Quentin Tarantino is a filmmaker that has always been conscious of the films and auteurs that came before him. Constantly paying homage to specific genres, actors, and directors, he demonstrates his love and admiration for cinema through his work.
His most recent offering, Inglourious Basterds, conveys these same reverences however it goes beyond any film he has made up to this point. Tarantino has always been a master of engagement and subsequently we are very easily drawn into his works. Our minds are tantalized by his stories, our ears become glued to his exceptional dialogue, and our eyes are stuck, mesmerized by his idiosyncratic shots.
Yet it is in Inglourious Basterds that Tarantino makes a career defining act by moving from being part of the conversation, which he has been doing brilliantly since the early 90’s, to starting one of his own.
The film, divided into five chapters, begins in Nazi occupied France in 1941. We peacefully watch Perrier LaPedite chop wood on his farm until he sees a Nazi motorcade approaching in the distance. He tells his three daughters to get him some water and to then go inside. When the soldiers arrive, we are introduced to Colonel Hans Landa. He is handsome, charismatic, and even more impressively, speaks flawless French. His visit is initially made to come off as social; however, as we come to learn, he tells Perrier that he believes there are Jews hiding in his home. Perrier says that his house has already been searched and inspected, and while Colonel Landa confirms this, he says that since he is new in charge he thinks he should check one more time just to be sure.
It is a masterful opening scene. The eccentricities of it show how much fun Tarantino has as he makes his films. Watch as Landa (played by Christoph Waltz in a unforgettable performance) turns down a glass of wine for one of milk and as he drinks it entirely in one sip, he glances at LaPedite momentarily. It is Tarantino’s way of seducing us: never take your eyes off the screen, for you never know what you might be missing.
While Tarantino plays with his audience, we see Landa playing LaPedite and ultimately gets him to confess that he is hiding Jews under the floorboards, in English nonetheless. After Landa orders his men to come inside and kill them, one girl, Shoshanna, gets away and we watch her escape into the woods, covered in her family’s blood.
Chapter two introduces us to the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Lieutenant Aldo Raine (a fantastic Brad Pitt). Raine goes on to tell his men that they’re about one thing and that is killing Nazi’s. In order to win the war, they need to impose fear throughout the Third Reich and to do this, they will kill and scalp every Nazi they come across. Those that are kept alive will be left with a “permanent reminder” of their allegiance to the Fuhrer. Our two stories, albeit separate, begin.
It is three years later, we see Shoshana, now Emanuelle, changing the letters to the marquee of a cinema in Paris. A German war hero, Frederick Zoller, takes a liking to her and after many failed attempts to woo her has her brought to a luncheon where she meets Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda.
Goebbels tells Emanuelle that Frederick, who has starred in a film about his heroic exploits, wants to have his premier at her theatre. While initially apprehensive, she eventually accepts and is told that she needs to meet the Fuhrer’s new head of security. While she does not recognize Colonel Landa from his looks, she immediately identifies him once he begins speaking French with her. It is a scene that creates as much discomfort as it does fascination. Emanuelle’s internalized fear and hatred towards Landa is perfectly counteracted by his external poise and brashness. It is one of the film’s many great scenes.
Once Emanuelle makes her way back to the cinema, she tells her lover and projectionist Marcel that she plans to lock the Nazi’s in the cinema and burn it into the ground. But first, she needs to make a film. How appropriate.
Our two storylines continue towards their ultimate convergence when we are whisked to Great Britain where we learn of Operation Kino. Lieutenant Archie Hicox, a film critic who specializes in German films of the 20’s, is told that the secret service has an undercover agent, German actress Bridget von Hammersmark. He, von Hammersmark, and of course, the Basterds are to rendezvous at a bar in the small French town of Nadine where they are to plan how they will infiltrate the premier made up of “rotten eggs” and “blow up the basket.” Things in Nadine do not go as planned, in another quintessentially Tarantino moment, and ultimately von Hammersmark and the Basterds, or what is left of them, have to improvise their plan.
The final chapter of the film, which takes place on the night of the premier, is the film’s ultimate achievement. Tarantino fuses his competing stories and brings his film to a conclusion that is immensely gratifying. He lures us in with two story archs that paint very different pictures of the war, and film in general. Their ultimate synthesis brings the film full circle.
This is a movie that is very confident in itself and its message. Tarantino, who has always teased us with his ideas on what film means to him, finally comes out and screams it to the world. It should come of no surprise that he does so in such an explosive, violent manner because as he has always shown, violence is a large part of life, and movies in particular.
I’m sure some will be confused or disagree with his approach to historic Truth but I felt it to be rather refreshing. Many in the film world are constantly distracted by historical inaccuracies in film and in his typical snide way, Tarantino decides to tell the story of World War II in the most inaccurate way possible. This is because he doesn’t want or need to play by the rules of writing history. For one, he never has, and in the end he is clearly saying, “what is history but great storytelling?” Therefore, let me tell you a great story. I believe he achieves that.
In addition, he wants us to examine cinema’s role as a documenter of history. Is Refienstahl’s Triumph of the Will any less historic than Capra’s Why We Fight series? Both are propaganda, both are groundbreaking, but the events surrounding them have shaped how we think about each. Tarantino is challenging us to rethink the esteem we have for films of the past, for to him, their stories are the closest thing we have to real History, even if they contradict one another.
Finally, Inglourious Basterds is a movie about the filmmaker and his obligation, or lack of one, to history. Acting as an extension of Tarantino, Emanuelle uses filmmaking to not only approach her own personal history, but the history of others as well. It is this medium that acts as her salvation, her way to both engage and wipe out the hurt she has endured. With this, Inglourious Basterds is a film that is meant to be overwhelmingly aware of itself, its role, and its meaning.
Ultimately, Inglourious Basterds’ excellence lies within its ability to challenge the art form its author admires so much: storytelling. While the film’s separate parts may not stand up to the crisp writing of Pulp Fiction, the technical mastery of the Kill Bill series, or the quirkiness of Reservoir Dogs, as a whole, it exceeds anything Tarantino has put out to date. As Aldo Raine speaks to us in the final line of the film and channels Tarantino’s ever-present ego, we are compelled to agree: this is his masterpiece.