The cinema of Quentin Tarantino has always been about the cinema, or at least our collective memories of the cinema. As I’ve mentioned before in this series of essays, Vincent Vega’s observation in Pulp Fiction that Jack Rabbit Slim’s feels like a wax museum with a pulse has (for better or for worse) become the defining epigram for QT’s filmography, populated as it is by riffs on old filmic archetypes, characters who (much like Philip Marlowe in Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye) seem to have awoken from a deep slumber into the present day. It’s all very much in keeping with the dominance of post-modernism in this increasingly post-empire culture; even with their anachronistic dress, attitudes, and verbal patter, these characters still seem to fit comfortably into a modern milieu that has fully embraced nostalgic recycling. So the diamond thieves of Reservoir Dogs, the down-on-his-luck pugilist of Pulp Fiction, the drug-smuggling stewardess of a marginal airline of Jackie Brown…all of them are believable as denizens of the modern world, even as they also seem to be simultaneously living decades before. When you stop and really think about it, the effect is as discombobulating as it is thrilling, much like the bemused reaction Vincent has to the waiters and waitresses he sees on that fateful date with Mia Wallace.
That contemporary setting provides the common thread between Tarantino’s first five films, so his decision to abandon it in favor of a period piece for his sixth directorial outing raised the notion that he was indulging in his nostalgia fetish to a deleterious effect. He’d long spoken of his desire to craft a men on a mission film in the vein of The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven, and in the wake of Grindhouse’s failure the concept of a WWII pic felt like a retreat into much safer territory. But even though Inglourious Basterds chronicles the fictitious closing days of that epic conflict, its chief concerns transcend nostalgia, while also establishing this film as perhaps the most cinema-obsessed in his oeuvre.
The notion of the performative drive has coursed through all of Tarantino’s works. His choice of the spartan black suits worn by the criminals in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction was derived from a desire to give them their own suits of armor. Before entering Brett’s apartment, Jules tells Vincent that it’s time to get into character, and he later must come to terms with the character that he’s been playing for Marsellus Wallace for so long (that of The Tyranny of Evil Men.) Jackie Brown can only deliver herself from harm’s way by simultaneously playing multiple characters in her dealings with the feds, the police, and Ordell Robbie. And who is The Bride but a woman trained to play the part of the killer, who longs to change roles as a housewife (Bill’s Superman/Clark Kent commentary ends up serving as a sly meta-commentary on the actor getting lost in the role.)
Inglourious Basterds takes this focus on performance even further, presenting a cast of characters whose lives are either dictated by or preoccupied with playing roles. Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent) survives the Nazi occupation of France only by playing the part of the non-Jewish cinema proprietor Emmanuelle Mimieux. Daniel Bruhl’s Frederick Zoller’s war heroism gains him celebrity status in the Nazi party, but he only finds true validation in the larger than life depiction of these heroics in the Goebbels propaganda film Nation’s Pride. The frustration he displays when Shoshanna continually rebukes his romantic advances is about more than just a wounded male ego: after all, he’s now a movie star! As Archie Hicox, Michael Fassbender’s main role in the film involves an undercover operation in a bar gone wrong, one that requires the assistance of Diane Kruger’s Bridget von Hammersmark (herself a private woman playing a public celebrity who’s hiding her role as an Allied Forces asset.) Even Adolph Hitler gets in on the action: he’s first depicted wearing a regal cape, posing for a self-aggrandizingly regal oil portrait. And Shoshanna’s plot to burn down her cinema is centered around the gathered Nazi throng witnessing her as a giant cinematic face prophesying their doom, a role that (in a neat analogy for the cinema’s power to bestow immortality on its denizens through their imagistic imprint) transcends her own life, the flickering image of her laughter living on in the fire’s smoke as her physical self lies dead in the projection booth.
Beyond the active performances, there’s the matter of the myth and legend that is built up around characters, and the effect it has on their existence. The hirsute Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth) is bestowed with the moniker of “The Bear Jew” after he begins murdering Nazis with a baseball bat, and Hitler is so threatened by the potent optics of this nickname that he forbids his troops from using it. Similarly, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is known as “The Apache” based on his preference for scalping the German soldiers he hunts. On a larger level, the entire concept of the Basterds, a troupe of Jewish soldiers (and the Nazi turncoat Hugo Stiglitz) bent on revenge against their anti-Semitic oppressors, smacks of a professional wrestling gimmick. But these men also know the power of myth-building. And after all, isn’t war itself the ultimate act of performance, as soldiers are trained to ignore one of the primary human taboos (killing) to play a part that they are then expected to abandon after their tour of duty (which, as we now know, can be daunting to pull off.)
