Glourious Homage: Quentin Tarantino’s Love Letter to Cinema
By Avi Kotzer
to the sound of the enhanced and extended release of the movie soundtrack of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly…
An abridged version of this piece appears in Sybil’s Garage No. 7.
EVER SINCE HIS directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino has been both praised and condemned for his referential filmmaking. With Inglourious Basterds, however, Tarantino has crafted his ultimate tribute, paying respect not just to iconic movies, historic pictures, and cult classics, but also honoring cinema itself.
The movie’s premise of personal and collective Jewish revenge against the Nazis during World War II, unfolds in a parallel universe — and Tarantino typically operates in degrees of surrogate worlds — as an episodic tale in which two sets of characters alternate appearances and ultimately converge in a final, bloody scene. However, the relatively straightforward plot is a thin veil that barely cloaks Basterds’ real meaning: film is so powerful that it can out-muscle history itself, amending the most horrifying event of the 20th century.
Inglourious Basterds takes its name from The Inglorious Bastards, a 1978 film directed by Enzo G. Castellari and originally titled Quel maledetto treno blindato (literally: That Damned Armored Train). This 70s macaroni-combat offshoot of World War II movies (tag-line: “Whatever the Dirty Dozen did, they do it dirtier”), which starred Bo Svenson and Fred Williamson, was released under several names and versions, including a blaxploitation rendering, G.I. Bro (tag-line: “If you’re a kraut, he’ll take you out!”), re-cut to make it seem as though Williamson was the lead character. The plot points and storylines of Basterds and Bastards have few similarities, although one of the main themes, “men on a mission,” runs as a common thread through both. Tarantino has stated that after he saw Castellari’s picture on network TV in the 1980s and subsequently introduced it to his friends, the term “Inglorious Bastards” became an inside reference to any such “guys on a mission” film.
Tarantino has resisted giving any logical explanations for the typos in the title of his movie, except to say they were a “Basquiat-esque” touch. The misspellings also allow the director to take ownership of the phrase and, in effect, create his own film brand.
Tarantino’s original idea for the movie was to meld spaghetti westerns and World War II films, but eventually the concept morphed into something else, a mixture of revenge fantasy and Holocaust neo-revisionism combined with pure cinematic tension, the result of prolonged dialogue sequences interspersed with graphic carnage. In many ways, Inglourious Basterds is the typical Tarantino film, containing all of his usual touches: lengthy, meandering conversations permeated with explicit violence and gore, and references to both obscure cult movies and famous films. But while his previous pictures have featured genre characters that run the gamut from the everyday Joe to the badass girl, Basterds’ protagonists are reflections of cinema itself, from the locations (France, a movie theater) to the people (actors, producers, critics, screeners) and even to the inanimate objects (cameras, projectors, nitrate film).
With the exception of three brief scenes, the entire story takes place in France, an uncommon exclusive setting for World War II films, which usually occur in Germany, Poland, or other Eastern European countries. But France is a cinematic mainstay: it’s considered by many to be the birthplace of movies. After all, it was on December 28, 1895, in the basement of the Salon Indien du Gran Café of Paris, that the Lumière brothers held the first-ever paid public screening of a movie using their patented cinematograph, a clever device that both recorded and projected film. And it is France that hosts one of the world’s oldest and most famous film festivals, that of Cannes, which Tarantino chose as the location for Basterds’ first screening.
Two sides face off in Basterds: one symbolizes the origins of film, its first creators and promulgators, those who see movies as art as well as entertainment; the other represents the usurpation of motion pictures by fascists, those who see movies as a tool to promote hatred and control people. The first faction is personified by two distinct types of filmmakers. Shosanna Dreyfus represents autonomous civil resistance and as such stands for independent creators, those cinema auteurs (she is French, after all), while Aldo Raine’s unit represents Hollywood and the big film industry (his soldiers are Jewish). The second faction is embodied primarily by the Nazis and, to a lesser extent, by the Soviets (Nation’s Pride, the film screened in the final scene of Basterds, has several references to Sergei Eisenstein’s Bolshevik propaganda film Battleship Potemkin.) And it is here that Tarantino establishes his overarching subtext: this is a battle for the soul of cinema. Within the ever-expanding, scattered war that is taking over the world there is a more centered, more focused conflict: movies must be rescued from the clutches of totalitarianism. Fittingly enough, the resolution of this smaller clash will bring about the end of the greater war.
The story is told in linear form and, aside from a brief flashback here or there, in chronological order, an unusual trait for this director. The movie is divided into five chapters and follows the typical structure of a “men on a mission” film: two sets of characters and their motivations are introduced (Chapters 1and 2), they recruit team members and move forward (Chapters 3 and 4), and ultimately face off with the enemy in a final showdown (Chapter 5).
Duel out of the sun
Chapter One in Basterds is titled “Once Upon a Time… In Nazi-Occupied France,” an obvious reference to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, not only in name but also in deed. The opening scenes of both movies end in a massacre of an entire family, although the villains in each of the films couldn’t be more different. Once Upon’s enforcer, Frank (Henry Fonda) is a man who shoots first and speaks later, barely uttering an entire sentence. Meanwhile, Colonel Hans Landa (a brilliant Christoph Waltz) of Basterds is the kind of person who has others do his dirty work for him, but not before he has talked your ears off.
“Once Upon a Time…” also serves to cue the viewers that they are about to see a fairy tale, not a true story. And this has been a sore point among audiences worldwide. Many viewers complained about the unrealistic path the plot eventually takes, failing to understand that Tarantino never intended to create an authentic World War II film.
The opening shot displays a rolling, green hill with a small farmhouse, and a man who is repetitively striking an axe against a tree stump. Next to him a young woman hangs the laundry out to dry. A subtitle makes it clear that it is 1941. An early version of the script stated that the man “…brings an axe up and down on a tree stump, blemishing his property. However, simply by sight, you’d never know if he’s been beating at this stump for the last year, or just started today.” One may gather from the subsequent events that, in fact, the man has been hacking for a year — the amount of time France has been occupied — at a stump that is blemishing his property in the same way that the Nazi presence is blemishing his country.
