By Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard
[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers. This conversation is the second half of a two-part discussion of Quentin Tarantino. This part discusses his latest film, Inglourious Basterds, while the first half was a career overview of his previous films.]
Jason Bellamy: Well, Ed, after a few days off we're ready to move into decidedly fresh territory, because now Inglourious Basterds has entered the conversation, and it has done so with a bullet, or a baseball bat, or something. I have seen the film twice now and I'm ready to proclaim it the most thrilling picture of the year thus far (and, just so you know, that's a carefully chosen adjective). But what does that really mean? Pretty much nothing. So, with another tip of the cap to My Tarantino Problem, and Yours, the April 2007 give-and-take between Matt Zoller Seitz and Keith Uhlich, let's dive into the deep end once more.
At the end of Tarantino's World War II (revenge) fantasy, Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine looks straight into the camera and says: "I think this might just be my masterpiece." He's referring, of course, to a freshly carved swastika, but I wonder if—like so many characters before—Aldo might just be speaking for the filmmaker behind the camera and behind that carefully chosen line. And so, Ed, I ask you: Is Inglourious Basterds Quentin Tarantino's masterpiece?
Ed Howard: If you'd asked me beforehand, I never would've expected to be saying this, but like you I've seen the film twice now, and yes, I'd declare it to be Tarantino's masterpiece. Why wasn't I expecting this? Well, the trailers, which made the film look like an unrelenting farce, probably had something to do with that; I know you managed to avoid those, and I envy you for that. And then there's the World War II material, which to say the least did not seem like a natural fit for Tarantino; it was hard to know what to expect from this movie. So I went in with somewhat mixed expectations. Did I expect to be entertained and, as you so delicately put it, thrilled? Of course; I'd never expect any less from Tarantino. But did I expect something so tonally varied, so rich, so sprawling and intense? Did I expect to be stunned into silence at various points, or to feel so many conflicting emotions and ideas fighting for my attention? I can't say that I did. Shame on me.
So what does it mean for a film to be Tarantino's masterpiece? Well, for one thing it's everything that his past films have been, only more so. It's about other movies, of course, but more than that it's about The Movies, about the cinema and its power. It's cartoony and wild and over-the-top, sometimes awkward (hello, Eli Roth), often deeply moving, funny, heartbreaking, irreverent, silly, brutal and sensitive. It represents Tarantino really embracing his contradictions, making a movie that encompasses the totality of his cinematic range: from the bracing, patient building of suspense through dialogue in the film's major set pieces, to the caricatured treatment of Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and the "Nat-zi"-scalping Aldo "the Apache" Raine, to the melodramatic conflagration of the film's cathartic climax. I wondered before how Tarantino would approach a World War II movie, and the answer, as it turns out, is that he has made a World War II movie that isn't even really set in World War II, at least not as we know it. In other words, Tarantino has retreated fully into the Tarantinoverse and has made a movie that could only be set in his own unique cinematic world—and a film that, indeed, revels in the limitless possibilities of the cinema for creating these kinds of imaginative alternate realities.
Now you know where I stand, generally speaking. I have a feeling I know where you stand, too, based on your judicious selection of the word "thrilling" (with the implied "and nothing more"), but I'll ask anyway. You concluded our discussion of Tarantino's earlier films by saying that you haven't ever seen the light, that you're not one of the director's true believers. So has Inglourious Basterds changed your mind? Do you fully believe now?
JB: Inglourious Basterds has done nothing to substantially alter my opinion of Tarantino's previous films or his talent. I still believe he is a sometimes brilliant writer and an even better visualist whose biggest weakness is using film as a device to take masturbatory pleasure in his own genius, which, while considerable, isn't as infallible as he believes. However, there's no doubt in my mind: Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino's masterpiece.
I say that a bit uncomfortably, I admit, because one of the many things that astounds me about this picture is how distinctly different it feels from its predecessors, even for all the ways it is utterly familiar. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that I regard this as Tarantino's finest picture because he has "grown up," or some such nonsense. This isn't me playing "I told you so" while delighting in watching Tarantino toe the line. Not at all. Tarantino wouldn't consider this film to be a condemnation of his earlier works, and I don't either. When I call Inglourious Basterds Tarantino's masterpiece, it's because of what it does, not because of anything that its predecessors might fail to do.
Like you, I appreciate Inglourious Basterds for its tremendous range, and I'm awed by its ability to play with contradictory genres, emotions and themes, not just in a single movie or a single scene but sometimes in a single shot. This is the same Tarantino we've come to revere and at times just barely tolerate (yep, that's an Eli Roth reference), but it's Tarantino at his most challenging and even most vulnerable. When I said that I was careful in calling Inglourious Basterds the most thrilling movie of the year, that's because, for all of the picture's successes, it is both exasperatingly and endearingly flawed. (Thrilling? Yes! And occasionally boring.) In proclaiming this Tarantino's masterpiece, I don't think I need to consider it the year's most affecting movie on all fronts, because it isn't.
Likewise, Inglourious Basterds is by no means universally superior to Tarantino's predecessors. Yet for me there is one way in which this effort stands alone. Inglourious Basterds is the first Tarantino picture that made me feel like an insider. It is the first Tarantino movie that, at least during its running time, made me feel as if I might be enjoying it as much as QT himself. That isn't the only reason I consider Inglourious Basterds to be Tarantino's masterpiece, let's be clear, but it goes a long way toward describing how it affected me.
EH: Certainly enjoyment is a big part of it. There's no shortage of thrills here. But Tarantino is offering a peculiar form of thrills, for the most part; it's not always exciting in quite the way one expects a Tarantino film to be exciting. Yes, there are outbursts of violence, much of it enacted by the titular Basterds, who despite their top billing actually thread through the film at intervals rather than remaining at the center of the narrative. These bursts of violence are quick and bracing, often preceded by a lengthy and nail-biting build-up that lasts much longer than the violence itself. Think of the seemingly endless series of shots before "the Bear Jew" (Roth) beats a Nazi colonel with a baseball bat: long, slow tracks in on the opaque black of the tunnel from which the hollow thunk of the baseball bat on the wall emerges, cut together with equally slow tracks into the impassive eyes of the doomed man, thinking about his impending death. Then the violence itself is abrupt and brutal and kind of silly and capped with Roth's utterly ridiculous ranting about baseball, and the slow-building tension has erupted into something ugly and uncomfortable. The violent climax to the lengthy tavern scene is even swifter, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it frenzy of one-second shots set up by at least a half-hour of patient, probing dialogue.
