Tarantino, Nazis, and Movies That Can Kill You – Part 1

I think I can show that Inglourious Basterds is not really a revenge movie, which, if you’ve seen the movie — well, you’re not going to believe me. It’s an implausible point, hard to make stick — and I’d rather start easy. So maybe I’ll just ask a few questions about the film, and then try to answer them, though maybe the questions are really the hard part, after all. It will be harder, I think, to get the questions right than to get the answers right; Basterds is so diabolically entertaining that a person could easily overlook how complicated a thing it really is. So I’m thinking that if we can just name the movie’s complications—if we can lift out its puzzles—the answers might start taking care of themselves.

My questions are three.

First question: Is Inglourious Basterds a historical movie? Is it a period piece? …or not? In some sense, yes, plainly, of course it is. It takes place at a specified moment in history—1944; the story unfolds against the backdrop of a major world event—World War II; it transforms real historical personages into minor fictional characters—Hitler, Goebbels, and the like—and it freely intermixes these “real people” with characters of its own invention. Those are the hallmarks of historical fiction in the mode of Walter Scott or Tolstoy. Scott’s Waverley features the real Scottish prince who, in the middle of the C18, tried to seize the throne of England and Scotland. War and Peace, in turn, actually has Napoleon as a character—a fairly central character, even, at least for part of the novel.

But there’s an obvious problem with this comparison, which is that Tarantino’s movie completely rewrites the history it has chosen to recount. And I can already hear the English professors amidst whom I work murmuring: But wait, historical fiction always, in myriad subtle ways, rewrites the history that it recounts. And they’re right. But Inglourious Basterds is not subtle about this; it does not even pretend to historical insight. It gleefully concocts an alternate history, in a manner that is impossible to overlook. In case anyone has forgotten: American Jews did not storm the Nazi high command and gun Hitler down in an act of heroic retribution. This is not a historical fiction in the usual sense, but rather a kind of fantasia or historical reverie—and the movie makes no effort to hide this. Not even in Tolstoy does Napoleon keep hold of Moscow.

But then this is where things really get strange. So the movie is a flight of fancy on a historical subject. OK; I think I can take that on board, because I’ve seen it before. In science-fiction circles, alternate histories have become a genre in their own right: What would England look like in the C20 if it had stayed Catholic—if, that is, there had never been a Protestant Church of England? What would the world look like today if Europeans had been wiped out in the fourteenth century by the Black Death?—a world without white people; I’ve always rather liked that one. Or closest to the day’s concerns: What would the US look like now if Hitler had never been defeated? Those books all exist and lots more like them: Historical novels about histories that never happened. But then we need to think about which event the movie has chosen to rescript: It doctors the end of World War II, and if we’re going to think about that, then let us call to mind another obvious thing: America actually defeated the Germans in World War II; or rather the Allies did. And Americans defeat the Nazis in the movie, too, with some help from French resisters. It’s worth pausing to register how odd that is. I mean, it’s not like the movie has taken a tale of American failure or hesitation and turned it into an American triumph. If you try to imagine Inglourious Basterds as a Vietnam movie, you’ll begin to see what I mean. There was a period in the mid-‘80s when Hollywood started churning out movies—like Delta Force or the second Rambo joint—in which the US Army was granted some kind of magic do-over in South-East Asia. In Rambo, Sylvester Stallone actually speaks the question: “Do we get to win this time?” And his commanding officer responds: “Yes, Rambo. You get to win this time.” What’s going on there isn’t especially hard to grasp. The historical record—or, if you prefer, popular historical pseudo-memory—contains, in reference to Vietnam, all sorts of ambivalence: feelings of failure, complicity, shame, and so on—and those feelings are a breeding ground for compensatory fantasies. But Tarantino has scripted an alternative to D-Day, of all things, which means he has replaced the most heroic moment in twentieth-century US history—a history that is already fully triumphalist, entirely devoid of ambivalence—with something even more triumphalist, but weirdly, ferociously so. He has scripted a fictional way of winning a war that the US won anyway. So what’s going on? That’s  the first question.

I have a second question that also involves the ways this is not a straightforward historical movie. I want to be careful here: Historical fictions are always complicated, because they always require you to think at the same time about two different historical moments; if you’re reading a historical novel, you need to think about when the book was set, but you also need to think about when the book was written. So take Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which is the one recent historical novel you can count on someone having read. That book is set in the 1870s, but it was written in the 1980s. And a person might ask: What’s the difference between a book written in the 1870s, like Thomas Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd, and one set in the 1870s? That second book, Beloved, has a historical shadow dimension that the first book doesn’t. Historical novels belong, as it were, to two historical moments at once. They are always implicitly putting two historical moments in front of you and asking you what connects them or what they share. So Beloved is a novel about America in the nineteenth century—it’s about the aftermath of slavery—but it is also a novel of the 1980s. The 1870s and the 1980s get held up next to each other. If you want to understand Beloved, you have to understand both what Toni Morrison is saying about the past and what she is saying to her contemporaries. It’s Reconstruction; and it’s the Reagan-era; and they’re side by side. Same deal with Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino was talking about this movie as early as 2001; he wrote different versions of the screenplay across the last decade; two or three times, he announced he was going into production only to change his mind; and then he finally began filming in October 2008—a month before the Obama-McCain election, if you want to think of it that way. So this movie is about 1944, but we can also think of it as pretty much the last movie of the Bush administration. And it’s a war movie—and we mustn’t lose sight of this—which recasts WWII as a settling of scores. And few viewers will have overlooked that it’s also a Western. The opening scene has a French farmer living in what you could mistake for the timber shack of a Montana frontiersman; there’s a shootout in a saloon where desperadoes are drinking whiskey; and so on. So who thinks about war as a Western? Six days after 9/11, George Bush stood up in front of the press corps and said: “I want justice. And there’s an old poster out West, I recall, that said: ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’”

