Sunday, 11 August 2019


When Quentin Tarantino screened his widely anticipated WWII movie Inglourious Basterds at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, critics were divided and mostly perplexed. When the film opened wide in August that same year the reviews were mostly still mixed by the same critics and yet this was the writer/director’s biggest box office hit to date and a firm fan favourite almost immediately. As time has gone on and the ten year anniversary of its general release is upon us, I look back at the lasting appeal of the film and how it has endured despite its subversive, outrageous, and uncommercial sensibilities. 

The film tells the story of two seperate plans to assassinate members of the Nazi high command at a Nazi Propaganda film premiere during occupied France in 1944. It charts the personal quest for vengeance of a young Jewish woman, Shosanna (
Mélanie Laurent), who in the film’s 1941 setup, is the sole survivor of her family’s execution by Col Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Elsewhere in France during this time, America has joined the war and we follow a Jewish military unit (The Basterds) led by Lt Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) behind enemy lines as their shocking fear tactics that make waves felt as far up as Hitler himself. As the film dovetails and hurtles towards its explosive finale, fates converge and history is altered forever under the roof of a cinema, the only place where anything can happen. 

The film is mostly remembered now by the extraordinary performance of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as Col. Hans Landa; an SS Officer who is the film’s main villainous drive. Waltz, a virtual unknown at the time of casting famously said to his director, “Thank you for giving me my career”, to which Tarantino responded, “Thank you, for giving me my movie”.

It’s true that production on Basterds was only a week from being shut down during casting; it appeared Tarantino had written a character so devilishly talented in linguistics that it was impossible to find an actor who could both speak four languages and deliver everything else the script demanded. Thankfully fate intervened and careers were revived on both sides of the camera. Landa is arguably the greatest character of Tarantino’s career, from a body of work that has boasted many memorable characters. But although it’s the villainous Landa who remains the main pop-culture touchstone of the piece and the pinnacle of Tarantino’s career, the film boasts many delights.

Like the heist film without a heist that was Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s long awaited ‘men-on-a-mission’ WWII actioner that had been talked up since 1998 was devoid of notable warfare. The film still functioned somewhat as a men-on-a-mission style caper but was also a Spaghetti Western-style revenge story, a spy thriller, an examination of Nazi Propaganda, as well as a love letter to cinema itself.

From the moments that Nick Perito's rendition of ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ accompanies the opening credits.

To the beautiful fairytale like vistas of the opening shot.

To the broken tranquility when Ennio Morricone’s music introduces the approaching doom.

It’s clear that Tarantino is in pure command of melding all these scattered elements into something special.

The opening chapter ‘Once Upon a Nazi-occupied France’ opens to ideallic greener-than-green vistas of French cow-country and the film sets the expectation of a fairytale that encourages us to leave grounded reality at the door. ‘The Green Leaves of Summer’ was most famously used to open The Alamo (1960) a John Wayne western that famously took historical liberties with the 1836 account of outnumbered American’s defending against thousands of Mexican aggressors. This ties into the later pivotal war story of Frederich Zoller as well as the film’s later history bending directions. When Ennio Morricone’s ‘La Condanna’ (from 1966 Spaghetti Western The Big Gundown) enters to warn of approaching evil, it seamlessly merges, with Morricone’s sampling of Beethoven’s ‘Fur Elise’, both Western and German insignias.

“Landa is the best character I’ve written and maybe the best I ever will write” - Quentin Tarantino

It’s a masterclass of a scene. Tarantino’s penchant for dialogue is too often the forefront of any conversation and yet his mastery of silences and expressions are seldom the focus; The look on the farmer’s face as the Nazi vehicles approach, the look between his daughters’s before they’re asked to leave the farmhouse. The scene is a mystery to anyone watching for the first time, it’s a polite enough exchange between two strangers and yet the atmosphere is the feeling of someone’s worst nightmare, of that day they feared could come. The niceties slip soon enough as Landa enters into a monologue explaining why Jews are despised such as rats are, a preposterous point so levelled in its delivery that the delusional ideology sounds madly reasonable and evident why it could be used to justify a hateful doctrine. Of the film’s 153 minute runtime the opening segment is an excruciating twenty-one minutes and serves as a nerve shredding intro to the story’s main villain (Landa) and protagonist (Shosanna). It’s the first of multiple nail-biting set-pieces and interrogations used to introduce and reveal characters, building to the final chapter under Shosanna’s Parisian Cinema.