In fact, the film's three most tense and exciting sequences—the opening chapter, the interrogation of Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) by SS colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), and the tavern rendezvous—are driven by the dialogue, by conversations that dance around hidden subtexts and dangerous topics with that typically Tarantinoesque (or Rohmeresque) patience. The opening scene, a half-hour masterpiece in itself, sets the dominant tone for the film, even if that tone is frequently disrupted and warped by the intrusions of the Basterds or the Hitler caricature. This opening chapter, titled "Once upon a time... in Nazi-occupied France," is sublime, suspenseful and emotionally devastating. It unfolds slowly, as Landa toys with a dairy farmer (Denis Menochet) who's been sheltering a Jewish family beneath his floorboards. The scene develops so patiently that its stakes aren't clear for quite some time—the conversation is polite and formal, almost ceremonial in the exchange of pleasantries and compliments. All the while, Tarantino's camera wheels around the two, capturing the unspoken tension in the scene, finally panning down to the men's feet and then down even further, into the crawl space beneath the house where a Jewish family is hiding, terrified. Then, from a shot of the family's eyes peering up through the floorboards, the camera inches back up to the pattering conversation above, which has suddenly acquired a new intensity and urgency. The scene's denouement is harrowing, particularly the grief-stricken, shamed expression on the face of the farmer as he betrays his charges, a few tears streaking his cheeks.
There's so much going on in this scene that it's frankly stunning, and even if Inglourious Basterds had ended right there, with Landa yelling goodbye to the fleeing Shosanna, the sole survivor of her family's massacre, I think I would've left the theater satisfied. It just feels so complete, so self-contained, like a perfect short story. Landa is sinister and charming in roughly equal measure, with a preening, superior manner that shows through in his tight-lipped smile and occasional moments of goofy theatricality. His moment of triumph within the scene, when he reveals that he knows about the hidden family, is undercut when, just at that moment, he whips out a ludicrously big pipe, dwarfing the farmer's own pipe. It's both a self-conscious assertion of his authority over the farmer, and a hilarious sight gag whose impact, both times I saw it, was tremendous: the audience was still giggling when Tarantino cuts in for a close-up of Landa as the SS officer chillingly reveals his endgame to the farmer. Tarantino does this kind of stuff throughout the film, nakedly manipulating his audience, letting the film's multiple tones clash against one another, creating storm fronts where queasy humor and dead-serious suspense crash together. Tarantino also nods to the audience when, after the opening pleasantries have been exchanged, he has Landa make a big show of switching to English for the remainder of the conversation, an acknowledgement of the blockbuster audience's limited patience for subtitles—and, it turns out, also a component of Landa's forward-thinking plotting, since the family beneath the floorboards can't understand English. This opening sequence and the other tense conversations like it throughout the film masterfully control the audience's emotions and reactions: there are long stretches where everyone seems to be collectively holding their breath, waiting for a release that seldom plays out quite as expected.
JB: I wholeheartedly agree that the opening scene with Landa and the dairy farmer is the film's artistic high point. You've already touched on some of the brilliant contradictions in the scene, like the pipe gag and the clumsy excuse to use English that at first seems like an eye-rolling Tarantino indulgence (too cute by half) but then turns out to be diabolically brilliant. But let me back up for a moment to take an even broader view. To me, part of what's so fascinating about that scene is how Landa is such an archetypical oversized cinema villain, even in the moments when he stimulates thoughts of real-world horror, while the farmer, LaPadite, is straight out of a more historically considerate drama. These are two genres playing out side by side, so different that Tarantino could have used his De Palma-inspired split-screen trick to present them. On one side, in Landa, we have the Tarantino film his previous works suggested Inglourious Basterds would be. On the other side, in LaPadite, we have the reverent World War II film that some Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan devotees feel the historical subject demands. It would be entirely misleading to suggest that Tarantino's film is a marriage of both of these genres, because from start to finish Inglourious Basterds is pure fantasy with only allusions to textbook history. Nevertheless, it is true that both of these seemingly opposed genre sensibilities share the screen beautifully in this scene. Both sides feel equally invested in, equally realized, equally significant. I'd call it a balancing act, but Tarantino isn't tiptoeing on any fine lines here. He isn't interested in such things. He's simply showing us his cinematic world from his own unique diagonal perspective.
Meantime, the dialogue in that scene is as subtly loaded as that superheroes analysis in Kill Bill without ever seeming indulgently arbitrary. Evoking memories of Mr. Pink's rant against tipping in Reservoir Dogs or Jules and Vincent's debate about eating pork in Pulp Fiction, Landa uses a hawk/rat/squirrel analogy that establishes his skill for deductive reasoning while also raising the thematically significant issue of ethical double standards. We can talk in greater detail later about the climactic "Revenge of the Giant Face" chapter, where those double standards come into play. For now, though, it's merely important to note that Tarantino's opening scene stirs the audience to reconsider our engrained ideas about predator and prey.
The dialogue in this initial scene has a rhythm that's atypical to Tarantino's norm, and in that respect Inglourious Basterds announces itself as something new from the very start. (What an entirely different mood we'd have at the end of the first chapter if the film introduced the Basterds straightaway.) One thing is familiar, though: For as oft-quoted as Landa's introduction is sure to be, it's Tarantino's filmmaking, not his screenwriting, that makes this scene special. In a scene that is seemingly all words, ignore the dialogue and focus instead on the mooing cows, the ticking clock, the slow zoom (interrupted by cuts) toward Landa and LaPadite's faces at that critical moment and, finally, the outstanding repurposing of John Ford's famous doorway shot. These are tried and true tools for creating suspense and drama that Tarantino uses so effectively that they feel like new.
