Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 World War II fairytale Inglourious Basterds is an interesting piece of cinema. It deviates drastically from historical events while still sauntering around in historically accurate waters. Essentially it uses reality as a launching point, rewriting history. The film is probably his most accomplished to date and the world Tarantino creates is fascinating. The sets are marvelous, the acting is excellent, the cinematography is stellar, and the dialogue contains Tarantino’s trademark monologues but is far more advanced than in his previous films. It’s also probably his most sadistic film, which is saying a great deal considering Tarantino’s films are rife with violence. Although I really enjoy Inglorious Basterds, there’s something almost vulgar about Tarantino’s use of bloodshed, coming across as needlessly vicious and outright cruel – even though Nazi’s are the predominant focus of the violence.
I feel an exploration of Nazi sadism is unwarranted since just about everybody is familiar with their barbaric exploits. Unless you’re living in a cave and unfamiliar with 20th century world history you’ve heard of the Holocaust; their actions will live in infamy for centuries. Their endeavors were malicious, their schemes grand and thankfully the Allies thwarted their imperialist desires. Their propaganda was extraordinary; films by Leni Riefenstahl such as Triumph of the Will are beautifully shot and it’s a shame such a talent made propaganda films for Hitler. Films comparing Jews to rats, especially in a severely depressed economy, rallied a nation against Hitler’s others, responsible for genocide with very few competitors. However, only limited thinking would assume everybody in Nazi Germany believed the propaganda or supported Hitler’s warped politics. Just like any nationalist cause – America’s post-9/11 actions are a good example – not everybody unites behind a singular cause.
I’m fairly certain the Basterds (the covert Nazi killing team in Tarantino’s film) weren’t interested in civilians, but regardless of this it’s doubtful the entire Nazi army fought voluntarily. Of course in wartime astutely determining which enemy soldiers are unwillingly fighting isn’t possible, yet the soldiers in Tarantino’s World War II film possess a singular objective: killing as many Nazi’s as possible. The film’s male protagonist, First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), even states to his team prior to deployment:
“When you join my command, you take on debit. A debit you owe me, personally. Every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y’all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps taken from the heads of one hundred Nazi’s…or you will die trying.”
Naturally their objective isn’t benevolent; their goal is mass murder, potentially outside the rules of engagement or the Geneva Convention (which happened after World War II anyways). This is where I find potential fault with Tarantino’s film.
Of course it’s expected that Tarantino’s films will contain excessive bloodshed; his track record speaks for itself. However, the level of sadism depicted in Inglourious Basterds is outside of Tarantino’s normal range. The film is incredibly aggressive and the violence isn’t fantasy like Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction; the violence is ferocious. The Nazi’s Aldo and the Basterds engage many times seem more complex, more human, than the recipients of brutality in his other films. For instance, in Kill Bill Volume I the Crazy 88’s foot soldiers are nameless automatons, like disposable enemies in a video game. Uma Thurman’s the focal point of the film, where the audience places their empathy, their desires, and so forth; in Inglorious Basterds this isn’t the case. The first group of soldiers the Basterds execute are normal people, placed in extreme circumstances by a power hungry dictator. They have families (one even says he’ll hug his mother when he comes home from war), making them empathetic characters. Sure they’re Nazi’s, but beyond their national affiliation they’re people. Here’s where I find fault with the film.
I feel Tarantino uses Nazi’s as the focus of his film’s violence because they’re an acceptable target. The countless horrors the Nazi’s inflicted upon the world are without question horrific, but the level of violence Tarantino injects into his film would receive less fanfare if the beneficiaries weren’t Nazi’s. Scalping people wouldn’t receive critical praise if the victims weren’t Nazi’s; carving Swastika’s into people’s foreheads wouldn’t meet applause if it wasn’t a Nazi being disfigured; beating a man’s head in with a baseball bat while screaming with joy wouldn’t garner Academy Award nominations if it was American soldiers being executed. Tarantino takes a generally despised historical group and makes them the target of excessive cruelty, using them for his own sadistic cinematic aims. It makes me believe he doesn’t really despise Nazi’s but rather likes depicting unforgivable acts of brutality. The victim isn’t necessarily set in stone, but since Nazi’s are still so reviled it makes mainstream acceptance of these acts simpler.
The way Tarantino plays with violence is another reason for my assertion. He doesn’t depict it as a negative act, instead celebrating it. When Aldo carves swastikas into Nazi soldiers’ heads the act’s portrayed as comedic instead of horrific. He toys with sadism, blurring the line between abhorrent and acceptable acts. To him violence is acceptable if framed in a comedic fashion, regardless of the sadism involved. There are truly cringe-worthy moments in Inglourious Basterds, yet Tarantino presents them as light hearted. Regardless of my criticism of Tarantino’s hyper-violent World War II fantasy, I still think the film is great and probably his best film to date.
Tarantino’s films are always derivative of previous works: Reservoir Dogs is a Scorsese infused version of Ringo Lam’s 1987 Hong Kong film City on Fire starring Chow Yun-fat; there are moments in Kill Bill Volume 1 where he pays homage to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films; Kill Bill Volume 2 borrows heavily from Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns (even using Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack). However, I feel Inglorious Basterds draws influence from more subtle sources instead of lifting directly from the same medium he works in. For instance, a shot of the film’s female protagonist Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) looks just like an Edward Hopper’s 1939 painting New York Movie. Tarantino reverses the pose and changes the dress color, but the mood, the intention, and even the setting is the same. Of course Tarantino lifts from war films like The Dirty Dozen, infusing much of Robert Aldrich’s sentiment into Inglorious Basterds, but he takes this inspiration and makes it his own. Overall Tarantino’s influences have matured; he’s not lifting shot for shot like he did with Reservoir Dogs or mimicking another film’s aesthetic so literally. Instead he’s culling ideas from the past and making them his own.
Below is a shot of Shosanna and Edward Hopper’s painting.
Accompanying what I consider Tarantino’s best film is a great cast, especially Christoph Waltz, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of SS Colonel Hans Landa. Amidst all the excessive violence, Waltz’s performance as the infamous “Jew Hunter” is both chilling and hilarious. He mixes a lighthearted playfulness with terror, playing both off each other and making laughter possible during anxious moments. Waltz is really the glue holding the film together and without his tremendous performance it’s possible the film would descend into mediocrity. The rest of the cast, featuring Eli Roth as the Bear Jew, The Office’s B.J. Novak as the Little Man, Mike Myers as a high ranking British officer, and many others round out the film. Also delivering great showings are Michael Fassbender as British Lieutenant Archie Hicox, German actress Diane Kruger as the actress turned covert agent Bridget von Hammersmark, and Daniel Bruhl as Fredrick Zoller, a notorious German soldier who stars in the Goebbels propaganda film Nation’s Pride (and is also smitten with Shosanna).
Here’s the trailer