finale that ends the Second World War in a tidal wave of righteous vengeance. Catharsis is provided for 21st century audiences in scenes far gorier than those that made us squirm in the Nazis’ onscreen entertainment. Is this a commentary on the corroding nature of violence in film itself, or simply a shaky attempt at false moral equivalency?
Nope. It’s a gaudy testament to the temporary but inescapable reach of movies. Vengeance might be a dish best served cold (as per Klingon proverb), but Tarantino also posits that dish is best prepared on a plate of glorious, ludicrous fiction. Geopolitical realities of ending the war in assassination or the effects it would have on the Pacific Theater are inconsequential in the emotional and illogical thrill of cinema. Just as the grand three-act love story proves grotesquely insufficient for the lives of Shosanna and Zoller, the flipside is that Shosanna’s injustices can be simplified and righted, if only by the flickering of a projection light bulb.
There is a reason that following Basterds Tarantino has avoided his usual wheelhouse of settings where characters can chit chat about films ad nauseam. By providing such a persuasive closing argument about the merits of moviemaking, he’s already concluded that logic, practicalities, your own personal miseries, and even the far reach of history itself are immaterial in the face of movie house make-believe (at least for the length between opening and closing credits).
Being in a dark room for two (or knowing Tarantino, three) hours means that an illusion can be stronger than anything else—like the face of cinema itself giving Hitler the just end he never faced in his cowardly life. A movie killed Hitler in a fiery inferno both on and off the screen in Inglourious Basterds. Maybe it really is a masterstroke.