EH: What's especially brilliant about this opening chapter, which you hint at in mentioning Landa's use of the rat analogy, is that Tarantino is forcing us not only to reconsider ideas about predator and prey but to confront the mentality of prejudice head-on. Landa's tone is so reasonable, his point-to-point argumentation so strictly logical, that by the time he's come to his conclusion we actually understand why he considers the Jews to be vermin. It's disturbing, and Landa's offhand equation of Jews and rats earns the same nervous gasps that a Nazi major later gets by suggesting the unexpected resonances between African slaves and King Kong. But we get what he's saying, and we sense that the farmer perhaps grudgingly understands as well: as even he has to admit, he'd never greet a rat with a saucer of milk, and no amount of logic about the similarities between rats and the more respected squirrels will convince him otherwise, just as Landa and his Nazi colleagues cannot be convinced of the essential humanity of the Jews. It's a horrifying scene because it presents Landa as such a logical monster and, as Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) will later say about his protégé Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a "strangely persuasive monster." This scene doesn't present prejudice as an aberration or something unknowable and distant; prejudice here is the end result of a scrupulously logical mind reasoning from a foundation of certain hateful constants.
You're also right that the two main characters here represent Tarantino playing with varying tonalities, even within the same scene: the brooding, emotionally real farmer and the cartoonish villain Landa. On a broader scale, this is the kind of thing going on throughout the film. There is an astonishing variety of performances on display here, many of them broad and deliberately overplayed: the backwoods kitsch of Pitt's Aldo Raine, the Austin Powers pastiche of Mike Myers' cameo as a high-ranking British officer, the Looney Tunes-esque Hitler, Julie Dreyfuss evoking her appearance in Kill Bill as Goebbels' showy translator/escort Francesca. Tarantino sets these cartoonish performances off against more subtle and realistic ones, like Laurent's reserved Shosanna, who barely says a word throughout the entire lunch with Goebbels, Landa and Zoller, conveying her bemusement, fear and confusion through her expressive face. Tarantino seems to revel in the friction generated by placing believable, realistic characters up against vibrant, oversized caricatures—it's like Who Framed Roger Rabbit achieved entirely with human actors.
This film is also replete with the kind of structural mirroring that we've noted in earlier Tarantino films. The zooms you note into close-ups of Landa and LaPadite, increasing the tension of their confrontation, are repeated in Chapter 2 when the Nazi colonel is awaiting his death by baseball bat. More significantly, Landa's attitude towards his nickname, "the Jew hunter," changes over the course of the film from the barely restrained childish glee of the opening chapter to the visceral disgust with which he pronounces it when talking to Aldo in the fifth and final chapter, when he wants to be thought of as merely an employee of the Nazis rather than an eager participant in their agenda. This cynical reversal resonates with one of the key themes of the Basterds sequences, the idea of what happens to the Nazi soldiers after the war, whether they're able to simply slip back into ordinary society and ignore their Nazi past.
JB: Speaking of the Nazis and cartoonish characters, that's yet another surprising thing about Inglourious Basterds. Oh, sure, Tarantino's Hitler is a screaming maniac and Goebbels is a clown (that he likes to bang his interpreter tells us what, exactly?), but otherwise Tarantino's Nazis are something that Nazis are almost never allowed to be in American movies: intelligent. Landa is an opportunistic devil without a conscience, to be sure, but will we see a smarter character this year? I doubt it. Fucker is almost clairvoyant, and beyond that he's ballsy. Presented with an opportunity to write his own endgame, he makes a bold all-in play that involves collaborating with the Americans without their knowledge. Then there's Major Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) who displays his intelligence three ways: first by sniffing out a curious German accent, then by deducing his identity in the questions game based on scant information and finally by spotting Lieutenant Hicox's (Michael Fassbender) fatal tell. (Heck, throw on top of that what might seem like a small detail: Hellstrom knows immediately that there's no way he's walking out of that tavern alive.) Also not to be overlooked is Fredrick Zoller, who isn't the mindless killing machine his war heroics have us conditioned to believe he must be. In the movies the opposition sometimes gets one smart character, but the rest of the force is usually a collection of shortsighted morons. Here, instead, it's the Americans who are cartoons who blunder into their good fortune.
If you think this is me on my way to arguing that Tarantino is making some bold political statement, guess again. Tarantino just likes bad guys. Always has. I never thought there was any deep messaging in his idolization of Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction, and the same rule applies here. Again, and this point can't be underlined enough, this isn't a historically minded film; of course all those makers of "serious" war movies might want to look in the mirror and ask themselves why it took Tarantino, of all people, to create Nazi enemies who seem like a force to be reckoned with.
Before we leave this subject, I feel we do have an obligation to talk about Eli Roth's participation, which in my mind stands as Tarantino's only entirely indefensible decision in this film. Is Roth's grand entrance as the Bear Jew, after all that bat slamming anticipation, meant to inspire laughs? Perhaps we need to consider that. All I know is that "satisfying" the suspense of that scene by having Roth emerge from the shadows is the cinematic polar opposite of Orson Welles' unveiling in The Third Man. The only praiseworthy thing I can say about Roth's involvement is that at least it isn't Tarantino himself in the role, nor is it Adam Sandler, who was originally considered for the part. (Obvious question: Why do I prefer Roth to Sandler? Because whatever power the bat-bashing scene has would be obliterated if I felt Tarantino had gone from making allusions to Sergio Leone to paying tribute to Happy Gilmore. Just saying.) Roth's involvement doesn't ruin the film, but it marks one of those moments when my thoughts left the action on the screen and I found myself thinking, "Why, Quentin? Why?" But maybe that's just an intrinsic part of the Tarantino experience.
EH: I'm in total agreement that the few scattered appearances by Roth are embarrassingly bad and thankfully brief—although I do wish that Sandler had actually gotten to play the part, as was originally intended. Don't think of Happy Gilmore, think of the way Sandler channels his signature man-boy persona into much darker, psychologically unstable, violent territory in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch-Drunk Love. The Sandler glimpsed in that film would've been a perfect fit for the Bear Jew's stunted, amoral ridiculousness, though I wonder if he could have been as scary as Roth's face is when he gets a deranged-looking close-up during the climactic conflagration.