At the heart of Basterds is a Nazi Propaganda film - Nations Pride - directed by the real-life Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebells about the exploits of fictional war hero Frederich Zoller. It’s an onslaught of a film that shows hundreds of American soldiers maimed by a single Nazi sniper. The theatre full of the Nazi Party is electrified, Hitler himself is in fits of joyful bloodlust, and then the tables are turned as hundreds of Nazis are gunned down and burnt to death in the climax. The bloodlust is now on us as we enjoy the carnage, the violent catharsis of it all, the escapist ecstasy of a more satisfying end to the war. The fantasy of revenge is as much a fantasy as living in a world where violence doesn’t provide solutions and the meta-effect of the film speaks to the viewer and asks, ‘it feels good doesn’t it?’ The narrative of Inglourious Basterds itself is a propaganda film, how Tarantino showcases Lt Aldo Raine’s exploits are no different from how Goebells showcases Zoller’s. It's not even a far push to assume upon returning to America that Aldo would be greeted with a post-war career similar to that of Frederich Zoller and do wonders for US Military recruitment and morale. A Russian doll effect even takes shape when considering that Shosanna hijacks Goebell’s film and inserts her own message, making Inglourious Basterds a Jewish propaganda film inside a Nazi propaganda film inside an American propaganda film.

“It seems to me that television is exactly like a gun. Your enjoyment of it is determined by which end of it you're on.” - Alfred Hitchcock

It's clear how the film takes a levelled look at the Nazi soldiers throughout; it has fun making them look, obvious absurd racial beliefs included, pompous and egotistical but never less than deadly. Frederich Zoller would be easy to depict as a tunnel visioned political social climber who boasts of his kill count that’s hooked the attention of Goebells, yet he’s painted as a love sick puppy dog barking up the wrong tree during his pursuit of Shosanna. He’s even introduced as a budding cinephile to Shosanna, who could not be less interested in a man in a Nazi uniform, a factor he pig-headidly fails to comprehend and one that ends up being both their undoings. The narrative almost entirely rests on this monstrous oversight of hubris. Zoller is killed by Shosanna because his affection for her blinded him from the questionable moral weight of his uniform. Shosanna is killed by Zoller because for a single moment she pities him and for the first time sees a man through his uniform. While the film does a great job of providing cathartic turns showing totalitarian extremist figures as jokes (this is sometimes the only way to wound Evil) it acknowledges the danger of losing sight, even for a second the severity of their threat. If it weren't for his uniform the audience would be cheering Frederich to 'get-the-girl' like any other cinematic romance!

Whereas Inglourious Basterd’s opening chapter went down as a notable masterclass even by the film’s own detractors, it as a whole divided critics. Upon release the film was often maligned for being a retread of Tarantino’s previous two ‘lighter’ releases (Kill Bill and Death Proof), this time using the WWII backdrop as a poor excuse to inflict a third dose of violent retribution. The verdict was out if whether Basterds as a return to form but even the more favorable critics often summed it up as a revenge fantasy narrative. Looking at the film this simply is to undermine the way it explores other complex themes.

With Tarantino’s subsequent films - Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight - we can see Basterds clearer than we could ten years ago. The preoccupations of his racially charged westerns are built upon the foundations set here as they explore our relationship with history through genre-cinema, the necessity of violence, and how certain types of violence find their place on and off of the screen.

Django Unchained followed a freed slave on the path to retrieving his wife from her cruel plantation owner. The film offers many pleasures in seeing the downtrodden rise up but Django’s nobel quest for his wife was only possible if he became more dangerous and single minded than the white captors. White blood will spill and if black blood has to as well then so be it, as he is owed what is his. It’s a cinematic fantasy, like Basterds, in that the world can be made right by an individual (or individuals) who enforce their right more heavily than those enforcing against them.