The young woman hears the distant rumbling of vehicles and sounds the call of alarm with a simple “Papa!” That one word is enough to draw the attention of two more girls, who come out of the house but are immediately ordered back in by the man. He also orders his other daughter back in with her sisters, but not before requesting that she first draw some water for him from the pump. As the girl fills a basin, the man sits by the tree stump and observes the incoming vehicles meandering up the road towards him. In fact, he seems to be watching a movie, as the car and pair of motorcycles are neatly framed within the poles of the clothesline. With heavy resignation he rises and washes his face and neck. As we will later find out, he is preemptively washing away the sin he is about to commit.
The vehicles arrive and an SS-uniformed man exits from the back of the car. He approaches the Frenchman and, in fluent French, asks if he is on the property of Pierre LaPadite. When the Frenchman says that he is, in fact, LaPadite, the German introduces himself as Colonel Hans Landa, and asks if he may enter LaPadite’s home so that “we may have a discussion.” Landa is all smiles and politeness, but from the moment he shakes LaPadite’s hand, he barely lets go of the man, grabbing his arm as he directs him towards the house. When they enter, viewers are treated to yet another “movie screen”: LaPadite’s family is watching Landa’s entourage outside through the small frame of an open window. This tiny screen will reappear more than once, as though the family were being treated to their own, cruel reality show. LaPadite (Denis Menochet) introduces his daughters and offers Landa some wine. The German refuses, asking instead for a glass of milk, which he finishes in one prolonged swallow. After complimenting the farmer and his cows for the beverage, he asks the father to send his daughters out of the house. Again, a sly grin never leaves Landa’s expressive face, and he is well mannered to a fault, but tension is created by his excessive mannerisms and the fact that he is constantly touching and staring at the young women in the room.
When the men are finally alone, Landa requests permission from the owner of the house to switch to English. The colonel is an analytical and clinical man, and his motives are sinister. LaPadite must be guessing as to why the colonel wants to continue in English, but if he does, he also manages to keep a stoic demeanor.
Monsieur LaPadite, while I’m very familiar with you and your family, I have no way of knowing if you are familiar with who I am. Are you aware of my existence?
Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out in France?
Please, tell me what you’ve heard.
I’ve heard that the Führer has put you in charge of rounding up the Jews left in France who are either hiding or passing for Gentile.
Instead of explaining to LaPadite why he’s there, Landa compels the farmer to do so himself, and thus forces the audience to wonder whether LaPadite and his family are Jewish, or if they’re hiding someone who is. There is no third choice, no other reason for this visit, and LaPadite knew this from the moment he saw the vehicles coming up the road; now the viewers do, too. In this way Tarantino brings them into the room for the showdown. In effect, Landa and LaPadite are engaged in a duel, but unlike the gunfights in westerns, the two men are not standing under the blazing sun in a desert wasteland; they are sitting inside a small cottage on the hills of cow country. And instead of opposing each other with revolvers, they are using words and emotions. There is no six-shooter waiting to be drawn out by a gunman, but rather a piece of information that Pierre LaPadite needs to keep inside his head. LaPadite finds himself in a situation that is the polar opposite of a gunfight in the Old West; here he can win only if he manages to keep his weapon holstered.
Each man carefully measures every word and movement. When the farmer protests that his house was already searched for hidden Jews, Landa counters by reassuring him that his presence is a mere “reduplication of efforts… a complete waste of time.” Yet he proceeds to extract as many details as he can about the one Jewish family that remains unaccounted for in the area, the Dreyfuses. (The name Dreyfus brings to mind the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal at the turn of the 20th century that featured the betrayal of a Jewish military officer by his own friends and colleagues.) Meanwhile, and perhaps to calm his nerves, LaPadite has taken to filling and smoking his pipe. Landa asks what he has heard about the Dreyfuses, and when Perrier says “Only rumors,” Landa responds: “I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false are often revealing.” A very apt statement for a member of the Nazi Party, as a big part of its political success in the 1930s was based upon the creation of endless rumors and lies against the Jews.
When Landa asks LaPadite to recite the names and ages of the members of the Jewish family, the farmer takes his time, struggling to remember. However, because the Dreyfuses consist of a father, mother, uncle, one son, and one daughter, it becomes clear that the LaPadites and the Dreyfuses are not one and the same, which leads to the conclusion that, if the farmer’s family is not passing itself as Jews, it must be hiding them. At precisely this instant Tarantino confirms the viewers’ thoughts by showing them the view beneath the floorboards, where a terrified family as they await their fate. Colonel Landa requests another glass of milk before he leaves, an apparent victory for LaPadite. But in reality he is merely setting up the farmer for round two.
The second round begins exactly as the first, with a glass of milk. It will, in fact, be almost a mirror of round one, only with a different victor. Landa talks about the “Jew Hunter” nickname bestowed upon him by the French and then proceeds to pontificate about the Jews and Germans, comparing the former to rats and the latter to hawks (who naturally prey on rats). He does not offer an animal comparison for the French, forcing LaPadite to choose sides.
If a rat were to walk in here right now, as I’m talking, would you greet it with a saucer of your delicious milk?
I didn’t think so. You don’t like them. You don’t really know why you don’t like them. All you know is you find them repulsive.
While the colonel continues talking, the farmer keeps smoking his corncob pipe. And then Landa makes his crushing move: he pulls out a pipe of his own. But the German’s pipe is a stage prop, a huge calabash like the ones smoked by Sherlock Holmes in the early Hollywood movies. Not only is Landa saying “my gun is bigger than yours,” he is stating “I am a true detective, sir, and you cannot fool me.” Tarantino had originally thought of the pipe as part of Landa’s character, something he would pull out at different times in the movie, when he was thinking or elaborating on a point. But Christoph Waltz, who won a Best Supporting Actor Award for the role of Landa, convinced the director that this should be the only instance in the film in which the colonel used his pipe. Pure theater. LaPadite’s reaction is clear: he stares incredulously at the monstrosity dangling from Landa’s lip as he lowers his own pipe beneath the table in defeat. Landa realizes this, and he offers the Frenchman a way out. Although regulations state he must conduct a search, he will not do so if LaPadite reveals anything that would make such a search unnecessary.