Anyway, while Tarantino is perhaps not making a "bold political statement" with this film, I do think it's a very politically, historically and morally engaged film. Tarantino is never going to be about sending a message, but by the same token he's never been blind to the moral ramifications of people's actions, or the unspoken politics behind everything his characters say and do, and that's the case here more than ever. The finale's destruction of a Nazi-packed movie theater suggests that all revenge and brutality are ugly and cruel, even when the motives are good and even when the victims are deserving. This baroque, flaming finale is frantically edited, with shots of Shosanna's warped, cackling visage looming above the panicking crowd as Roth and fellow Basterd Omar Doom machine-gun the fleeing cinemagoers with that sadistic, gleeful look on their faces, monstrous and psychopathic. This scene represents a rewriting of history for the better—WWII ends early, and the worst of the monsters responsible for the war all die in flames and a hail of bullets—and yet watching it happen is unpleasant rather than celebratory, suggesting that all victories come at a price. The film's morality is complex and twisted, depicting Aldo and his Basterds as violence-loving sociopaths who seem to enjoy their work a little too much—and who can blame them, because even 60-plus years removed from WWII, there's still a visceral pleasure to be had in watching Aldo and his boys "killing Nat-zis," and little guilt about it. Tarantino seems to know this and his multilayered, intelligent Nazis are continual reminders of the humanity present even in those who do terrible things. Even Goebbels gets a moment of genuine emotion when Hitler tells him that Nation's Pride is his best film ever.
The Nazi officer who's killed in the film's second chapter says that he won a medal for bravery, while the Bear Jew asks him if he got it for "killing Jews," an attempt to simplify this guy before beating him to death. But he is brave and loyal, even though he's also hateful scum who dies after spitting out epitaphs against Jews. These traits are not contradictions: he is a brave, honorable man who has committed himself to, and seems to believe totally in, a reprehensible cause dedicated to extinguishing other human lives. On the other side, Aldo and his men are not honorable in the least, they are deceitful and sadistic and merciless, and yet they are committed to a noble cause, motivated at least in part by the desire to defeat a truly evil world power. There are, obviously, no easy answers here.
This is even truer in the scene with Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling), the new father out celebrating his baby's birth. His showdown with Aldo over the tradeoff of the actress Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) is heartbreaking precisely because it's obvious that no matter what Aldo says to bargain with Wilhelm, the Basterds could never allow a witness to leave the bar knowing that Bridget is a double agent for the Allies. This had already been established explicitly in the Basterds' pre-meeting planning. So as Aldo and Wilhelm negotiate, the audience knows that Aldo doesn't really intend to live up to his bargain, though he never actually gets the chance to betray the German since Bridget finishes him off first. It's an odd scene, one where the Nazi suddenly becomes the sympathetic protagonist, the guy we're rooting for even though we know he's pretty much doomed. When he puts down the gun and agrees to deal with Aldo, I actually found myself groaning at his stupid choice the way you'd yell "don't go in there" at a horror movie character.
JB: I suspect that many people would disagree with your characterization of this film's political, historical and moral engagement, and not necessarily those who feel offended by its anti-historical bloodlust (of which I'm sure there are many). For QT fans it might in fact be easier to enjoy this film by concluding that "it's only a movie," explaining away any moments of possible commentary as the unintentional byproduct of Tarantino's cinematic allusions. But I agree with you, it's not that simple. This isn't a "message movie," no, but I have no doubt that Tarantino intends to provoke the audience by preying upon our established World War II sensibilities.
For me, the proof in the pudding is the scene in which Marcel (Jacky Ido) goes around locking the theater doors: He doesn't just turn the locks near the handles, he also flips locks at the top and bottom of the doors, and then he threads steel bars through the handles to barricade the doors for good measure. Marcel does all of this after first opening one of the doors to peek at the unsuspecting audience that is about to be burned alive. Only the most ignorant viewer could watch this unfold and not think about unsuspecting Jews being terminated in gas chambers, and, likewise, only the most ignorant (and dumb-lucky) filmmaker could make these cinematic choices without knowing he is making an overt historical reference to the very era in which his story takes place. Tarantino might not be as brilliant as he thinks he is, but he's certainly not that unaware.
And so it was that on my most recent viewing of Inglourious Basterds, as the schemes of Shosanna and the Basterds come to fruition in tandem, with the screen catching fire and the Basterds unloading ammunition into the mosh pit of Germans below, I had two thoughts: First, what would cinema be without the Nazis, the only historical villains so unequivocally evil that (even despite Tarantino's efforts) we can watch hundreds being helplessly slaughtered and still feel ultimately OK about it? Second, I wonder what Laughing Guy is thinking right now?
That latter thought needs clarification. "Laughing Guy" would be the dude near the front of the theater who'd been yucking up all the action from the moment the movie began. If you think Tarantino's Hitler is over the top when Zoller's on-screen exploits turn him into a cackling buffoon, well, you should have seen Laughing Guy, who during the Bear Jew's bat-bashing scene rocked in his chair screaming in delight, stomping his feet and slapping both of his knees. I won't go so far as to say that Tarantino condemns that sort of reaction, as there's too much evidence to the contrary; Tarantino thinks violence can be fun. Nevertheless, I do think the "Revenge of the Giant Face" chapter is meant to give us pause, to make us question those previous impulses. In a moment we go from loathing the Nazis in the theater for cheering the deaths of anti-German soldiers on the field of battle to feeling compelled to embrace, at least in some way, the slaughter of an unarmed crowd. That shouldn't sit well, and it doesn't. If this is a revenge fantasy, revenge comes at a price, as you suggested, and Tarantino's film is frank about that.
In a previous conversation I expressed my endless frustration with Fight Club, which I think preaches out of both sides of its mouth. Here I saw a different result. Is there ambiguity and contradiction to Inglourious Basterds? Of course! That's part of what makes it a masterpiece. But while I still contend that Fight Club's lasting impression is that Tyler Durden is super-cool, even though by the end of the film he's unveiled to be everything he preaches against, here I believe that the violence of Tarantino's film, while sometimes romanticized, is ultimately made to appear, well, inglorious. To miss that is to miss the obvious.
