I saw Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds for a second time recently and I feel I’m up to tackling its genius.
In the closing shot of Basterds, Tarantino places the following dialogue into Brad Pitt’s mouth to close out the film, “This might just be my masterpiece?”. Cue Kubrick style classical music. I think QT is self referencing what he thinks of his own work. So, is Inglorious Basterds a masterpiece? I would say, “Yes”, but for reasons a lot more subversive than have been quoted in most film journalism I have read on the film.
First of all the film is pro fascist. What? I hear you cry? It features a gang of Jews Killing Nazi’s… how is this pro fascist? The Jewish Death squad, what do they do? Do they murder and torture German soldiers ruthlessly? What did the Einstazgruppen do? They murdered and brought terror to all Eastern Europe? Are not the Basterds tactics merely a mirror image of Nazi ones? Is not Tarantino secretly endorsing fascist violence, as he has done throughout his career by the way, in this film? I would say so. It is a major theme of Basterds that I suggest has modern political ramifications when you be apply it to forgive and excuse Bush/Cheney tactics in the recent Iraqi war, for example. Or say Israeli violence against the Palestinians. Indeed, the whole Jewish death squad even outstrips Munich as a pro Israeli violence statement, another subversion perhaps?
Second, the film references favorably Nazi cinema. Constantly throughout Basterds Nazi cinema, the last great taboo of any cinephile, is constantly spoken of admiringly. Indeed, the Minister of Nazi Cinema Goebbels is a character in the film, espousing the merits of his Government’s national cinema, and the genius of filmmakers like Riefenstahl, Pabst and many others. Another line of dialogue has Nazi cinema compared to Jewish Hollywood cinema and no lesser person than Winston Churchill asks, “How is he doing (Goebbels)?”. To a response of, “Pretty damn good, Sir”. Indeed, the film features a fictional Nazi movie that has a German Audie Murphy type character in it who slaughters the allies ruthlessly, and even gets Hitler all teary eyed with patriotism. Its parallel’s to 80’s Hollywood anti Commie war movies is obvious. Nazi cinema is praised as a new original cinematic opening that the film, and Tarantino, admires. This mix of the fascist aesthetics and cinema informs Tarantino’s whole oeuvre when you think about it.
Thirdly, its a film that advocates and embraces Historical Revisionism. QT completely rewrites the script for WW2 and has the great hero who ends the war being none other than a genocidal Nazi “Jew Hunter” named Colonel Hans Landa. Yes, its a Nazi who ends WW2! If you can get anymore subversive than that in the cinema recently I’ll be bar mitzvahed in my birthday suit singing the “Horst Wessel” song!! Hans Landa is the archetypal Nazi polymath and villain taken to a new level. He is meticulous, polite, deadly… but very well spoken, in at least four languages. Landa is the main character of the film in many senses, and the performance Christoph Waltz has been rightly praised, awarded and lauded. A genocidal Nazi ending World War 2, I say it again, so its full resonance can stay with you. His deal with the Allies is a master stroke from QT. This making an sort of anti hero out of a Butcher of Lyon/Klaus Barbie type character is the forth and major subversive dimension of Basterds. Sure, Waltz is a self serving nihilist and killer. But he is humanized, intelligent, charming… and even a likable rogue. And, he does end WW2 in a marvelously perverse historical revisionism, that would have even David Irving spinning in his chair.
The cast is a fifth subversion. Waltz is simply superb as mentioned. Brad Pitt is cast as a psychotic and blood lusting part Indian who collects Nazi scalps, no less. Melanie Laurent is ice cold as the avenging Jewess. Diane Kruger is foot fetish sexy as the Nazi actress spy. Sylveester Groth and Martin Wuttke are fun as the tag team of Goebbels and Hitler. Michael Fassbender is great and tres cool as a brit spy in over his head. Eli Roth is a weird choice, but also an appropriate one, given his Jewishness and penchant for extreme violence. Other cameos and bit players all pull their weight in this broad canvas fever dream QT has laid out for us.
Inglorious Basterds subverts the defining historical events of the 20th century and reinvisages them as an ode of fascist violence and struggle for power. Goebbels and The Fuhrer himself, after getting over a few issue like losing the war and being killed in a cinema, would have loved it!
this article first appeared on richard wolstencroft’s blog ideafix