Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds

Never mind the Schindlers, here come the Inglourious Basterds
(Image Courtesy: Scanners)

If there is any filmmaker whose single film could evoke comparisons ranging from Happy Gilmore (1996) to La Dolce Vita (1960), it would have to be Quentin Tarantino. But why not? Here is a director who has made a name with his unique style that more or less marries the crassest and the classiest of film elements. It almost seems like no matter what film you name, you can always find a connection to Tarantino’s. Here he is, with his ultra-violent WW2 epic Inglourious Basterds, releasing in India on the birthday of a person who has become an icon of non-violence. An unimaginably large number of essays, analyses, critiques, blog posts and reviews have cropped up within weeks of its release, with opinions running the gamut, and that just goes to show how provocative this one is. It has even raised questions about creative licenses and the unlimited freedom it has given artists through the years. With Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino strays out of what many people would have till now called his comfort zone and has proven once and for all his status as an pop auteur. Inglourious Basterds may not be the film of the year, it may not even be the director’s best film, but it sure is the most important film of the decade.

For the uninitiated, here is the central premise of the film. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) has just produced a film titled Nation’s Pride involving the real-life exploits of a Nazi Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), who plays himself in the movie and which is going to be screened a cozy little theatre in Paris owned by a Jewish woman Emmanuelle aka Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent). A group of American Jewish soldiers now called The Basterds, led by Lieutenant Aldo “The Apache” Raine (Brad Pitt), along with inputs from the allied forces plans to blow up the theatre in order to get the leading Nazi men including Hitler (Martin Wuttke). However, to complete their mission they have to get through the cunning and powerful Colonel Hans Landa (Christopher Waltz) who is in charge of the security at the grand event and who never leaves any stones unturned to trace out the Jews that the Nazis are in search of. Meanwhile, Shoshanna, whose family was murdered four years ago by Landa plans for her own revenge by blowing up the cinema hall using inflammable nitrate films that she has stocked through the years. Of course, as always with Tarantino, this summary is completely unimportant in comparison to what he achieves in the film.

With Inglourious Basterds, gone are the romantic days of Renoir when a couple of gentlemanly officers could end the war over a cup of tea. Now, deals are meant to be broken, enemies are meant to be stabbed from behind their backs and friends are supposed to be ratted on. Enemy corpses aren’t supposed to be given a proper burial, but should have their scalps removed. Instead of receiving a gentle kiss on their hands, ladies have their necks wrung. “I respectfully disagree” makes way for a “*bleep* you”. “Nat-zi ain’t got no humanity” replaces universal brotherhood. And scheduled duels are substituted by under-the-table gunfights. Everything in Inglourious Basterds is guerilla-esque, everyone in the film remains true to the title of the movie.  Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is to be questioned. Tarantino’s army is one that lives and moves in the shadows. What you see most definitely isn’t what it is. Like the film hints in the card game that the officers play in the tavern in the fourth chapter, the inhabitants of Tarantino’s new universe wear so many masks one over the other that it almost reduces to a Scooby Doo adventure. One isn’t supposed to believe what one sees, even if it’s all written out there.

The idea is simple. Inglourious Basterds is a 5-set tennis match. The Jews win it 3-2. For every Nazi set, there is a Jew set that follows. Throughout the film we see characters trying to get the upper hand and stay on top in whatever way possible. Even within individual chapters small scale power games are at work and one isn’t always sure how it is all going to turn out. The final images of these chapters alternate between images of the Nazis and those of the Jewish characters – Landa kissing Shoshanna goodbye, Raine carving out a swastika on a Nazi soldier, Shoshanna planning the film, Landa digging out Hammersmark’s shoe and Raine, again, with his masterpiece – much like a close tennis match. Each sequence, each shot and each dialog seems and feels like a tennis rally. The director regularly places his actors on either side of the widescreen and the audience’s eyeballs are made to go left and right throughout each conversation. Tarantino’s editing pattern could well apply to a Wimbledon telecast, for it mixes over-the-shoulder shots and two shots effectively as if providing both the audience’s and the camera’s viewpoints of the “match”. And of course, Tarantino’s writing ensures that we get the reward for the tense stretch of time he puts us through during each conversation.