At the center of the mythology machine is the one character who most fully embraces his assigned persona: “The Jew Hunter” Colonel Hans Landa, ace detective for the Third Reich and perhaps the most fully-realized of the master storytellers that populate Tarantino’s filmic world. Before winning the part of Landa, Christoph Waltz was a semi-obscure Austrian television actor, but he owns the screen from his first moments like no Tarantino actor since Samuel L. Jackson. Like William H. Macy with David Mamet before him, Jackson has always been the perfect vessel for Tarantino’s hyper-stylized dialogue, imbuing it with the braggadocious swagger and emotional power that give his roles equal parts weight and bombast. What Waltz brings to QT’s dialogue is an aesthete’s pleasure, a refined sense of enjoyment at the playful manipulation of words and language. As he interrogates Perrier LaPadite in the film’s famous opening scene, the audience knows that he’s fully aware of Shoshanna’s family hiding on the premises. But Landa so enjoys playing the role of the villain, and is so in love with the overwhelming power that language can have over another person that he extends the tension far beyond LaPadite’s breaking point. It’s a tactic that he repeats throughout the film, first with Shoshanna in a French restaurant, and ultimately with Bridget on the night of the Nation’s Pride premiere. His serpentine charms evoke both pleasure and terror in the audience, so when he finally snaps and strangles Bridget to death it’s a somewhat shocking moment of aggression for a man seemingly defined by his commitment to being the suave good cop. When he eventually makes the deal with Aldo which allows the Basterds’ plot to reach its culmination, we finally understand that the performative drive is what defines him entirely. His view of his role in the war is that of an actor for hire, and he only views his absolution by the Allies and anointment as an undercover war hero as yet another part to play.
Landa hyper-literate theatricality makes him such a fascinating, indelible character, so much so that the overall tone and structure of the film seems to spring forth from his subconscious. By this point, a Tarantino film was defined by long passages of dialogue (or monologue), punctuated by scenes of bloody action; Kill Bill and Death Proof almost reward the audience members not enthralled by conversation with their bang ‘em up tableaus. Basterds has its share of visceral thrills, but this is very much a film centered around several long sequences that play out as verbal confrontations between characters, tests of will and authenticity of character. Working with DP Robert Richardson again, Tarantino eschews some of the flashier dynamics of Kill Bill in favor of long takes and a deliberate shot-countershot structure that is as powerful as it is basic. Take that opening scene again. Most of it boils down to Landa and LaPadite exchanging information in a shot sequence that adheres to an almost invisible editing tempo, one that lulls the audience into Landa’s cool cadence. Which makes the grace notes of the scene (Landa one upping LaPadite’s modest pipe with his own oversized Calabash, his uncomfortably long slug of milk, the impeccable neatness he displays when laying out his ink bottle and notebook) all the more remarkable and effective. When Landa lowers the boom on his captive, it’s expressed in a single close-up of Waltz’s face, his ingratiating smile melting into a stone-cold glare. This is Tarantino returning to the dynamic he established in Pulp Fiction, but played in an even straighter fashion.
Viewing Inglourious Basterds today, I’m still impressed by how fluidly it plays. In its initial release, its old-fashioned structure seemed both refreshing and radical. Here was a major release film that actually expected its audience to follow along, to be smart enough to make the many connections it posited, and to be patient enough to allow the action to develop to its satisfactory conclusion. Six years on, in a culture beset by fragmented attention spans and rapid-fire plotting, it’s a singular delight to watch such an exercise. Contrary to the previous critical opprobrium, this isn’t Tarantino trying to deal in hipness. Rather, it’s a recommittal to the foundation of what has always made his films rewarding: the sense of an expertly told, multi-faceted story.
The critical adulation and mass acceptance that this film received would relaunch QT’s career on several levels, re-establishing him in full as a Hollywood player. But it would also mark the end of one of his key collaborations. A year after Basterds’ release, his longtime editor/feminine sounding board/surrogate mother figure Sally Menke was found dead of apparent heat stroke in the Hollywood Hills. The editor has always been one of the most important, yet unheralded positions on a film crew (ask any actor worth their salt about how much they value an editor’s role in shaping their performance), so in her time Menke never received the widespread acclaim that her pupil did. But her work on Tarantino’s films was as much a part of their fabric as his dense, stylized scripts. I could go on lauding her here, but I’ll leave those duties to the great Jim Emerson, whose 2010 video essay tribute to her tells the tale in a much more learned and concise fashion.
Tarantino’s revulsion to political correctness has earned him the wrath of many commentators over the course of his career. His battles with Spike Lee over his seeming appropriation of black culture and casual usage of racial epithets in his scripts are legendary (and probably worthy of an essay unto themselves.) Inglourious Basterds’ rewrite of the Nazi-Jew dynamic, essentially ignoring the Holocaust and allowing two very Jewish soldiers to murder Hitler and his cabinet while a very Jewish woman incinerates a theater full of Nazi bigwigs, drew some cries of protest from critics who accused him of whitewashing history in the name of a jaunty tale. It’s an interesting and complex topic to dig into, but it also assumes a certain set of pre-ordained narrative beats that must be addressed in any depiction of the horrors of the Nazis. But if this dynamic seemed controversial, it was nothing compared to the period epic that Tarantino would unleash on audiences some three years later, one that ripped open the scabs of a shame and horror of a distinctly domestic nature.