EH: The crucial difference between Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds, in the sense that you're comparing them, is that Fight Club starts as one thing and then becomes something else altogether, a reversal of its earlier meanings, while Tarantino's film is instead ambiguous throughout its length, vacillating between two poles in regard to violence just as it does between cartoony exaggeration and stolid realism. Sometimes the violence in the film is horrifying and deeply felt, as in the murder of Shosanna's family and the movie theater fire. Sometimes it seems meant to provoke shocked laughter, as in the baseball bat sequence or the quick insert of the Basterds strafing a Nazi patrol with machine guns. I think this is part of what Tarantino's after, getting his audience to a point where they're not sure what to feel: both times I saw the film, the audience laughed uproariously when the Bear Jew beats that Nazi colonel, but once the killer's extended, celebratory rant begins, the laughter died into more of an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by a few nervous titters. How much of that is just Roth's off-key performance, and how much Tarantino's deliberate effort to make the laughs choke in one's throat? Either way, I don't think anyone leaves this movie feeling completely comfortable. Maybe the Laughing Guys are able to shrug off the more unsettling moments and simply enjoy the thrill ride, but Tarantino seems to want us to at least think about violence, to think about its effects and its cost. He's too much of an entertainer to assume a Michael Haneke-style moralist position and castigate his audience for enjoying the film, but certainly he wants to bring up these issues.
As you say, this is especially clear in the build-up to the big fire, as Marcel goes around locking the doors while, inside, Tarantino shows us the Nazis laughing as soldiers are killed. But Zoller, the soldier whose exploits are being depicted, is not comfortable with what he sees. What Tarantino's engaging with here is the essence of his movie, the difference between reality and fantasy, and how they come together in the cinema. For Zoller, Nation's Pride is simply too real, too close-to-home, and he can't be entertained by watching the reenactment of all the men he really killed. For everyone else in the room, they're not thinking about what they're seeing as human lives being ended, just as Landa doesn't think of his own job as exterminating other humans, but rather tracking down vermin. If the door-locking montage was the pivotal moment of this sequence for you, Zoller's confession that he can't watch his own movie is it for me. At this moment, reality and fantasy have come together for the young German war hero, and he is totally out of step with both the Nazis cartoonishly cackling and the Inglourious Basterds audience who had not so long ago been cheering on the sadistic Bear Jew.
Personally, I can't see how anyone could emerge from this climax thinking that Tarantino is engaged in the straightforward glorification of violence. The whole scene is horrific and bracing, with the closeups of the murderous Basterds accompanied by Shosanna's echoing laughter. Then the sounds of explosions abruptly give way to that quiet shot of the military truck pulling through a sparse forest, a possible reference to the climax of The Conformist, another movie about violence and morality. It's a startling moment, and Tarantino obviously lets the silence linger for contemplation, for processing what's just happened. I guarantee you, at that moment, no one's laughing.
JB: To jump back just a bit, the Zoller moment you mention is another crucial example of how Tarantino explores some of these moral issues head-on. It could be interpreted at least two ways. On the one hand Zoller's reaction seems to underline that Tarantino's film, in contrast to Nation's Pride or, by extension, even Spielberg's aforementioned World War II films, is pure entertainment—decidedly not an accurate depiction of actual events, and thus not something to get too concerned over. On the other hand, one could contrast Zoller's reaction with that of the on-screen crowd and use it as evidence of how myopic we can be as moviegoers when faced with entertainment that appeals to our sensibilities, thus coming to the conclusion that the impact of movies must not be dismissed.
Which of these two opposed interpretations is correct? Both of them are, because within this pure entertainment is a tale in which film stock is used to bring down the Third Reich. In that regard, Inglourious Basterds is a propaganda film promoting the importance of cinema itself. And who better to make that film than Tarantino, whose entire oeuvre is a long love letter to the movies that shaped him as an artist and as a man.
EH: In his "love letter to the movies," Tarantino especially privileges the cinema of the past, peppering the film with cinephile-friendly references to G.W. Pabst, Leni Riefenstahl, Henri-Georges Clouzot (one of the few French directors to continue making films during the Occupation, including Le Corbeau, one of the films Shosanna screens at her theater) and actor Emil Jannings. Most of all, though, Inglourious Basterds is about the power of the cinema: its power as propaganda, as entertainment, and of course as art. Much has been made of the denouement's grand metaphor, the cinema literally changing the world, but I don't think Tarantino really sees cinema as a social tool, as a way of changing history, which is the obvious interpretation. Inglourious Basterds isn't about a reel of film changing the world so much as it is about the movies as gateways into different ways of imagining and thinking about the world. The film belongs to the same lineage of speculative fiction as Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle or Philip Roth's The Plot Against America, both of which imagine alternate realities where Nazism and fascism were victorious in the WWII era.
That's why the readings of this film as "Holocaust denial" are so dramatically offbase (even beyond the fact that the opening chapter is an especially potent acknowledgment of the Holocaust's personal horror). Tarantino's film doesn't erase the memory of the Holocaust. Rather, he's actually relying on our knowledge of real events; the film would be all but meaningless to someone who didn't already know at least the barebones basics about the real history of World War II. Tarantino's vision of a fiery end to the Third Reich is only powerful when it plays off of the knowledge that this isn't what really happened, that this is a "what if" scenario. Tarantino knows he can't rewrite history, but he can create a cinematic alternate history that resonates in various ways with the real world, with real ideas. The power of cinema is its freedom, its virtually limitless capacity for imagination and creativity, and, as you suggest, the powerful grip of the movies on the imaginations of audiences.