So far, Landa’s visit has lasted about fourteen minutes (both in real time and movie time), fourteen minutes throughout which Tarantino has continuously stretched a rubber band of pure tension through brilliant, uninterrupted dialogue. And now he brings in absolute silence for an interminable ten seconds, during which viewers see LaPadite break down in front of their eyes. The audience itself is crying the Frenchman’s tear as it rolls down his cheek while he confesses that he is indeed hiding Jews under the floorboards of his house, and then uses his pipe to point out their location to the SS Colonel. And now it’s revealed why Landa has been speaking English: the Dreyfuses do not speak or understand the language. Up until now the entire conversation has taken place in absence of any musical score whatsoever. But as Landa switches back to French and orders LaPadite to play along with his charade of leaving, the scene fills up with dramatic background notes that rise and rise, and finally swirl into a maelstrom as Landa’s soldiers walk in and shoot through the floorboards. Uncharacteristically, Tarantino does not show us one of the gory massacres we have come to expect from him. Instead, all we see are the bursts of wood chips and LaPadite recoiling in horror, covering his face and ears.
Miraculously, one of the members of the family, Shosanna, not only survives the massacre but also manages to escape from the house and run away. As she does, she is framed by yet another miniature movie screen, the doorway of the house viewed from the inside (perhaps a visual reference to John Ford’s The Searchers). Landa calmly walks out the entrance and points his pistol at her. But he does not fire, perhaps because by then she is too far away, or perhaps because he senses they will meet again. Instead, he yells, “Au revoir, Shosanna!” as she disappears into the woods.
If Chapter One is Tarantino’s homage to spaghetti westerns, then Chapter Two, eponymously titled “Inglourious Basterds,” is his tribute to “men on a mission” movies. It opens with Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, reviewing a group of Jewish-American soldiers who will be dropped deep into French territory. As he paces back and forth, he describes their assignment.
And once we’re in enemy territory, as a bushwackin’ guerrilla army, we’re gonna be doin’ one thing, and one thing only: killin’ Nazis. … Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be destroyed. That’s why any and every sum-bitch we find wearin’ a Nazi uniform, they’re gonna die.
Raine stops pacing for a moment, and we can clearly see a scar around his neck, peeking out of his uniform. It seems to be a rope burn, and the script notes “As if once upon a time, he survived a lynching. The scar will never once be mentioned.” The name Aldo Raine is both a reference to Aldo Ray, the World War II veteran turned actor (The Green Berets, The Incredible Shrinking Man) and to Lt. Charles Rane, the protagonist of Rolling Thunder, a “men on a mission” movie. And the scar brings to memory Clint Eastwood’s character Jed Cooper in the movie Hang ‘Em High; Cooper survives a lynching, becomes a U.S. Marshall, and tracks down the men who tried to hang him.
Now, I’m the direct descendant of the mountain man Jim Bridger. That means I got a little Injun in me. And our battle plan will be that of an Apache resistance.
Towards the end of the movie it is also revealed that the lieutenant hails from Tennessee, the birth state of Tarantino himself. It’s obvious that Aldo is the alter ego of Quentin, who has Cherokee blood running through his veins. The director has decided to insert himself in the movie and join the fight. Tarantino is quoted in an interview as saying “If you’re dealing with people like the Nazis … well, you either eat the wolf or the wolf eats you. You know? That’s where I would be coming from in a situation like that….” And that’s precisely where Raine is coming from. The lieutenant’s thinking, according to the director, is: “I want Jewish soldiers in here, because I want it to be a holy war. I want them to bring what a gentile wouldn’t … the gentiles have the luxury of being soldiers. The Jewish-American soldiers have the duty of being warriors.”
At this point the audience gets a glimpse of the men he will be leading. Seven of them stand at attention in a single row, looking like anything but soldiers. In fact, one could almost say they are flesh and blood incarnations of some of the classic anti-Semitic drawings and cartoons that have appeared for hundreds of years in books and newspapers. It’s as though Tarantino is throwing them back into the face of Nazism, which is about to find out exactly what these caricatures can do. The eighth man stands apart from his tribal brothers. He has a completely different appearance. Taller, stronger, with a glint of unbridled cruelty in his eyes, he offers a sly smile when Raine speaks of their murderous mission. The lieutenant had begun his motivational speech with references to Nazis, but he has moved on to talk about Germans in general.
We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty, they will know who we are … And the German will be sickened by us. And the German will talk about us. And the German will fear us. And when the Germans close their eyes at night, and their subconscious tortures them for the evil they’ve done, it will be with thoughts of us, that it tortures them with.
Although the Basterds will be killing only those who are soldiers of the Party, he wants all German to tremble when they hear the stories about the band of Jews who are exacting revenge for all of their murdered brethren across Europe. As Raine explains, they will literally be collecting a pound of flesh.
When you join my command, you take on debit. A debit you owe me, personally. Every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps. And I want my scalps. And all y’all will git me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis, or you will die trying.
The film cuts forward in time to a conference room where Adolph Hitler (Martin Wuttke) is complaining about Raine’s unit.
How much more of these Jew swine must I endure? They butcher my men like they were flies! Do you know the latest rumor they’ve conjured up in their fear-induced delirium? The one that beats my boys with a bat. The one they call “The Bear Jew…” is a golem.
Tarantino has tapped into one of the oldest Jewish urban legends, that of the mythical being brought to life from inanimate matter. The most famous of the golem stories revolves around a rabbi in Prague, who in the late 16th century created a golem to protect the Jews from the pogroms The golem myth was known throughout Europe, and the Nazis had a particular fascination with the creature.
Hitler’s subordinates assure him the Bear Jew is not a golem, and he challenges them to prove this by capturing him and the entire Jewish squad. He also gives an order forbidding soldiers to call this man “The Bear Jew.” He then asks to see Private Butz (Sönke Möhring), the only surviving soldier of a recent ambush by The Basterds.
