Of all directors currently making movies, Quentin Tarantino is by far the most interested in movies themselves. All of his films include specific allusions, both in subject and style, to obscure movies, and they often work within the conventions of very refined genres. His latest work, Inglourious Basterds, is supposedly both a war movie (sorry, Josh and Tim) and a “spaghetti western,” as well as Tarantino’s homage to The Dirty Dozen. Whatever that means, it is really, really good.
Given Tarantino’s infatuation with cinema, it comes as no surprise that the climax of Basterds takes place in a movie theater. The “Basterds” of Basterds—a ragtag group of American Jews who (in case you haven’t seen the previews) like to kill “gnatzees” for their leader Brad Pitt—have chosen this spot for an attempted assassination of the crème de la crème of the Third Reich as they gather to watch Joseph Goebbels’ latest propaganda flick, A Nation’s Pride.
This film-within-in-a-film tells the story of Frederick Zoller’s (Daniel Brühl) attempt to fight off 300 Allied soldiers while holed up in a tower in Italy; from the glimpses we see of this film, it looks repetitive and boring— though Hitler seems to get a kick out of it.
The movie is decidedly unlike Basterds itself, which is altogether uninterested in the kind of glamorization of lone soldiers in bell towers that makes for great propaganda. Instead, Tarantino begins his story on a dairy farm in Nazi-occupied France. A lone SS officer, played with brilliant aplomb by Christoph Waltz, with the nickname of “the Jew Hunter” comes to visit the farm in search of Jews hiding from the Germans.
The Jew Hunter, or Colonel Hans Landa, is polite, charming, persuasive, cunning and articulate in at least four languages. In other words, he is the quintessential Tarantino bad guy. Tarantino does not do unsympathetic villains (Bill from Kill Bill, Vincenzo and Virgil in True Romance, and even Marsellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction are all very likable in their own way), and Landa never seems entirely unsympathetic— he’s just not on our side. He’s also tremendously uncool: After revealing his evil plan to Pitt’s character, Aldo Raine, he practically giggles:
“That’s a bingo!…Is that the expression?”
“You just say ‘bingo’”
Of all of Tarantino’s contributions to mainstream cinema over the last two decades, the most obvious is his establishment of a certain type of gritty, aestheticized violence as “cool.” The Basterds relish in brutally killing, scalping and carving Nazis, and Tarantino delights in showing us this: This is the complete opposite of a lone sniper holed up in a tower taking the enemy out from long-range. The Basterds also thoroughly enjoy doing what they do; they laugh, they have inside jokes, they talk about baseball, they have nicknames: It’s like summer camp, with genocide. Unlike the hero of the Nazi propaganda film, who walks out of the film because he doesn’t like seeing what he did, these guys are happy with their accomplishments.
What makes the Basterds so impressive—and, in the world of Tarantino, so cool—is their willingness to get their hands dirty. They don’t shy away from it, like the German “hero” and they don’t talk about it as much as Landa does— in fact, the Basterds themselves have hardly any lines at all. Instead of talking, they specialize in looking tough and earning nicknames: Brad Pitt is Aldo the Apache, Eli Roth is the Bear Jew and BJ Novak is the Little Man.* Two of those are just as intimidating as “Jew Hunter.” While the Nazis, and even the British officers in the movie, are filmed from far away, in big, almost empty, rooms, the Basterds are framed in close-up, in the mud. The message is clear: The higher-ups are nothing more than impotent, empty suits, while these guys are the ones in control, getting the job done. Instead of the Bear Jew, the officers are comprised of the Love Guru.
*Though I have a hard time believing that, in a group that includes Samm Levine, Novak would get saddled with the nickname “Little Man,” unless Levine’s nickname was something like “even littler man.” Besides, everyone knows that Novak’s height is average.
This, of course, contrasts with the film being shown at the premiere. The bell tower hero, who has become a sensation after playing himself in the film, is the kind of idealized, romantic war hero officers (and audiences) love: At one point of the film-within-the-film, he appears to etch a swastika into the tower he is defending during the ambush; doesn’t he have more important things to worry about?
This fake film is fraudulent because it ignores the gruesome realities of war—like Hitler himself who at one point tries to remove the phrase “Bear Jew” from military descriptions of the Basterds instead of eradicating the actual group. The Basterds are cool and heroic, however, because they acknowledge those realities and thrive in them.
When the gritty Basterds show up at the posh premiere (their rendezvous with a German actress/double agent may constitute the movie’s best scene, despite featuring none of its main characters), they stick out like comically sore thumbs and are, of course, fingered by Landa.
Tarantino is often criticized for equating “cool” with “morally good,” and if the Basterds were our only heroes in this film, that would be fair. If all Tarantino were doing was contrasting an effective German soldier (Landa) with some cooler, equally effective American soldiers, then the story wouldn’t have much substance.
In fact, though, Tarantino, as usual, gives the film a more solid emotional center and, as usual, it comes in the form of a blonde woman. Mélanie Laurent plays Shoshanna, the owner of the cinema hosting the get-together and a secret Jew who escaped Landa’s Jew hunting many years earlier. She and her boyfriend Marcel are, like the Basterds, trying to use this shindig for purposes of assassination, but it’s not as simple as Brad Pitt’s “we love killing Nazis” raison d ‘etre.
A scene in which Shoshanna comes face to face with Landa for the first time since he massacred her family is played brilliantly, with Waltz controlling the scene with typical deft and polite banter, while Laurent’s responses are simultaneously evasive, assertive, and frightened. This is one of many scenes that Tarantino saturates with tension and suspense by not letting us know precisely who has the upper hand, but it is the only scene that ends with someone letting out a frantic gasp of relief, as Shoshanna does.
That gasp allows us a glimpse of both the emotional vulnerability that lets us empathize with the character, as well as the human impact of Landa’s Jew hunting. Whereas the Basterds are motivated by sheer hatred of what the Nazis stand for, they themselves are trained killers, and there seems to be a grudging respect for Landa as a worthy opponent. Shoshanna, on the other hand, is motivated by what the Nazis—specifically Landa—have done, and what she does takes more courage and moral fortitude.
Tarantino isn’t one to dwell on the melodramatic: Shoshanna’s gasp lasts about a second, but it is enough to give weight to what would otherwise be a rather simple “Nazis v. Allies” confrontation. And it is enough to convince any doubters that, in the scheme of things, killing and carving Nazis is pretty cool.