The Hateful Eight, Tarantino’s second western, explores the issue of systematic justice verses vigilantism explored in his first.

“The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion is always in danger of not being justice" - Oswaldo Mobray (The Hateful Eight)

The fact that the above quote is delivered by character Oswaldo Mobray, an outlaw posing as a court official, doesn’t make it any less true. The world is built up of intricate laws and systems that allowed the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust, the same can be said of slavery and of most injustice still felt today. Inglourious Basterds is revelling in the power of cinema here, of noting the power of the image as propaganda but also of its power to give us the feeling of balance that real life so rarely gives us. In reality the system fails us, the wrong person goes to prison, the guilty enjoy freedom, the rich make bail, Hitler doesn’t face tribunal but takes his own life. Cinema has the power to provide a feeling of closure, no matter how ethereal.

Released within the same decade as 9/11, Basterds naturally attracted comparisons to ongoing current events with a central plot involving US Soldiers undergoing a suicide bombing mission. The Iraq war was still ongoing along with critical humanitarian debates regarding torture as a tool to prevent greater threat to life. Here we're presented with a garish depiction of American warfare, one which uses sheer brutality to extract information. American suicide bombers isn’t the only way the film plays it on the other foot, either; In fact if the above is pure coincidence then there are other examples where Basterds used a European mirror to reflect US history. The fact that Hitler is killed in a theatre box by surprise gunfire reminds of President Lincoln’s Assassination by the hands of John Wilkes Booth in 1865. Then there’s the obvious subtextual reading of King Kong (1933) by Major Hellstrom during the film's now infamous 'La Louisiana Tavern' sequence in which the SS Major smuggly acknowledges the film's story as a metaphor for the enslavement of Africans in America. A sly reference that remind the viewer that no matter how much mileage the Nazis have given cinema for villany, that America pre-dated the Jewish Holocaust with not only one but two of their own if you also add in the genocide of Native Americans. Tarantino even applies the classic stereotypically racist southern-hillbilly profile to Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine, turning the idea on its head as Raine, unnerving as he is, hates what the Nazi Party believe in and is proud to fight them.

When I first saw Inglourious Basterds it was clear that Tarantino was operating on a new level and this was also the summation of everything made before it. It was razor sharp, focussed, and confident in a way that surpassed his other films; a stranglehold with moments of ecstatic delight. I was reminded that this was a 'come back' vehicle and yet it's remarkable only a third is spoken in English, Brad Pitt its only notable star and is essentially a supporting role, and it references European history and pre-war cinema without ego or condescension. Of its 153minutes the plot only emerges somewhat over an hour in and its action (finale not including) is sparse. What other director could or would make their biggest commercial hit out of such material? This was anarchic filmmaking reminding that there are rules to cinema that are optional to follow and yet the ghosts of cinema's forefathers such as Fritz Lang, Ernst Lubtich, and Alfred Hitchcock, among others, are felt in every frame reminding of cinema's oldest tricks and formalities. How Tarantino juggles the artificial pleasures of cinema while maintaining high drama will always, for me, be his greatest skill.

Viewed today in preparation to write this piece, the film seems more important and impressive than ever. In the last four years the World has become more extreme and yet never so muddied as Presidents are replaced by reality stars, celebrities are replaced by influencers, and as the screens of our attention are getting smaller and smaller the more we're being controlled by them. In a time where everyone is plugged into their own private reality that can be controlled by totalitarian extremists, with its own version of historic events and focus on wartime propaganda, Inglourious Basterds appears all the more prescient when viewed during the ‘fake news’ of today.

Much emphasis has been put on the film's escapist fantasy fulfilment. Today the film's fantasy seems more important and relevant than ever; A victory for the film and a sad fact for Planet Earth. Unlike the survivors of one of Lt Aldo Raine's ambushes, those who seek to oppress and control the masses bare no discernible mark to warn of, don't wear a uniform to speak of, and like history has taught us, hide in plain sight until it's too late. To wish life was that easy truly is a fantasy.

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