Why Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds remains as potent as ever, ten years after its release
“Each and every man under my command owes me One. Hundred. Nazi. Scalps.”
There’s a scene late into Inglourious Basterds, the 6th film by Quentin Tarantino, where the Third Reich gathers to watch a Goebbels propaganda film. Stolz der Nation, or Nation's Pride, stars Nazi war hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) who snipes American soldier after American soldier much in the same manner Tarantino’s own film disposes of Nazis: cartoonishly, excessively, and unapologetically.
Hitler laughs and cheers at cinematic violence the way we in the audience might. The camerawork in Nation’s Pride even resembles other parts of Inglourious Basterds; Zoller, for instance, is practically matched with Eli Roth’s Donny "The Bear Jew" Donowitz just moments later, as the two opposing heroes stand atop balconies, framed fearfully from below as they fire downward at their targets (Zoller, at American soldiers, and the American Donowitz at the Nazis). Though to suggest, as many have, that Inglourious Basterds says audiences might skirt close to fascism for enjoying such depravity is to ignore the larger context of the film — and of Tarantino’s body of work. In his films, violence has ranged from comedic (Vincent accidentally shooting Marvin in a car in Pulp Fiction) to intimate (Ordell similarly shooting Louis in a car Jackie Brown) to some tragic, mysterious combination of the two (*Spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood* — Cliff Booth maybe, possibly shooting his wife on a boat).
The Basterds, an all-Jewish regiment of revenge-seeking soldiers, have a penchant for carving Nazi swastikas into their victims’ foreheads, thus marking them for life (the ones they don’t kill, anyway). These brandings are some of the most cheer-out-loud moments in the film, just as the Reich cheers at Zoller carving a Nazi swastika into the wooden floor of his bell tower. The symbol is the same, as is the cheering of its perceived permanence, echoing through time. Though the function of each symbol is shaped entirely by context (fitting, given the Nazi swastika’s far-removed Hindu origins). Zoller’s swastika is perfect. Angular. Almost inhumane. It’s mechanical, much in the way the Nazi propaganda films of Leni Riefenstahl were mechanical in their presentation of the Reich: as a sweeping, un-fuck-with-able force in lockstep. This is the largely ahistorical way many of us are used to seeing the Nazis, given the prominence of Riefenstahl’s work as archival footage (let alone its cross-pollination into the imagery of mainstream touchstones like Star Wars).
However, the Basterds’ swastika, as carved back onto the Nazis, is bloody, imperfect, and in many ways, honest. Brad Pitt’s Aldo “The Apache” Raine hopes for the engraved swastika to be a uniform one can’t take off — as if to course-correct the lie that would be shedding the Nazi garb. Aldo “The Apache” is part Native American, also victims of white genocide, and a people who, in the highly white-washed Western genre, were presented as ruthless, inhumane savages, often through their scalpings of white characters. To turn the trope on its head, Tarantino re-frames scalping as a means of retribution against white supremacy, as the Nazis are now the justified victims of this M.O. (One film later in Django Unchained, Tarantino would mash up the most visible and revered part of Hollywood’s whitewashed history, the Cowboy, with an atrocity it continues to sweep under the rug: chattel slavery).
In Inglourious Basterds’ fiery third act, Tarantino presents an alternative cinematic view of the Nazis to the one created by Riefenstahl: as a cowering, confused mass, running helter-skelter (and running scared) as they’re put down like vermin. Exterminated, not unlike their own treatment of Jews, socialists, queer people and the disabled. With this historical revisionism, Tarantino’s Western-inspired fantasy acts as a real-world corrective of how the Nazis perhaps ought to be seen — with utmost scorn — and in what context this sort of cinematic violence can, and even should, be indulgent.
Fittingly, Tarantino’s most recent work (his fourth consecutive film featuring vengeful cruelty against white supremacists), Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features a brief appearance from Charles Manson, the real-world racist cult leader who ordered the murders of Sharon Tate and several others. Manson would famously go on to tattoo a Nazi swastika on his own forehead, much like the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds had forced upon them as a means of reprisal. In the process, Tarantino creates a continuum between the two, as if to rob Manson’s boastful real-world marking of its allure. If audiences see a forehead swastika as a mark of shame, then a real-world mark of pride in the same vein loses some of its power.