Goebbels certainly understood this power, treating the cinema as a vital ideological tool, taking personal control of UFA in order to turn the German film industry into a way of spreading Nazi ideas and rallying enthusiasm. The British officers in the film compare Goebbels to Hollywood producers like David O. Selznick and Louis B. Mayer, and Goebbels, while placing himself in opposition to these Jewish moguls, also borrowed from their playbook, trying to create popular entertainments and massive hits. When Zoller is described as "a German Sergeant York," it's not a shallow comparison: both men are somewhat reluctant heroes whose gory exploits, consisting mainly of killing a whole lot of men, are turned into films to stir up patriotic sentiment in their home countries. Just as Howard Hawks' Sergeant York (like his later Pearl Harbor revenge flick Air Force and countless other Hollywood propaganda films of the era) stirred and moved audiences, Goebbels' films were intended to awaken similar emotions in his own German audiences. The hammering brutality of Nation's Pride echoes the relentless climax of the otherwise admirable Air Force, in which Hawks presents an orgy of anti-Japanese violence for audiences to wallow in. Tarantino's point seems to be that this is what all films do, that the propagandistic and manipulative aspects of the cinema are unavoidable. Thus he both embraces them and, to some extent, exposes their workings.
JB: Those are good points, and the comparison to The Plot Against America is particularly apt. (Probably the comparison to The Man in the High Castle, too, I just haven't read that.) Obviously the "what if" scenario of Tarantino's film is narrower than that of Roth's novel, which examines the long-term effects of its historical rearrangement, which Inglourious Basterds never gets to, but that doesn't make it any less valid.
If there's a sentiment that Tarantino does anything here to confuse the historical record, well, I just don't see it. The only thing I can see to get offended by (beyond Eli Roth's acting) is the rough equation between the gassing of Jews in the real-world Holocaust and the burning of Nazis—including the architects of the Holocaust—in this historical fantasy. One group of victims did nothing to deserve their fate. The other group had it coming. In that respect, I understand how someone might react to the sight of the Basterds emptying their machine guns into the helpless crowd by becoming miffed at Tarantino for making this mass execution of Nazis seem horrific in any respect, turning the Nazis into victims if only for a moment.
The trouble with that reading is that it only works when looking at the theater massacre by itself. As we said earlier, the underlying message of the scene is that revenge comes at a price. Indeed, in the manner by which the Basterds choose to enact their vengeance on the Nazis—both in the theater scene and in their previous bat-swinging escapades—they are forced to become dangerously close to the evil they are trying to defeat, regardless of any moral justification. Patriotic violence is just as bloody as criminal violence, this movie reminds us. Offhand, we might think that no amount of suffering inflicted on a Nazi could ever be too great. But if you're disturbed watching Nazis being slaughtered in the theater, maybe you don't really believe that. My point is, if you watch the theater scene and come away confused, conflicted or distressed, I think that speaks more to your ethics than to Tarantino's. Atypically for a QT picture, the climactic chapter of Inglourious Basterds seems designed not to unveil Tarantino's feelings but to put us in touch with our own. Or am I giving Tarantino too much credit?
EH: No, I think you're right. Tarantino is deliberately pushing buttons, he wants to provoke reactions and force his audience to think about the consequences of violence and the ethics of vengeance. I've been arguing right along that Tarantino's films don't merely present outlandish violence for simple delectation; his attitude towards the violence in his movies is much more complex than he's given credit for, and probably much more complex than the blithe attitude he cops in interviews. Inglourious Basterds is his most potent movie in this respect.
Anyway, I feel like we've spent a lot of time thus far talking about the first two chapters (the farmhouse scene and the Basterds' titular second chapter) and the final chapter ("Revenge of the Giant Face"), and have perhaps neglected the equally important Chapter 3 ("German Night in Paris") and Chapter 4 ("Operation Kino"). I mentioned earlier that there are three key suspense/dialogue scenes in the film, lengthy set pieces where the tension is slowly ratcheted up even as the dialogue explores and reveals layers of character. Chapter 4 is almost entirely taken up by the tavern scene where a few members of the Basterds rendezvous with Bridget von Hammersmark and unexpectedly find themselves in a nest of Nazis. In Chapter 3, the climax is Landa's ambiguous interrogation of Shosanna, where even when the scene is over we're left in nearly the same place as Shosanna, unsure of what this guy is after—we're only slightly up on her because we have the information necessary to recognize the glass of milk as a veiled threat, a reference to the opening scene. (The other callback to the first chapter is that here Landa speaks fluent French with no need to switch to English. The linguistic games of Landa/Tarantino run through the whole film, extending even I think to some playfulness with the subtitles. My fiancée pointed out that common words like "merci" were sometimes translated into English in subtitles and sometimes left in French, but while she thought it was a mistake, I wonder if Tarantino wasn't having some more fun with the film's Tower of Babel approach to language. He's continually poking fun at Americans for not speaking any language besides English.)
The film is packed with internal references, discrete echoes of previous events. Even Landa's pointed gesture of putting out his cigarette in a strudel could be read in relation to his use of a comically large pipe as a threat in the opening scene. Likewise, during the tavern scene, the game the soldiers are playing, trying to guess the names written on the back of playing cards, references Shosanna's movie theater by namechecking, yet again, Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst. These echoes reflect Tarantino's continuing interest in structural storytelling. Inglourious Basterds is structured more like a series of short stories than a straightforward narrative. Other than these subtle connections, each chapter is positioned as a standalone segment, except perhaps the final one, which finally knots together the various threads of the earlier chapters.
The echoes built into the film create the structure necessary for the finale, when the separate narratives of Shosanna, the Basterds and Landa finally come together. One of my favorite scenes in this respect is Shosanna's preparation for the movie premiere, which opens Chapter 5. Tarantino films her putting on her makeup in intimate close-ups, and when she streaks rouge across her cheeks, it becomes apparent that she's donning war paint—another echo, this time of Aldo's nickname "the Apache," linking the film's two primary instruments of anti-Nazi vengeance. The whole sequence is gorgeous and multilayered, scored by a Giorgio Moroder/David Bowie song originally from Paul Schrader's Cat People remake. The visuals, meanwhile, are seeped in the baroque pre-war/post-war aesthetic of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's late films, particularly the chapter-opening shot of Shosanna framed in a circular window, her reflection fragmented and multiplied by the glass—Sirk by way of Fassbinder. There's also the very Fassbinderian close-up of the heroine pulling a black veil across her face, which is both pure style and a gesture of mourning for her murdered family as she prepares to walk out into a room filled with their murderers. This opening with its layered cinematic pastiche signals the final chapter's turn to melodrama as a source of inspiration, suggesting a very different set of references from spaghetti Westerns and The Searchers, even as the subtext connects this scene with events earlier in the film.