Butz narrates the story in a flashback. This time Tarantino spares the audience no gore, showing a close-up shot of a knife slicing through the hairline of a dead German soldier. The Basterds are working hard to fulfill their quota of scalps. Lt. Raine makes his appearance and asks to speak with Sergeant Rachtmann, the leader of the group (it is here that we see a shot of the words “Inglourious Basterds” etched on the butt of Raine’s rifle, the exact same etching that appears in the opening titles). The lieutenant introduces some of men, including a new member of the unit, Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger). Here we get a flashback within a flashback, almost in comic-book form, as a narrator (Samuel Jackson in a cameo voice-over) explains how The Basterds recruited Stiglitz, a semi-psychopathic German soldier who had been arrested for killing thirteen Gestapo officers.
Raine asks Sgt. Rachtmann to reveal details about a second German squad and, when he refuses, the lieutenant brings out Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), the enigmatic eighth soldier in his unit, the one known as the “Bear Jew.” Donowitz comes out in a tank top and slacks held up by suspenders, all broad shoulders and bulging biceps. His hairy forearms ripple as he tightens the grip on his bat. Multiple dog tags dangle from his neck, trophies of the Germans he has killed. He is the only one in the group who could physically match up with Hugo Stiglitz himself, or any German soldier, for that matter. The origins of his nickname are clear. The Bear Jew clubs Sgt. Rachtmann to death with his bat, prompting one of the other soldiers to try to escape. The soldier is shot, leaving only Butz, who gives The Basterds the information they need.
Raine explains to Butz that he cannot tell his superiors about his treason.
But they’re gonna wanna know, why you so special, we let you live? So tell ’em, we let ya live, so you could spread the word through the ranks, what’s gonna happen to every Nazi we find.
Flashing to the present, Hitler panics. He orders Butz “not to tell anybody anything.” His story will simply be that his unit was ambushed and he managed to escape. Then he asks Butz if he was marked like the others.
Switching again to the flashback, the secret of The Basterds’ notoriety is revealed.
When you get home, whatcha gonna do? … Are you going to take off your uniform?
Not only shall I remove it, but I intend to burn it!
Yeah, that’s what we thought. We don’t like that. See, we like our Nazis in uniforms. That way, you can spot ‘em, just like that. But you take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you’s a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us. So I’m gonna give ya a little somethin’ you can’t take off.
As Raine pulls out his own knife and points it at Butz, the movie cuts again to Hitler’s conference room, where the soldier removes his cap to reveal on his forehead a scar in the shape of a swastika. And so it becomes clear how the rumors about The Basterds have spread far and wide. Butz is one of many living, walking soldiers who carry the message with them everywhere they go.
Here Tarantino is touching on two themes simultaneously. First, he creates a modern-day version of the Cain and Abel story. In the Biblical account, after Cain kills Abel, God punishes him and also gives him a mark as a warning for other people not to harm Cain (so the punishment can be carried out to its fullest extent). In Basterds, Raine carves a swastika on Butz as a warning to other Nazis about what awaits them. In essence, Raine is doing the work of God, underscoring His “absence” during the period in which the Holocaust occurred, a controversial theological thesis that is still being debated today. Tarantino also provides poetic retribution for the prisoners of Auschwitz, the most notorious concentration camp of the war. Those who managed to survive it had to live out their existence with numerical tattoos on their arms, a constant reminder of the horrors they had endured. With the swastika scar, the Nazi soldiers will spend their years being reminded of their own evil every time they look in the mirror. By intellectualizing this part of the revenge fantasy, Tarantino goes beyond the simple “blood and guts” payback that many film critics have bemoaned in Basterds.
In the original script there was an extensive back-story about the Bear Jew, but this never made it to the movie, and the absence of a past helps define Donowitz as a golem. He is the all-American golem, too, one who uses a Louisville Slugger (from the quintessential American game, baseball) to deal with his opponents. Tarantino has been criticized for casting Eli Roth as Donnie Donowitz, and the actor’s portrayal does seem one-dimensional most of the time, but that only furthers the idea of a brainless superhero created with one purpose in mind.
Hollywood vs. Hitler
Chapter Three begins with a camera panning down the outside of a movie theater named Le Gamaar. We are informed by subtitles that it is June of 1944. A young lady climbs up a ladder and changes the letters on the marquee. The movie that has just ended its run is The White Hell of Piz Palü, and a German billboard for this film is perched above her. As the young lady throws down a huge N, we are informed through another title that she is, in fact, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), and that four years have passed since her family’s massacre (an error, since in reality is has been three years).
Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a young German soldier approaches the theater and asks what movie will be shown the next day. He chats with Shosanna, attempting flattery by expressing his preference of the French silent film pioneer Max Linder over Charlie Chaplin. Although she appears reticent in engaging the man, Shosanna does inform him that she is the owner of the theater, an inheritance from her aunt.
I love the Riefenstahl mountain films, especially Piz Palü. It’s nice to see a French girl who’s an admirer of Riefenstahl.
“Admire” would not really be the word I would use to describe my feelings towards Fräulein Riefenstahl.
But you do admire the director, Pabst, don’t you? That’s why you included his name on the marquee, when you didn’t have to.
I’m French. We respect directors in our country.
There are a few subtexts and references here. Leni Riefenstahl, who played the female lead in Piz Palü, is one of the most well-known female directors of the 20th century. Her most famous movie, Triumph of the Will, was a propaganda film about the 1934 Nuremberg Rally. The film, commissioned by Hitler himself, served to promote the Nazi party, the idea of Hitler as a deity, and the return of Germany to its rightful role as a dominant power in Europe. G.W. Pabst, despite having directed two movies for the Nazi party, was a beloved figure who made movies that generally dealt with the plight of women.
Also, Shosanna’s line about respecting directors is possibly a barb aimed at Hollywood. Tarantino seems to be implying that the French hold in much higher esteem the auteurs (Tarantino himself, or Woody Allen, both iconic figures in France), while Americans prefer their blockbuster-directing counterparts. Or maybe he is referring to the film critics who never quite seem to “get” his graphic depictions of violence. Furthermore, although by 1944 Riefenstahl was more than celebrated as a director, when Shosanna says: “‘Admire’ would not be the adjective I would use to describe my feelings towards Fraulein Riefenstahl,” it is clear that she considers her more an instrument of the Nazi propaganda machine than a real movie director. As for the film itself, Piz Palü will prove to be a key plot point later on.