We seem to be making headway. But the point I’m after is that Inglourious Basterds is actually more complicated than this. Historical fictions are always complicated, and this movie is more complicated still, not least because it is so obviously stitched together out of parts from other movies. Now we know that this is what Tarantino likes to do; he’s got a mash-up aesthetic. So that opening scene?—it’s borrowed from John Ford; and the scene where the French Jewish beauty and the young Nazi hero kill each other?—that’s ripped from a John Woo movie. Now again, movies and novels are always borrowing from other movies and novels, so maybe you’re thinking Big deal. But most movies and novels take some pains to cover their tracks; they don’t want you to spot their borrowings; they invite you to sink into the story, so that you can trick yourself into thinking that you are watching the past unfold organically before you. And Tarantino simply will not let you sink into the story. He does not hide his sources. The most obvious example is the moment when the movie introduces Hugo Stiglitz for the first time; suddenly the movie has a narrator, and the narrator is Sam Jackson, in voiceover, and with an underlay of boom chicka wawa, and every time you hear those pimped-out cadences, you get airlifted briefly out of 1944 and deposited in the mid-‘70s instead—so Sam Jackson, but Sam Jackson in his incarnation as latter-day soul brother.

That’s the single most intrusive moment in the movie; the visible incursion of another film genre into the World War II movie; but it’s hardly the only one. There’s the spaghetti Western soundtrack, which provides an ongoing temporal counterpoint to the action. Or there’s the title. I dutifully went and watched the 1978 Italian movie from which the title Inglourious Basterds has been filched only to discover that it bears absolutely no resemblance to the movie Tarantino made. The later film is in no way a remake of the earlier one. But then knowing that should help us see how programmatic Tarantino’s retro aesthetic is: He wants you to think his movie is a remake even when it isn’t a remake. In the event, the title is something like an all-purpose footnote; it doesn’t do much more than point you, broadly, to the entire body of late ‘60s and ‘70s-era trash movies that we all know Tarantino loves; and the music does the same thing; and so does Sam Jackson. Someone out there was disappointed to discover that Richard Roundtree wasn’t playing Hitler. So the movie doesn’t just whisk us back to 1944; and it doesn’t even really whisk us back to its alternate-reality 1944. Rather, it forces us to contemplate 1944 through a scrim of other movies, and I want us to think of this as an almost geological act of historical layering. This is how Inglourious Basterds is different from an ordinary historical fiction: There aren’t just two historical moments in play, there are at least three. Hence my second question: Why, in 2009, make a ‘70s-style movie about 1944?

One quick point to make, in passing, because it will be important to some people’s experience of the movie: This might be a trash movie; and it might rewrite history in preposterous ways; but its use of historical detail is nonetheless meticulous. The movie’s evident precision begins with its attention to language. It’s a tri-lingual movie, and the German in the movie is impeccable—entirely unlike the Halt!-und-Schnell! that you get in Schindler’s List and other graduates from the Hogan’s Heroes School of War Cinema. And beyond that, the movie is full of historical references that aren’t in the least offhand—references, I mean, that are knowing and apt. Tarantino works in references to early twentieth-century German children’s literature; he briefly introduces, as a character, a cat named Emil Jannings, who was 1) a real German actor of the period; 2) the first person ever to win an Oscar; 3) and a prominent Nazi. And on and on. Now if you’re in a position to appreciate these details—which basically means if you’re German—the experience of the movie has got to be all the more bewildering. The puzzles I’ve been describing intensify, because in lots of ways the movie seems unusually committed to 1944—the movie’s erudition, I mean, can’t help but convey a certain respect for the movie’s historical materials—and yet at the same time 1944 is constantly slipping from sight.

So … a second question. My third question is easier to explain, though it’s probably also the most important one. It all comes down to this image and to the scene that contains it:

We have to be clear about what’s going on here. I can imagine a person being keyed up enough at the sweet sight of all those Nazis getting killed to overlook the second thing that’s going on in the movies climactic scenes—not a second event—but a second, equally plausible way of describing that one event: The movie is showing a Jewish woman wreaking vengeance upon Germans, but it is also showing a filmmaker killing her own audience. That’s amazing; and serious thinking about the movie has got to start there. We need to think hard about the conditions under which some of us saw this movie. If you were lucky enough to see Inglourious Basterds during its original run—and so not on DVD—then you sat in a movie theater and watched people in a movie theater get wiped out. You might have been rooting for Shosanna or the Basterds—I know I was—but the people getting offed were, at the moment of their death, unmistakably like you. The aspect of the movie that most leaps out, I think, is its extraordinary hostility towards the audience. So my third question is: Why does Quentin Tarantino hate us so much?

So those are my three questions: 1) Why take the triumphalist American history of WWII and make it even more triumphalist? 2) Why channel our perceptions of the 1940s via the 1970s? 3) And why commit mass murder upon the audience? I will next attempt some answers.



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