The mere skeleton of the plot would reveal that Tarantino is reversing conventions here. For once, he is allowing the Jews to kill Hitler. But Tarantino keeps underlining, hinting, presaging and highlighting this reversal of roles between the Jews and the Nazis throughout the film. There is some sort of reversal going on within each structure and substructure of the film. Take the magnificent first chapter of the film wherein Tarantino throws at us everything that the film will offer us in the rest of the chapters. As Landa sits at the table, surrounded by the farmer’s family, it looks as if it is Landa who is being questioned. We are soon proven wrong and Tarantino’s majestic train of role-reversals kicks off once Landa starts digging. In a Bertoluccian touch, Tarantino keeps breaking the 180 rule without any hesitation, allowing his camera (helmed by ace cinematographer Robert Richardson) to wander into both sides of the two-shot setup to suggest the inversion of the hunter-prey relationship that adorns the whole conversation. Even his dialogues are decorated with such rhetorical clauses like “If I were in your position…” and “If you were in my shoes…”. Or consider the way he writes the first and final chapters such that they mirror each other entirely. If the Nazis kill a few Jews hiding below them during the first chapter, the Basterds will similarly gun down hundred times that number of Nazis in the last one. If Landa lights up his pipe to create a small smoke cloud in the farm house, a whole cinema hall will be burnt by the Jews. If LaPadite (Denis Menochet) is the betrayer of Jews in the opening chapter, Landa will become the traitor among the Nazis in the final chapter. Both Tarantino’s camera angles and his actor placements locate and relocate the relative positions of the Jews and Nazis throughout the film in a manner that recalls the way young Bertolucci handled his mise en scène in The Conformist (1970), which too revolved around faked identities and interchangeable personas and which Tarantino seems to be alluding to in the final few minutes of the movie.

Inglourious Basterds - Landa

Inglourious Basterds - Raine

Tarantino really puts his audience in a dicey situation here. Inglourious Basterds has been called a revenge fantasy. But never does a character in the film mention that it is a mission of revenge. The Holocaust hasn’t yet happened in the movie time and there are only hints of the Nazi’s plans for the Jews. It is only in hindsight, with the knowledge of what happened in reality, that we are able to call the film a revenge saga. If there is someone in the audience who is oblivious to Holocaust, the film might just appear otherwise. Tarantino teases us with the notion that revenge is the same kind of crime as the one that instigates it, but aided and justified by the passage of time – an idea that was ineffectively explored in Gaspar Noé’s positively disturbing Irreversible (2002). Tarantino lets the two worlds – the “real” reality and the film’s reality – collide and one’s response just depends on how much of a balance one wants to maintain between “what happened” and “what happens”. We can choose to either draw the line between “what-might-have-happened” fiction and “what-couldn’t-have-happened” fiction early on in the film or wait till Tarantino draws it for us in the last chapter.

Some commentators have suggested that Inglourious Basterds tries to humanize the Nazis and gain sympathy for them. But, surely, it isn’t the fault of the movie that we pity the SS officer when the Bear Jew prepares for the homerun or when the Nazis turn to ashes in the theatre. It is simply the ways movies work. Given a pattern of narrative, we seem to generally tend to support the weak, the suffering and the oppressed, thanks to our morality. Be it aliens of sci-fi flicks, tribes of exotic countries or mute animals of the jungles, we tend to patronize them, putting them on our moral scales. When, in A Clockwork Orange (1971), Alex de Large (Malcom McDowell) is trained to respond in a predictable fashion to certain impulses at the reformatory, Kubrick, in some ways, is speaking in a self-reflexive fashion. Alex is pure evil and there can be no other justification for his acts other than the fact that he is an evil-doer. Even so, Kubrick makes us accomplices to his acts and eventually makes us root for him. It is Kubrick who is manipulating his audience as a cosmic joke. And it has taken around four decades for some filmmaker to stimulate us in such equally provocative fashion and, in the process, make us evaluate our own moral standing and the way we tend to judge characters – on and off-screen. Speaking of A Clockwork Orange, Hans Landa drinking his glass of milk is reminiscent of and as chilling as Alex holding it in Korova Milkbar

