We went to see Inglourious Basterds at our local cinema in the small town of Sarlat, in southwestern France. Having seen no reviews, I hoped only to be entertained and—yes, please—scandalized by the writer-director of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Kill Bill, all of which revelled in the protracted dances of cruelty and death that have made Quentin Tarantino the reigning schlockmeister of the cinema.
The movie starts with a neat defeat of modernist expectation by being divided into “chapters” (in homage to Jean-Luc Godard and his 1964 film Bande à Part, or Band of Outsiders, after which Tarantino named his own production company). Chapter One begins, in print, “Once upon a time. . .” (more homage, this time to the master of the spaghetti western, director Sergio Leone, and his Once Upon a Time in the West). Then comes a title: “France 1941.” The opening shot—an exterior of a farmhouse in a landscape like the one through which my wife and I had just driven—establishes the breadth of Tarantino’s canvas, the masterliness of his mise-en-scène. A French farmer, silhouetted against blue sky, is seen chopping wood. If my memory is right, he mostly chops the chopping block and splits very few, if any, logs. Realism and portentousness fuse in this empty exercise.
Pretty soon we get the stock shot in which—slow and sinister—a German staff car with motorcycle outriders approaches its innocent prey across the peaceful paysage. “The Jew Hunter,” Colonel Hans Landa of ze Waffen-SS, wishes to have a fiendly little chat with the French farmer, who bears the fancy, not to say fizzy, name of Perrier -Lapadite. Landa is on the trail of one of the no-less-than-five local Jewish dairy-farming families, the Dreyfuses (here we go again, right?), who alone have slipped through ze net. As Landa craves a glass of the farmer’s milk, he leaks ersatz human kindness.
The weighted but naturalistic dialogue proceeds for a while en français (Landa, we are to discover, is one clever quadrilingual dick, a jackbooted travesty of George Steiner, one might say), but Lapadite—a name nowhere to be found in our rustic French telephone book—is eventually forced to acknowledge (cue teardrop running down one cheek) that, as Landa indicates his suspicions in sign language, he has indeed been hiding the vanished Dreyfuses.
The clever Jew Hunter then suggests that he and the peasant should switch to English so that their chat should not be intelligible to the “rats” who are, yes, in the sous-sol, beneath the floorboards. The Frenchman proceeds to croak in perfect English as he spills the full bag of beans and makes his immunity deal. The jolt from the plausible into ultra-camp (there was not a single French country farmer in 1941 who spoke impeccable anglais) applies a sucker punch to any verisimilitudinous prospects. Cinematic virtuosity is, from this point onward, at the service of sanguinary fancy and protracted, jocose verbosity.
Ze charming colonel—wearing a heavy leather coat on a hot summer day—finally whistles to his now augmented cohort and, in a filled-full-of-holes sustained tribute to Bonnie and Clyde, among other colanders, they tattoo the floor of the farmhouse with their submachine guns. All the cowering Juden are diced, apart from the lovely teenage Shoshanna (not really a name for a French dairy farmer’s daughter), who bursts out, unscathed, and makes a run across the fields. Mit a sinister smile, Landa has her covered but then refrains from pulling the trigger. See you later in ze picture, mein pretty!
To parade knowledge of what actually happened, or didn’t, in 1941 (when there were no roundups of French Jews and none, ever, by German troops), as if historical facts had any place in Inglourious Basterds, is an oafish category mistake. Tarantino’s only use for the past is to make pasta out of it. Inaccuracy is part of his recipe for tasty indie-voiduality. Dadaesque rupture with reality leaves him with the liberty to be true only to himself as flammebuoyant fantasist. Henceforth, disbelief is to be suspended, by the neck.
Enter Mr. Comeuppance, alias Aldo the Apache, Lieutenant Brad Pitt, a lopsided Tennessee hick in paleface war paint and a thin moustache that promises to take no prisoners. He has recruited him a dirty dozen (but, for you, only eight) Jewish GIs to go get them Nazis and scalp him a hundred a piece. The chosen Basterds and Aldo (named, you betcha, for husky WWII veteran Aldo Ray) drop into occupied France. The few Nazis they don’t cerebrally circumcise have swastikas carved on their foreheads (think The Scarlet Letter meets Zorro). You want nasty, you get nasty. You’d do it too, if you could. Deny it and be a liar, and a spoilsport.
A touch of avant-NATO nuttiness has a German sergeant called Hugo Stiglitz join the guys. First we see him killing a choice selection of Gestapo majors, just for the photo-op fun of it, it seems. Hugo is the ideal goyische psychopath to have along on this kind of a picnic. One of the otherwise characterless Jews, Staff Sergeant Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth, himself a director of horror films in the genre known as “torture porn”), whom the krauts have tagged “the Bear Jew,” specializes in beating Nazis to death with a baseball bat, just like bears do. We get a grandstand seat as he does it to a defenseless prisoner who won’t betray where his buddies are hiding. Three strikes and the kraut is out. Next guy up sure as hell points on the map to where the ambush is, fast. Who says torture is a bad idea when it gets you told what you need to hear?
Pretty soon (this being a Vanity Fair edition of ancient history), we are into a parade of celebrities, headed by Adolf himself, spreching echt Deutsch, as he quizzes a soldat who has survived the Basterds to tell the tale. Adolf is portrayed in a palatial, swastika-swagged bunker, wearing a white cloak and a clank of Nazi memorabilia. Later, we have a lunch date with Joe -Goebbels as he does his impersonation of any old studio head in Entourage, complete mit de friendly little double punch on ze shoulder yet; loveya, kiddo.