In the film, real-world Nazis like Hitler and Goebbels are presented as unruly goofs; Hitler throws temper tantrums; Goebbels squawks as he sleeps with his indifferent translator. The fictional Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, however, are presented either as charming — the dapper Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the baby-faced Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the chiseled Dieter Hellstrom (August Diehl) — or sympathetic, like new father Wilhelm (Alexander Fehling) and the fearful Private Butz (Sönke Möhring), who readily gives up his comrades’ strategy to the Basterds. Or, they’re framed as occasionally noble, like the dutiful Sgt. Rachtman (Richard Sammel), through whose unwavering eyes we see the approaching “Bear Jew” for the first time, like a monster creeping out from the shadows.
Unlike the historical Hitler and Goebbels, these appealing fictitious beings become abstract stand-ins for modern Nazism, in a manner so often divorced from real-world historical considerations (see also: “For the Alt-Right, Dapper Suits Are a Propaganda Tool”). These characters are magnetic, each in their own way, and are approached with cinematic language that suggests sympathy, or even empathy. Much of the underground bar scene, for instance, tells of Wilhelm’s naivete and his newborn son, Maximillian.
And yet, each of these initial sympathetic Nazis ends up on the receiving end of gratifying cruelty, either by the Basterds, by Nazi turncoat Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), or by Jewish genocide survivor Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) and her Black boyfriend Marcel (Jacky Ido). Each one is killed or branded in a heightened, sensational moment scored by music ripped right from the Western; the Bear Jew’s baseball bat beatdown is set to Ennio Morricone’s music from spaghetti revenge-Western La resa dei conti. (It’s worth noting that the only character who shows a brief glimmer of sympathy for a Nazi on-screen, Shosanna, immediately suffers at the hands of that very same Nazi, when she’s shot by Fredrick Zoller as she turns to check on him)
Ten years on, amidst the west’s resurgent far right ethno-nationalism (often punctuated by Nazi symbols), Inglourious Basterds remains as potent as ever. History as it’s taught in schools, including here in India, often reduces Nazism to a fixed point in time — the beginning of World War II and the final form of the Jewish death camps — thus abstractifying it, and divorcing it from its long-term, real world impetus. This often results in contemporary wielders of fascist ideology being allowed platforms for debate so long as they don’t explicitly call for genocide. The framing of these debates even re-frames anti-Nazi action as the equivalent of Nazi violence (rather than a necessary preventative or corrective). Inglourious Basterds however, throws off these shackles of faux civility and both-sides-ism. It revels in its brutality against the Nazis, tapping in to the pure and vengeful impulse of those on the receiving end of fascist violence in the first place.
Inglourious Basterds is a film that deals with familiar violence within different, often related frames of reference. It opens with the merciless shooting of Jewish refugees by Nazis towering above them. It climaxes while turning that exact physical dynamic on its head at Shosanna’s theatre, as the sole survivor of the initial massacre bellows “This is the face of Jewish vengeance!” — her ghostly image is projected onto smoke and hellfire while the Nazis burn.
In the last decade of cinema, few moments have felt as electrifying.
Shosanna never meets the Basterds, despite them teaming up to kill Hitler in the exact same moment. Though Shosanna and the Basterds were never real, nor was their slaying of one of history’s greatest monsters, so their “meeting” isn’t a logistical matter. It’s a spiritual one, and one that clicks right into place at what feels like the right moment. In his revisionism, Tarantino uses Shosanna and the Basterds to weave together a unique tapestry, built on the abstract depiction of “Jewish vengeance” against Hitler, a dream made manifest at the movies. It builds like music — like opera — pushing you closer towards Nazi characters like Landa and Zoller, before allowing your own id the opportunity to have its most basic desires quenched amidst clamorous reverie.
It robs Hitler the dignity of death on his own terms, turning him instead into a bullet-ridden corpse writhing on the floor. It robs Riefenstahl’s cinematic Nazi of its formidable aesthetic, replacing it instead with a shot of adrenaline to the heart, where brightly-lit Nazi blood spatters across the screen. Where bloodlust isn’t destruction and genocide, but catharsis.
“Nazi ain't got no humanity. They're the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin', mass murderin' maniac, and they need to be dee-stroyed.”
Updated Date: Aug 30, 2019 16:29:54 IST