When Zoller asks Shosanna for her name, it’s revealed that she has changed it to Emmanuelle Mimieux; her new first name is Hebrew for “God is with us,” very appropriate for someone about to wage cinematic jihad against the Nazis.
Zoller reencounters Shosanna at a café and tries to engage her again. Their conversation is interrupted by a couple of military officers who fawn over Zoller, even asking for his autograph. We find out Zoller is a war hero turned movie star. Joseph Goebbels decided to turn his exploits into a movie called Nation’s Pride, and Zoller has played himself in it. Although the movie has not yet premiered, Shosanna is aware of it (a comment by Tarantino that movie buzz is never a victim of war), and she leaves the café disgusted, much to Zoller’s surprise.
Later, Shosanna is setting up the marquee for the movie Le Corbeau, by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Although anti-fascist in nature, the film was banned after France’s liberation, and its director was blacklisted for several years. Here Tarantino restores him to his proper stature among the French, turning him once again into a respected director, one who is fighting the Nazis with his movies, just as Tarantino is.
Shosanna is taken by a Gestapo officer to a restaurant where Zoller is eating with Josef Goebbels himself. Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) is introduced as the Minister of Propaganda, “leader of the entire German film industry.” Tarantino tags Goebbels not as the number-two man in Hitler’s Third Reich, but rather as a film producer. And so the cinematic battle lines are drawn: it’s the Nazis against the world yet again, and each side is beginning to recruit soldiers. Hitler has a producer and an actor; French cinema has the movie theater owner and the theater itself.
Through his translator/lover, Goebbels explains that Zoller has been trying to convince him to change venues for the premiere of Nation’s Pride and hold it at Shosanna’s movie theater. After some discussion, Goebbels agrees to see a movie that night in order to judge if Le Gamaar is up to par for a “German night” at the movies. At that very moment, Hans Landa reappears, almost out of nowhere. As head of security for the premiere event, he insists on vetting “Mademoiselle Mimieux.” While Landa, Zoller and Goebbels have a brief discussion, the camera slowly closes in on Shosanna. For an excruciating full minute we are forced to watch her squirm in her seat; she tries to decipher the German conversation while simultaneously coming up with a strategy for dealing with Landa.
The sit-down between Landa and Shosanna mimics the duel the colonel had with LaPadite in Chapter One. And very much like that match, the objective here is not to reveal information. Except this time Shosanna is not sure if Landa is seeking the information she has. Tension is created immediately as Landa orders two strudels, a coffee for himself… and a glass of milk for Shosanna, who limits her reaction to raising her eyebrows, as if out of curiosity. The glass of milk seems to have been introduced in the script for the benefit of the audience, and the ploy is rewarded with a collective gasp. Viewers find themselves holding their breath for the next few minutes. Landa’s strategy is the same as before: he speaks softly and politely, he asks for food, he explains that everything is just a formality.
The conversation seems to be nearing its end, and Landa offers Shosanna a cigarette, drawing a parallel to the pipes that he and LaPadite smoked.
I did have some thing else I wanted to ask you…
The colonel pauses for an agonizing twelve seconds during which he gauges Shosanna’s reaction. Once again, complete silence (no background music is playing) underscores the drama.
…but right now, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is. Oh well, it must not have been important.
As Landa gets up and leaves, both Shosanna and the viewers exhale in unison.
The final scene of the chapter shows Goebbels and his entourage exiting Le Gamaar at the conclusion of the movie. Shosanna walks them to the exit under the watchful eyes of Marcel, the only other employee at the cinema. When Shosanna returns, she and Marcel hatch their battle plan. After the theater has filled with Nazis for the premiere of Nation’s Pride, they will burn it down by setting fire to the stock of nitrate film reels that they have. Here Tarantino again uses voice of the narrator to quickly give the viewers the information they need: film used to be made of nitrate, which rendered it three times as flammable as paper. While Marcel wants to resist Shosanna’s plans, he is helpless to do so; his love for her compels him to go along.
But that’s not all we’re going to do. Does the filmmaking equipment in the attic still work? I know the film camera does. How about the sound recorder?
Quite well, actually. I recorded a new guitarist I met in a café last week. It works superb. Why do we need filmmaking equipment?
Because Marcel, my sweet, we’re going to make a film. Just for the Nazis.
Shosanna has finished recruiting her army in her personal war against Hitler. Joining the theater and its owner in their fight are the projectionist, a camera, a sound recorder, explosive nitrate film, and a movie itself. Interestingly, all of these elements, which are the tactile, physical components of filmmaking, will be taking on the intangible, ideological side represented by Goebbels.
A Big, Ugly Mess
Chapter Four, titled “Operation Kino,” begins with Lt. Archie Hicox (a character inspired by Graham Greene, who was also a film critic and a spy) being briefed by General Fenech (a miscast Mike Myers) and Winston Churchill (Rod Taylor). It’s revealed that Hicox (Michael Fassbender) speaks fluent German and that, before joining the army, he was a film critic who published two books, one about German cinema in the 1920s, the other a subtextual study of the works of G.W. Pabst
This little escapade of ours requires a knowledge of the German film industry under the Third Reich. Explain to me UFA under Goebbels.
Goebbels considers the films he’s making to be the beginning of a new era in German cinema. An alternative to what he considers the Jewish-German intellectual cinema of the twenties, and the Jewish-controlled dogma of Hollywood.
You say he wants to take on the Jews at their own game. Well, compared to, say, Louis B. Mayer, how’s he doing?
Quite well, actually. Since Goebbels has taken over, film attendance has steadily risen in Germany over the last eight years. But Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t be Goebbels’s proper opposite number. I believe Goebbels sees himself closer to David O. Selznick.
Tarantino reinforces the notion of Goebbels as a producer, and a successful one at that. The distinction that Hicox makes between Mayer and Selznick may refer the fact that Mayer, founder of MGM and one of the creators of the Hollywood “star-system,” was a major studio head who believed in bringing crowd-pleasing, wholesome entertainment to the masses, while Selznick was an independent film producer — his most famous movie is Gone With the Wind — who preferred to adapt more serious literary works. (Ironically, Selznick not only married Mayer’s daughter, but twice worked for MGM.)