Tarantino adorns the movie with a slew of sight gags, much like the ones we see in the Bugs Bunny cartoons, almost none of which actually fails. During Landa’s interrogation of LaPadite, at one point, he unveils his gigantic, almost unreal, smoking pipe dwarfing that of LaPadite. In the fourth chapter, when the Gestapo officer comes from within the tavern to question the officers about their accent, we see a huge whisky glass in front of him that’s unlike anything we’ve seen in the scene. Even in the last scene, when Landa hands over his knife to Raine, we are shown that Raine’s knife is the bigger one!  Furthermore, during the second chapter, as we are introduced to Hitler, he is posing for a gigantic portrait, indicating that his image is much more formidable than the man himself, whom Tarantino is happy to caricature. In fact, all these in-jokes would have fell flat if Inglourious Basterds had indeed played out as a straightforward drama. Thankfully, Tarantino’s characters are themselves cartoon-ish in nature, hence justifying whatever deformation Tarantino does to them and his attempts to reduce intense and delicate power games to petty mine-is-bigger arguments.

Tarantino doesn’t just bend and blend genres here, he takes them along the movie. His characters don’t simply absorb from genres, they are the genres. Inglourious Basterds is the kind of movie that will happen if a filmmaker casts non-actor cinephiles to act in a WW2 movie. Tarantino’s history is not a history given to him by text books (which by itself is a corrupt version), but one given to him by cinema. His characters aren’t those defined by the WW2 setting of the film, but ones from our age that have strayed into a WW2 movie. These aren’t characters have evolved from the film, but ones that have been pushed into it. What Tarantino does here is that he picks stereotypes from every genre of popular cinema and cooks them up in his WW2 broth.  In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), the titular character tries to chew more than he can bite by jumping from one genre of cinema to another and trying to pirate the film away from the director to places only he wants to be (Early in the film, director Samuel Fuller tells us that movies are all about emotions). Continuing the tradition of Godard’s influence on Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds too absorbs quite a bit from the French, especially Pierrot. In Tarantino’s film, too, each character tries to hijack the movie from the genre it is supposed to be, as if protesting the director’s decision of forcefully situating them out of place.

[Inglourious Basterds Trailer]

Almost every character in the film tries to own a sub-genre. With his ultra neat conversational ethics and table manners, not to mention the tinge of narcissism, Landa is the quintessential smooth-talking secret agent (Landa himself insists that he is a detective later on). Aldo Raine is the leader of the men who are on a mission type, with his I-don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Shoshanna thinks she is the next Beatrix Kiddo, with her all-red femme fatale act. Poor little Zoller tries to be the romantic hero despite his designation in the film. Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), already an actress, wants to be the deadly female spy (someone mentions Mata Hari as she talks during the tavern scene). Lt. Hicox (Michael Fassbender) is altogether from a different country’s cinema, with all his ethnic and lingual idiosyncrasies intact (“Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind I go out speaking the king’s?” ha!).  Even Herr Goebbels seems to think that he is in a B-grade sci-fi flick (“I have created a monster” he says). Much has been said about the corny celebratory ritual that Donny Donowicz (Eli Roth) performs at the end of his “innings”, but that only conforms to the genre that he is – the B-Comedy subgenre (Apparently, Adam Sandler was to play this part – who else?). You’ll either love his lines (and his bizarre nasal accent) or hate them, depending on how much you appreciate such type of comedy.