To plan the next big number, we attend a London briefing at which a British general, played by Mike Myers, returns a salute while not wearing a cap. This, as some of us know, is counter to British protocol (only Yanks do bareheaded saluting) and, like Myers’s silly-ass performance, shows that in Tarantino we’re dealing with an impostor. Winston Churchill smokes a cigar at the bottom left of the screen, too stoned to notice.
The Basterds—not one of whom is so much as scratched by an enemy bullet until very, very late in the jour—have been recruited by the British to drop back into pre-D-day France and rendezvous, in a cellar already, with anti-Nazi German actress Bridget von Hammersmark (homage to Hammer films, the British horror outfit, with a wink at La Dietrich). This all goes wrong, and very, very long, but at last we come to the climax in a Paris cinema, owned and run by blond Shoshanna (now -pseudonymed Emmanuelle Mimieux, after, in a doublet of cinematic injokery, a 1970s soft-core character and a 1960s starlet).
After a slew of coincidences too thrilling to remember, Shoshanna’s fleapit is selected to screen the premiere of a Nazi propaganda movie, Stolz der Nation (A Nation’s Pride), the footage for which was actually directed—a twist within a twist already—by our own Eli Roth, portrayer of the Bear Jew.
Since the implausible can be capped only by the impossible, the plot simultaneously comes together and falls apart in one final Gottadamgoodidea when Hitler, -Goebbels, Goering, and who all else (forget about the Russian front) come to Paris for the opening. Little do zey know that the gnädige Fräulein Mimieux has turned her little movie house into a deathtrap, having fixed with her black projectionist/lover (they share one brave, chaste kiss) to lock the doors and then set fire to a heap of highly combustible old movie stock that will detonate the dynamite that, believe it or die, has been smuggled into Hitler’s box.
After a rogue reel, inserted by Shoshanna into A Nation’s Pride, has told the assembled pigvigs “C’est la vengeance des Juifs!”—up she goes! As the Nazis panic, they are either filled with holes or blown to pizzas. Shoshanna’s line echoes what was said by French Jew baiter Charles Maurras when condemned by a French court after the war: “C’est la revanche de Dreyfus!” See how smart Tarantino is, almost certainly without even knowing it?
Now guess who of the accumulated bad guys survives to make a pensioned deal with the Allied supremo (played by old Tarantino comrade Harvey Keitel)? Jawohl, in return for not alerting the Führer that he is about to go up in smoke, our own Hans Landa negotiates himself immunity plus a lease on a pad in Nantucket. Nice going for the Oscar-bait character, whom we have just seen strangle the treacherous Frau Hammersmark (a Bridget who has gone too far). He throws himself on top of her in a prolonged, clothed parody of what Vladimir Nabokov called “the porno grapple.”
As Brad escorts him toward the U.S. lines, Hans, played up to and well beyond the hilt by Christoph Waltz, sinks he’s got avay viz it, but—for our last little number in Tarantino’s circus of blood—Brad carves a swarsteeka on Landa’s forehead, in close-up, so the good folks of little old Nantucket will always know just who he is.
Inglourious Basterds has been presented to the world through the ministrations of the producer Harvey Weinstein. The success at this year’s Academy Awards of his 2008 release The Reader—a meta–Stanley Kramerish erotico-solemn tract, false in every particular (no illiterate Kate Winslet could possibly have “joined” the S.S.)—must have proved to Weinstein und Company that there is no business like Shoah business. The Weinstein winers and diners will, no doubt, use their usual finesse to wangle awards for this ketchup-laced display of the evil of banality. With it, Tarantino becomes the Veit Harlan of Hollywood. In case you don’t know as many movie backstories as Quentin does, Harlan was the director of Jew Süss, a huge hit produced by Josef Goebbels in the early 1940s that perverted Lion Feuchtwanger’s novel into an ad for anti-Semitism. After the war, Stanley Kubrick (who had married Harlan’s niece) asked the director why he had done the picture: Had he been coerced? Did he hate Jews? No, they’d offered it to him, and a job was a job.
As Harvey Weinstein would surely say, when a job is also a hit, what can possibly be wrong with it, unless you’re some kind of a pussyfooting elitist loser? Inglourious Basterds has to be great because, if the boffo box-office figures are true, people love it. It’s therefore undemocratic to go calling it the antihuman dirty dream of a pretentious, vacuous clown primed with Hollywood gelt to do the Jews a favor by showing that they too, given the chance, coulda/woulda behaved like mindless monsters. What does it matter, after all this time, if the world gets sold the idea that what Shoshanna and the Basterds did to the Nazis was exactly what the Jews would have done to the Germans if Harvey had been around to greenlight the project?
Going to Inglourious Basterds reminded me of Lina Wertmüller’s Seven Beauties, in which a concentration-camp inmate commits liberating suicide by leaping into a lake of sewage. Tarantino makes an even bigger splash by getting us all to pay to jump into an ocean of his own effluent from which he and Harv alone emerge, with $$ carved in their foreheads.
About the Author
Frederic Raphael is a novelist and Oscar-winning screenwriter. His essay “Because They Asked Me To” appeared in our July/August issue.