Hicox learns of Operation Kino, a mission conceived out of the British government’s knowledge about who will be at the premiere of Nation’s Pride. As Fenech says, “Basically, we have all our rotten eggs in one basket. The objective of Operation Kino: blow up the basket.” Here we find out that, in order to carry out his operation, Hicox will be joining The Basterds and a female double agent, Bridget Von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), a German movie star who is working for England.
The rendezvous occurs in a tavern called La Louisiane in the French town of Nadine. A hint of trouble is immediately introduced, as Von Hammersmark had supposedly picked the location because it would be empty. But as soon as Hicox explains that “She wasn’t picking a place to fight. She was picking a place, isolated, and without Germans,” we cut to the inside of the tavern and find the actress engaged in a parlor game with five Nazi soldiers. On their foreheads they have stuck cards with the names of famous people, and they must guess the name they have by asking only yes-or-no questions. (Drawing parallels with Von Hammersmark, one of the cards is labeled “Mata Hari,” who was a famous exotic dancer and World War I double agent.)
While Aldo Raine and most of his men stay hidden at a nearby house, Hicox enters the tavern accompanied by Stiglitz and another Basterd, all three dressed in Gestapo uniforms. They are surprised to see the German soldiers, but after Bridget joins them, she explains that the four men and one woman happen to be there to celebrate the fact that one of them, Wilhem, has just become a father. She also informs Hicox that the premiere of Nation’s Pride has been changed from the Ritz to the smaller Le Gamaar.
Unfortunately, the German soldiers have been drinking schnapps all evening; emboldened by drunken stupor, Wilhem interrupts the conversation between Hicox and Von Hammersmark to request an autograph for his son. She obliges him and includes a big, red lipstick kiss on a napkin next to her signature. But when Wilhem casually sits at their table to strike up conversation, Hicox scolds him for his rude behavior, reminding him that he has intruded on an officer’s table. Instead of retreating, Wilhem questions Hicox about his curious German accent. Although he is fluent, the lieutenant grew up in England and his speech pattern is not that of a native German. Stiglitz yells at Wilhem and threatens him and his friends with jail.
At that moment, another SS officer, who has been sitting in a corner of the tavern hidden from view, intervenes. It is Major Hellstrom (August Diehl), the same man who brought Shosanna to the meeting with Goebbels. He, too, has an acute sense for accents, and has noticed that Hicox’s is not quite up to par. As a Major, he outranks Hicox, who can’t swat him off like he did with Wilhem. But here the Englishman proves that his background in film is essential to the mission’s success.
I was born in a village that rests in the shadow of Piz Palü.
Yes. In that village we all speak like this. Have you seen the Riefenstahl film?
Then you saw me. You remember the skiing torch scene?
Yes, I do.
In that scene were myself, my father, my sister, and my two brothers. My brother is so handsome, the director Pabst gave him a close up.
The critic’s extensive knowledge of G.W. Pabst has saved the day, at least momentarily. When the actress confirms Hicox’s story to the Major, he joins them at the table, sitting between Hicox and Stiglitz. The Major suggests they play the same game that Bridget was engaged in earlier with the soldiers. After one round of the card game — in which Tarantino draws an allegory between the movie King Kong and the story of the enslavement of African-Americans in the U.S. — tension is ratcheted up a notch when Hicox asks Hellstrom to leave. The Major finally agrees, not before offering them a round of expensive scotch. This is when Hicox commits his only mistake: he signals for three glasses using the English style (index, middle, and ring fingers raised), and not the German style (thumb, index and middle fingers).
Hellstrom calls Hicox’s bluff, and a bloody shootout ensues, which only Bridget and Wilhem survive. At this point Raine and his men have heard the gunfire and are trying to find a way to save the actress, who has a gunshot wound to her leg. The brief negotiation between Raine and Wilhelm underscores the toll of war on the German side. The Nazi soldier has been a father for all of five hours, and he does not want his son to grow up an orphan. It is Bridget who convinces Wilhem to drop his weapon, after which she shoots him herself.
When Raine gets the actress to a veterinarian for treatment, he decides to interrogate her, as he is suspicious of the way the entire night went down. Once he is satisfied that Bridget is not double-crossing The Basterds, he inquires about the plan for the premiere. The mission is essentially ruined because none of the other Basterds speak German, and they were supposed to attend the event as members of the German film industry. Then Bridget reveals the big news she was trying to deliver to Hicox: Hitler himself will be attending the screening of Nation’s Pride at Le Gamaar. This changes Raine’s position; he decides they must get inside the theater no matter what. When Bridget learns that the lieutenant and the Jew Bear both speak some Italian, they decide that Raine, Donowitz, and Omar Ulmer will accompany the German actress to the premiere. Tarantino’s alter ego will attempt to assassinate the Führer.
Back at La Louisiane tavern, Colonel Hans Landa has again made an appearance. He discovers Bridget’s autographed napkin and one of her shoes that was left there. Kissing the imprinted lipstick mark, he smiles. The final face-off has been set up.
Silver Screen Showdown
Chapter Five, “Revenge of the Giant Face” opens with Shosanna looking out the window of her living quarters above the movie theater; it’s the premiere of Nation’s Pride. As the David Bowie song “Putting Out the Fire” (from the movie Cat People) plays, Shosanna stands in front of a mirror and applies her makeup. When she smears rouge on her cheeks we are reminded of a Native American warrior painting his face in preparation for battle.
Shosanna sips some wine and slips a small pistol in her clutch purse. Then, through a short flashback, we learn that she and Marcel have shot some film (its content is not yet shown), coerced a developer to create a 35 mm copy of it with a soundtrack, and then spliced the film into a reel of Nation’s Pride. Shosanna and Marcel use corporeal movie activities — acting, filming, editing (and eventually projecting) — in their fight against Goebbels, an eminently intellectual cinematic enemy.
Shosanna lowers a black fishnet veil onto her face (preemptively mourning her own death) and enters the theater lobby from the upper staircase, where we get a view of the “German night in Paris.” Leaders of the Nazi party, SS officers, filmmakers, and celebrities all intermingle downstairs amongst the hanging movie posters and red Nazi banners. The place is packed. And to make sure we know who’s who, Tarantino literally uses an arrow to point out Hermann Goering for us (later, inside the theater, he will do the same with Martin Bormann). Shosanna sees Zoller and Goebbels and descends the grand staircase to join them.