Apart from playing out their genres in the movie, the characters in Inglourious Basterds keep assuming different nationalities and ethnicities. Faking accents, speaking multiple languages, feigning papers and changing appearances seems to be order of the day. Characters are recognized using ethic slurs and covers are blown with the minutest of faux pas (which sort of brings back the scintillating experience of watching last year’s treasure In Bruges, which got everything right when it tried to marry the most serious of genre elements with the most absurd of situations). “I am a slave to appearances” confesses Aldo Raine as he handcuffs Landa in the final scene. Everyone in the film is. The multilingual Landa wants the Italian names to have a ring to them. The “little man” is unhappy about the unfair nickname that the Germans have given him. Hitler is convinced that the Bear Jew is a golem. Shoshanna goes to the extent of performing a full fledged ritual for this purpose. Right from the misspelt title you are told that what it looks or sounds like isn’t what it is. Tarantino pulls our legs as he switches the subtitles on and off throughout the movie, giving us only the most basic of information and leaving the rest to our ‘expertise’.

Tarantino’s complete disregard for the content of his film and his prankster attitude towards it are characteristic of Jean-Luc Godard too. But even with all the influence Tarantino has managed to kill his “father” with a distinct style that borrows from Godard’s yet deviates starkly. The greatest asset that Tarantino seems to possess is the ability to maintain a consistent tone in the movie. Even when he marries genres as wide and fatal as melodrama and thriller, he maintains a certain kind of detachment from it that lends these sequences a tongue-in-cheek flavour which unites them under a single stylistic umbrella despite their vast disparity. One deadly flaw that Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009) had was that, in an attempt to marry genres, he ended up marrying styles too, which made the film be nothing more than a surface imitation. On the other hand, even when he cuts to cheesy in-movie documentaries (narrated by Samuel L. Jackson), again reminding us of Godard’s My Life To Live (1962) where the director seamlessly includes a mini documentary that lists down statistics and factoids about prostitution in Paris, Tarantino maintains a strong grip on the filmmaker’s gaze towards his subject, never allowing us to mistake him for inconsistency of style.

Tarantino’s idea of filmmaking is akin to blowing a balloon. He blows and blows, till the onlookers cringe and then he allows it to pop. The mantra, for him, seems to be not “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s not funny”, but “if it bends its funny, if it breaks it’s funnier”. This way, I guess one could call him anti-Hitchcockian. Hitchcock’s sums up his legendary theory of suspense thus:

There is a distinct difference between ‘suspense’ and ‘surprise’, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I’ll explain what I mean.

We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let us suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, ‘Boom!’ There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table, and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware that the bomb is going to explode at one o’clock and there is a clock in the décor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions this same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene.

The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn’t be talking about such trivial matters. There’s a bomb underneath you and it’s about to explode!’

In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second case we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.

Take the case of Tarantino. The audience always knows the outcome of his set pieces – that the balloon is going to pop one way or the other. Additionally, he doesn’t inform his audience of the popping time. Instead of making us ask questions like what will happen, he makes us ask when will it happen (and here, Tarantino likes to stretch the audience’s patience). Furthermore, Hitchcock preferred not to make that bomb of suspense explode, for he believed that it will make the audience uncomfortable, whereas one can bet that Tarantino will relish in showing what you expect (Not only will the Hitchcockian bomb explode, but limbs will fly, heads will roll and blood will flow). In fact, in Inglourious Basterds, not only do the Basterds’ bombs explode, but the theatre burns as per Shoshanna’s plans, Landa’s “private” bomb goes off and Donowitz and Ulmer (Omar Doom) manage to machine gun down the Nazis. Talk about beating a dead horse. But, on the other hand, Tarantino also uses a lot of the master’s techniques in Inglourious Basterds as he builds the film with the aid of a series of Red Herrings and Macguffins (One could have sworn that Landa had Shoshanna when he orders the milk). I am, however, undecided about the violence that the director depicts since it doesn’t work just on a purely cartoon level as in the Kill Bill movies. Here, the violence is closer to reality and one only wonders if Tarantino would have lost anything at all if he had cut away before the moment of gore.