JB: There's a lot to reply to there, so I'll go in chronological order according to the film, which will allow me to quickly address three lesser issues at the jump: First, I noticed the irregular non-translation of French in the English subtitles in that opening scene, and I agree with you that it's not a mistake, but I don't think the purpose is any deeper than typical Tarantino cuteness. Second, I disagree that we're at all ahead of Shosanna when Landa orders her a glass of milk, because the expression on her face shows that she indeed takes it to be a veiled threat. (If she remembers Landa from four years ago, she certainly also remembers that he consumed two glasses of milk before his henchmen blasted away at the floorboards under which she and her family were hiding.) Third, while Shosanna views the glass of milk as a threat, I don't think it is one. Landa no doubt thinks Shosanna's current identity is fraudulent, but there's no way he knows that she's the lone survivor of one of his stings. As the director of security for the premiere, Landa would never allow the event to occur at Shosanna's theater if he knew her true identity. His whole manner of questioning—including the cigarette in the strudel—is certainly designed to intimidate her, however. But Landa uses that approach with everyone. It's effective. He rattles people.
As for the scene in which Shosanna dons her war paint and readies herself for the premiere, I'm not a fan. Over time, I'll warm to the sequence; I love the rest of the movie too much not to. But at best I'll only learn to ignore it. Through seven films now, Tarantino has demonstrated an uncanny ability to score his films with repurposed musical selections that would often seem ill-fitting on paper. Beginning a World War II movie with music from John Wayne's The Alamo, for example? I wouldn't have thought of it. But, darn it, it works, regardless of whether you can spot the allusion. The use of the Bowie song, however, is the first time in Tarantino's career that one of his musical selections flops around awkwardly like a dying fish in the bottom of a boat. The problem isn't that the tune is anachronistic. The problem is that the song—like just about everything from the 1980s—doesn't feel classic, universal, eternal. Tarantino seems to be guiding his film toward the song, instead of the other way around. Perhaps that's why his nod to melodrama didn't remind me of Fassbinder but of '80s music videos, something from the archive of Duran Duran. There's part of me that respects and even applauds the boldness of Tarantino's anachronistic leap (though I'm not surprised by his courage), but it does play like a stunt to me.
EH: Interesting interpretation of that scene with Shosanna and Landa. Now that I think about it, during the opening chapter, Landa did ask for his first glass of milk before the switch to English, so Shosanna probably would have heard and understood that. But if Landa didn't mean it as a threat when he orders the milk for her, why did he do it? Considering what happens at the premiere itself, and how easily Landa betrays his masters, I think he knew exactly who the theater's owner really was all along, and deliberately did nothing about it because, in some way, he was already thinking about his eventual bid for that island retreat in Nantucket. But then, that's the wonderful thing about this scene: it's so ambiguous that Landa's words and actions can mean practically anything, and the audience is left, like Shosanna, collectively raising their eyebrows, wondering what's going to happen next.
That scene with the Bowie song seems to be as divisive as the treatment of violence; a lot of reviews thus far have picked that out as an example of Tarantino's self-indulgence, while others have praised it as I have. I thought it worked, although to some extent I liked it because it felt so different from the sound palette used in the rest of the film—maybe I'm getting a little sick of Tarantino's heavy recycling of Ennio Morricone, seamless as it usually is, and maybe I also thought the film's pivotal moment, the lead-in to its explosive climax, deserved something big and grandiose and melodramatic. And as dated as '80s music usually is, it's Bowie! I actually think that's a damn good song.
JB: Yeah, I'm not trying to diss Bowie. In and of itself it's a fine little montage, but its arrival is jarring and made Inglourious Basterds feel a little like Zach Snyder's Watchmen, a movie in which the songs seem a little too desperate to be profound. (And I say that as one of the few people to actually like the melodramatic sex scene set to Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." Go figure.) Maybe the best way of framing my dissatisfaction is to put it this way: Usually when Tarantino inserts music into a film I find myself thinking, "That's perfect! Nothing could be better!" More traditional, sure, but not better. In this case, the use of Bowie satisfies Tarantino's unpredictability, but the end result certainly didn't leave me feeling like it was the natural choice.
As for the Shosanna and Landa scene, it could be that his milk order is a pure coincidence. Or perhaps he does recognize her and leaves their meeting satisfied that she's too intimidated to cause trouble. The idea that he saw Shosanna as a threat and let it go doesn't really hold water, though, because if she kills Hitler and ends the war Landa has nothing to gain. Only the U.S. government can offer him Nantucket. Regardless, I agree with you that the scene is intentionally and deliciously ambiguous. Even if we leave the scene concluding that Shosanna is safe, we spend every second up to that clenched in fear on her behalf. Dramatically speaking, that's all that matters.
Now that we're into the weeds a bit on Inglourious Basterds, there's a very minor detail I'm curious to ask you about. The question goes like this: Mike Myers...why?
EH: I'm tempted just to say: Why not? That does seem to be Tarantino's general philosophy here. The film is constructed around detours and diversions. The two Samuel L. Jackson-narrated segments—a faux-documentary explanation of the flammability of nitrate film stock and a kind of origin story for the Basterd Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger)—are perfect examples. The casting is full of little nudges like this, like recognizing Jackson's voice, or recognizing Harvey Keitel as the American general who makes a deal with Landa. Or seeing Rod Taylor (of The Birds, coming out of semi-retirement for a film littered with Hitchcock references) as Winston Churchill, in a cameo that strikes me as somehow Lynchian in its randomness—maybe it's just the red curtains behind him, though. Frankly, with all this going on, Myers' appearance, doing a very dry pseudo-Austin Powers routine as a British officer named Ed Fenech (ha!), barely even stands out. It's one more jokey little meta-reference in a film teeming with them. I'm guessing it nagged at you somehow, though, or you wouldn't ask.
