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.