But Tarantino’s film, like all his other works, is at heart about cinema. His streak of film references and tributes continue as he recalls a number of films from the past that he has grown up with. He pays homage to German cinema throughout Inglourious Basterds with a large number of Dutch angles that never once feel forced or out of context. In the final chapter, which begins with images recalling Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1979, complete with the 360 degree Ballhaus shot), Tarantino takes this fetish to a whole new level. The film within the film, Nation’s Pride (actually directed by the Bear Jew), presents to us a German propaganda movie made in the style of a Soviet propaganda movie, Battleship Potemkin (1925) in particular, forming an unusual alliance between two countries that could have only been possible in cinema. This whole set-piece works on multiple levels of realities. If Goebbels is making a fiction within the fiction based on a distorted form of reality within the fiction, Tarantino too is making a fantastical fiction that relies on betraying reality. Only that Tarantino’s ethics are far from Goebbels’ (which is actually the way Hollywood tells it). It’s certainly less exploitative to heavily exaggerate a reality that never was than to mildly dress up a reality that was.

Early this year, Tarantino called Woody Allen’s widely and undeservedly trashed Anything Else (2003) one of the 20 best films made after he entered the industry. And not surprisingly, much is common between these two films despite their stylistic differences. In Anything Else, David Dobel (Woody Allen) tries to break out of the schlemiel image that the director had created for himself through the 70s and the 80s. “The issue is always fascism” he says in the film and he smashes the car windows of two thugs who bully him out of a parking space. What Woody was trying here is to undo history – both personal and collective – as he guides his younger self, Jerry Falk (Jason Biggs), who prefers “writing a biting satire in the quiet and safety of some delicatessen”, away from what he has become. Tarantino realizes that the only way to undo history, if not in reality, is through art and that art, in many ways, does not owe anything to political and historical “reality”. When Shoshanna switches from one projector to another during the screening, she is actually shifting the movie from one reality onto another – from a history we all know to a history that could have been.

[Tarantino interview]

Tarantino’s mission of trying to carve out a fantastical alternate reality isn’t really a unique one. In Godard’s magnum opus History of Cinema (1988-98), he keeps talking about two kinds of histories – the history that was and history that could have been – of cinema and that of the world. He argues that cinema could have indeed prevented large scale mishaps and put an end to Nazism once and for all. Tarantino realizes that this is nothing more than an elegiac fantasy and makes a joke out of it all telling us that the only way cinema could have brought about a political change was physically – by blowing itself up. And that the only way it could have ended Nazism was by putting them all into a large room and burning it down. In a scene that echoes the final few minutes of The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which was a film that reflected our tendency to believe that if it is cinema it must be true, Marcel (Jacky Ido) burns the pile of nitrate films to blow up the theatre as a huge heap of bullets piles up on the screen resembling it. With that, Tarantino is happy to plainly flesh out his idea of history that could (should) have been.

His attempt, like Allen’s in Anything Else, is to shatter the image that, especially popular cinema, has bestowed upon minorities of America through its incessant ethnic stereotyping – the suffering Jew, the benign black and the noble Native American. Let’s face it; it would only be a miracle if we ever see a black/Native villain in a summer blockbuster. So in a way, the revenge, led by Aldo-Shoshanna-Marcel, isn’t merely a fantastical Jewish revenge for the Holocaust, but a revenge for all the minorities and nonconformists of a cinema (industry) whose fascist producers insist upon maintaining status quo and sticking to a “final solution” (No wonder Marcel burns the movie reels). For Tarantino, who has been a popular nonconformist throughout his career in Hollywood, this is surely the sweetest revenge fantasy possible. It is his fairy tale and he is telling it the way he wants it to be. When Landa finds a single shoe in the tavern following the shoot out he must have realized he is in someone’s Cinderella story. The truth is that it’s Tarantino’s.



P.S: Christopher Landa delivers the performance of the year. His scene with Hammersmark is one to worship.


Essential Reading:

Jim Emerson’s series of articles on the movie at Scanners

David Bordwell’s take on the film at Observations on film art and Film Art

The Auteur’s Round-up of articles in their Notebook

Mark Baker, Adrian Martin, Jan Epstein and Nathan Wolski discuss the film’s wider aspects at The Monthly

Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy in conversation at The House Next Door