The camera pans back up the staircase, where we find another person surveying the scene: Hans Landa. He locates Bridget Von Hammersmark, who is flanked by Raine, Donowitz, and Ulmer, and approaches her. Her wounded leg has been set in a cast, which has not impeded her from getting a pedicure for the evening. Upon Landa’s inquiry, she tells him her cover story: she suffered an accident while climbing a mountain. Landa keeps asking her questions about the accident, and while Raine and his men don’t understand the exchange in German, they become visibly uncomfortable. When Landa asks about her companions, Bridget introduces them as Italian filmmakers. Raine is Enzo Gorlomi, a stuntman; Donowitz is Antonio Margheriti, a cameraman; and Omar Ulmer is Dominick DeCocco, the camera assistant. Tarantino has added three more cinema soldiers to the efforts of the Allies.
It is then that we discover the true extent of Landa’s linguistic skills. He is fluent in Italian, and tries to strike up a conversation with the three men in their purported native language. Obviously Landa knows by now that this is all a ruse, and he is simply having some cruel fun at their expense. As Donowitz and Ulmer go inside the theater with the rest of the crowd, Raine stays behind with Landa and Bridget.
Meanwhile, Shosanna goes back up to the projection room to finalize the details of her plan with Marcel. She will socialize with the enemy while he projects the film. In the middle of the third reel, they will switch places, and she will place the fourth reel, which contains the film they made. She instructs Marcel to lock the theater and await her signal to burn it down. Immediately we move to a shot of Donowitz and Ulmer sitting uncomfortably amongst Nazi officers. The camera pans down to show us that each one has several sticks of dynamite strapped to an ankle.
Before Bridget can go inside, Landa asks to have a word with her in private in the office of Shosanna, which he has taken over. Raine stays in the lobby. Inside the office, Landa presides over a very theatrical revelation that he knows the actress is a traitor to her country. This includes him taking off the right shoe she is wearing and asking Bridget to pull out from his jacket the shoe she left at the tavern. We can see Bridget’s face as she fingers the shoe in the pocket and realizes what it is before taking it out. Her superb acting skills, which have helped her navigate two years of undercover work, let her down for an instant, enough for us to see the defeat in her eyes. But her acting instincts tell her the show must go on — no one has yelled “cut” — and she continues with the charade. Landa plays his role of evil Prince Charming to the very end, strangling the turncoat Cinderella to death. Then he calmly picks up the phone and orders his men to capture Raine.
Landa has Raine and Utivich, another of the Basterds, transferred to a tavern outside Paris, where he is already awaiting. He seats them across a table to have a conversation.
So you’re Aldo the Apache.
So you’re the Jew Hunter.
I’m a detective. A damn good detective. Finding people is my specialty. So naturally, I worked for the Nazis finding people. And yes, some of them were Jews. But Jew Hunter? Just the name that stuck.
Well, you do have to admit, it is catchy.
Do you control the nicknames your enemies bestow you?
Tarantino is imbuing Landa with some nuance, distancing him from the stereotypical Nazi character. Christoph Waltz’s performance throughout the film has been brilliant, and Landa appears to be a multi-dimensional character from the moment he steps on Pierre LaPadite’s property (in fact, Hans Landa may be one of those rare film characters that one “hates to love”), but Tarantino goes a bit deeper. Landa is obviously a man who, although he commands a degree of respect from his colleagues and superiors, has not been able to step out of the shadows of a moniker given to him some time ago. He is continually trying to prove his worth as a detective, and yet no one seems to take him seriously.
Perhaps this frustration has played a role in his next move. Landa tells Raine he is willing to let Operation Kino play out if they can cut him a deal. He asks Raine to request a commanding officer from the OSS to authorize the terms of his surrender.
While Raine mulls his decision, we return to Le Gamaar, where Nation’s Pride is in full swing. As Zoller the actor takes down American G.I.s one by one with his sniper rifle, Zoller the spectator squirms uneasily in his chair. For all his bravery and hubris, he is yet another victim of war, a man who is uncomfortable with being cast as a hero by his party and his people.
The Bear Jew discovers the private balcony where Hitler is sitting and calls Ulmer to join him. Meanwhile, Shosanna and Marcel kiss each other goodbye, and the projectionist leaves her to lock the theater and take his place behind the screen, where all the nitrate film reels have been piled up like logs in a gigantic bonfire. Shosanna places the last reel of the film, reel 4, into the projector and waits to make the switch.
Back at the tavern outside Paris, Colonel Landa is already discussing the terms of his surrender with Raine’s superior. They are stomach churning: Landa will get credit for the undercover operation, as well as the Congressional medal of Honor; he will also receive American citizenship, a full military pension, and even a property on Nantucket Island. He monopolizes the conversation in such a way that we hear Raine’s superior (voiced by Harvey Keitel) only when Aldo gets the receiver back.
In the cinema, Zoller continues to shift in his seat, while Hitler, Goebbels, and his translator heartily enjoy the movie. Shosanna switches the movie to its final reel, a process which Tarantino shows step-by-step, once again impressing upon us the physical aspects related to film. Meanwhile, Zoller has decided he can’t take it any more and goes to the projection room, where he tries to flirt once more with Shosanna. When she rejects him yet again, he loses his cool and forces his way inside. Shosanna realizes her plan may be compromised and asks him to lock the door, making him think she will let him have his way with her. When he turns around she shoots him in the back, synchronizing her gunfire with the shots heard in the movie. But before Zoller dies, he manages to get off a few rounds of his own. Shosanna expires without knowing if her plan has succeeded.
In the meantime, Donowitz and Ulmer have disguised themselves as waiters and successfully attacked and killed the two men guarding the door of Hitler and Goebbels’s theater box. Unaware of what has happened, the two Nazis continue to enjoy the movie; Hitler praises his beloved film producer, who is visibly moved by the compliment.
And suddenly the climax is upon the viewers. Zoller’s face appears in a close-up on the screen, followed by Shosanna’s.
Who wants to send a message to Germany?
I have a message for Germany. That you are all going to die … And I want you to look deep into the face of the Jew who’s going to do it! … Marcel, burn it down.