JB: The Mike Myers thing irks me only because it prompts the audience to laugh before he does anything funny, thus increasing the likelihood that people miss what I think is the scene's true humor. But I admit that's a pretty pretentious reaction. Both times I saw the movie, the audience started to snicker just in recognizing Myers, as if to say, "Oh, goody, another Austin Powers character!" That's a fair reaction, I suppose, but it doesn't make the laughter very well earned. (I'd prefer to be laughing at this movie, not in memory of Myers' other films.)
To me what's truly hilarious about that scene is how it's the epitome of a war movie cliché that I didn't quite realize the ubiquity of until I saw it parodied here: the nerdy Englishman (Myers) who in his diminutiveness and ordinariness makes the hero (Fassbender's Lieutenant Hicox, in this case) look all the more rugged and dashing; the conspicuously enormous room which seems to have been built solely for the purpose of being under-furnished and under-populated save for the enormous war map hanging on the wall; the casual mood in which major operations are discussed as if war is a parlor game. That's what Tarantino (with Myers) conjures here, and that's what is truly clever. The rest is just distraction.
Then again, I do agree with you: Why not? If Tarantino did everything conventionally, he'd cease to be Tarantino. I admit that Myers' appearance here reminds me of an especially snobby argument I used to make with regularity in college: "Pity the man who tells you his favorite Seinfeld character is Kramer," I would say, "because that man doesn't know why Seinfeld is funny."
EH: That scene between Myers and Hicox is a spot-on parody of "stiff upper lip" British dramas, and of the kind of "gentleman's war" stuffiness that Powell and Pressburger had already so effectively skewered and documented in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. "Down with Hitler?" "All the way down." Throughout the film, one of Tarantino's primary targets is the idea that there's any such thing as noble violence, so it makes sense that he'd include this swipe at the gentlemanly war planners who make assassination sound like a tea party: "We blow up the basket."
The mention of Hicox also reminds me of my favorite moment with that character, who like many in this film is sometimes a walking cliché ("jolly good!") and sometimes much more nuanced. His greatest moment—and Fassbender's as an actor—comes at the climax of the tavern showdown in Chapter 4, when he realizes that the game is over and he's slipped up somehow, so he might as well face his fate as himself rather than continuing to hide behind a shoddy disguise: "I hope you don't mind if I go out speaking the King's." His switch from German to English of course mirrors the similar switch in the opening scene, which is also preceded by a formal question to an adversary, but in the first chapter the switch is a devious tactical move while here it's an admission of defeat. It's also another indication of Tarantino's fascination with masks and role-playing. And it allows Hicox, who was mostly a target of gentle mockery before this, a moment of real nobility and honor, bravely facing death with wit and serenity. The same quality that made him so funny in the earlier scene, his unflappable understatement, now seems like a virtue, like bravery and dignity.
JB: That's true. Indeed, the Hicox character feels like he stumbled into Inglourious Basterds by making a wrong turn somewhere on the cinema backlot. That's a compliment. A big one, actually. Earlier I criticized Tarantino for writing characters who serve as puppets for his own interests, characters who embody QT's own manner of speaking, both in word choice, sentence structure and cadence. Well, Hicox doesn't belong to that group at all. And, after this film, what used to be a lonely crowd of non-QT talkers (I'm suddenly envisioning Jackie Brown's Max Cherry leading support group meetings) now has several new recruits: Hicox, Shosanna, Bridget von Hammersmark, Frederick Zoller and General Fenech being the most consistent examples. Landa qualifies, too, as his few linguistic eccentricities ("That's a bingo!") deliver a welcome dose of Tarantino's screenwriting wit without making it seem like he's delivering outtakes from Pulp Fiction.
Inglourious Basterds is very self-contained in that respect, and I admire that greatly. Though Tarantino's sprawling efforts can be exhilaratingly epic in their own right (Kill Bill being the prime example), Inglourious Basterds and Jackie Brown suggest to me that the best way to appreciate Tarantino's screenwriting and filmmaking is to see what he does when slightly boxed in. That, for me, is part of the joy of Inglourious Basterds: that it feels both restrained and fearlessly unhinged. It is Tarantino operating one-inch out of control. It's not his "comfort zone," because that would be Death Proof, a film that for all its genuine thrills feels like something Tarantino could put together effortlessly in an alcohol-induced slumber. But does Inglourious Basterds feel in any way cautious or unsure of itself? Heavens no! This is as confident a Tarantino picture as he has ever made. In fact, I'm tempted to argue that it's his most confident picture, precisely because he proves willing to distance himself from the kind of colorful, pop culture obsessed banter that, though frequently witty, was turning into something of a crutch.
EH: I agree about the appealing confidence of this film; Tarantino pushed himself out of his comfort zone but it never seems like he's flailing around. (Though I think the lack of pop culture banter can be overstated. It's not so much that Tarantino has stopped namedropping the things that he likes, it's just that he's decided to stick to some period-appropriate pop culture, like The White Hell of Pitz Palu and Le Corbeau, rather than peppering the dialogue with references to Kung Fu and Vanishing Point.) In any event, maybe because the film took so long to develop—he reportedly worked on the script for something like a decade—it's self-assured and affecting, and its disparate parts fit together in interesting ways. For all its excesses, there's a lot of nuance here, a lot of subtlety in the themes and emotions Tarantino is exploring. Two of my favorite shots in the film are as quiet and romantic as anything in Jackie Brown, previously the Tarantino film I found most emotionally affecting.
The first is the affectionate goodbye between Shosanna and Marcel, which with one tender kiss and with Shosanna's gesture afterwards, touching her hand to her mouth as she tearfully watches her lover go, establishes the depth of this relationship. And of course this romantic image takes place in the reddish glow of the movie projection booth: their romance is explicitly cinematic, just as the film's vision of vengeance is cinematic. The second image that really sticks with me is the shot from behind Marcel as he's standing at the back of the screen, waiting for his cue to ignite the fire. He's smoking a cigarette, and a halo of white smoke wafts around his head as, on the screen towering above him, spent shells fall into piles, mirroring the pile of film stock just below.
It's at moment