Hitler and Goebbels are up in arms, yelling for the projectionist to stop the movie, but it is too late. Marcel flicks a lit cigarette on the pile of nitrate film and the entire screen goes up in flames as Shosanna has the last laugh, literally. The fire spreads quickly throughout the theater. Before Hitler and Goebbels can exit their balcony, Donowitz and his comrade break in, machine guns blazing. At this point the attendants are in panic mode, scrambling to get out, while Shosanna’s voice continues to taunt them, making sure they know whom their executioner is. “My name is Shosanna Dreyfus, and this is the face of Jewish vengeance,” she says. The Basterds add to the terror by shooting at the crowd from above. While the Nazi banners go up in flames, the two men reload their weapons several times and discharge them. As Shosanna’s laughter echoes throughout the theater, the audience can make out her face projected against the smoke and fire, a silver ghost looking down at the chaos she has created.
The Bear Jew turns his attention to the Führer — already dead — and empties his machine gun into Hitler’s face, effectively pulverizing it. Interestingly, this echoes a Hebrew expression that is commonly used when mentioning Hitler’s name: imach shemo (literally, “erased be his name”). Here Donny Donowitz, a.k.a. the Bear Jew — possibly a golem — takes it a step further by physically obliterating the man himself. As he finishes, the bombs detonate and the entire theater explodes in a ball of fire. Tarantino has the movie theater metaphorically swallow and digest its evil occupants. The final battle has ended, and cinema has defeated Hitler, ending the war nine months early and altering history.
Immediately the film cuts to a peaceful, quiet scene in the woods, where a truck rumbles towards the audience. Tarantino uses a long shot and the truck takes a while to come to the forefront, giving the viewers an opportunity to gather their senses and recover from the mayhem they have just witnessed. In the front of the truck sits Hans Landa, chauffeured by the German radio operator. In the back are Raine and Utivich. When they reach the American lines, the colonel instructs the radio operator to uncuff his “prisoners” and then officially surrenders to Raine, handing him his sidearm, his knife, and Raine’s knife, which Landa had kept. As Utivich cuffs Landa, Raine shoots the radio operator dead and orders Utivich to scalp him.
When Landa protests, Raine tells him that his superiors are only interested in the colonel. Then he compliments Landa on the deal he was able to make, the “pretty little nest you feathered for yourself.” Raine asks Landa the same thing he has asked countless other soldiers: whether he will take off his uniform once he gets to his new home on Nantucket Island. For the first time in the movie we see fear reflected in Landa’s eyes (and some might consider that enough of a victory), a fear that prevents him from speaking.
I mean, if I had my way, you’d wear that goddamn uniform for the rest of your pecker-suckin’ life. But I’m aware that ain’t practical. I mean at some point ya gotta hafta take it off. So I’m gonna give you a little something you can’t take off.
The lieutenant uses his knife to carve a swastika in Landa’s forehead as the German screams in pain; it’s the first time this action is shown in the movie, and Tarantino gives it a very graphic flourish. As Raine and Utivich examine their work, the lieutenant offers his opinion.
You know something, Utivich? I think this just might be my masterpiece.
The final line in the movie is directed as much to the carving as to the film itself, whose credits have started rolling. Tarantino uses his alter ego to toot his own horn, but who can blame him? Inglourious Basterds is truly a masterpiece. Ten years in the making (the idea popped into the director’s head in 1998), well-paced, sharply written and brilliantly directed, Basterds is a fun film that runs the gamut of emotions thanks to the mostly first-rate casting of a multinational group of actors.
Inglourious Basterds operates on two levels. The first one involves the storyline and its uniqueness among all war movies in which plots against Hitler were hatched: in Basterds the conspirators actually succeed in killing their target and ending the war. Thus, Tarantino evokes the idea that cinema can be much more rewarding than real life. The second level is almost a meta-filmic allegory: Basterds is not quite a movie about making movies, but rather a film about the power of film, its strength as a weapon that can alter the course of history.
The film is peppered with allusions to other movies, from the borrowed musical scores to most of the character names. There are enough references to create a lengthy laundry list; the IMDB trivia page for the movie runs seven pages long, and Internet research yields an unending number of web pages that pop up with new information and interpretations. This is the type of film that can and should be seen more than once, as every viewing will surely produce new discoveries and insights.
Since 1992, Tarantino has been the foremost referential filmmaker out there, paying tribute to countless movies and genres. With Inglourious Basterds, he has crafted the ultimate homage to cinema. It’s a shame that the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did not agree, for surely they would have rewarded his effort with their highest honor: the 2009 award for Best Picture.
 Eli Roth’s description for the film’s scenes in which Jews obtain violent revenge against the Nazis.
BIBLIOGRAPHY & SOURCES
- Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, ‘Inglourious Basterds’, Charlie Rose, PBS, New York, 21Aug. 2009
- Goldberg, Jeffrey. “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger.” September 2009. The Atlantic. May 2010. <http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2009/09/hollywood-8217-s-jewish-avenger/7619/>
- Gubern, Román. Cien años de cine, Barcelona, Spain: Bruguera, 1983
- Inglourious Basterds, Dir. Quentin Tarantino, Perf. Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz. DVD, Universal, 2009
- Horn, Jordana. “’Inglourious Basterds’ and the Problem of Revenge.” August 21, 2009. The Wall Street Journal. May 2010. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970203550604574360451237742752.html>
- Tarantino, Quentin. “Inglourious Basterds.” Script. The Internet Movie Script Database, May 2010 <http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Inglourious-Basterds.html>
- The Inglorious Bastards, Disc 2: A conversation with Quentin Tarantino and Enzo G. Castellari, Dir. Enzo g. Castellari. DVD, Severin, 2008
- Woods, Paul A., ed. Quentin Tarantino, the Film Geek Files, London, England: Plexus, 2000
Avi Kotzer, when he is not writing and editing for work, enjoys writing and editing for fun. His fiction has appeared online in Writer’s Weekly. Forsaking popular artistic hotspots such as Park Slope, in Brooklyn, and the East Village, in Manhattan, Avi and his wife live in Queens, NY, with their dog and cat (who get along just fine).