The third act of Quentin Tarantino‘s Inglourious Basterds finds the Nazi elite mingling languidly in a quaint and gorgeous theater in Paris. They are here to witness the debut of Joseph Goebbel’s latest film, Nation’s Pride, an account of Private Frederick Zoller’s (Daniel Brühl) war heroics, wherein he killed hundreds of Americans with only a gun and his German cunning. From Bormann, to Goebbels, to Hitler himself, the Third Reich’s most distinguished members are in attendance to celebrate a mass slaughter carried out by one of their own. And he no more than a private in Hitler’s army. Zoller’s exploits feed their nationalism, their lust for victory, and as the lights in the theater dim and the film rolls, Goebbel’s film finds a ruggedly handsome Frederick Zoller killing one American after the next for an eternity. The audience is held captive in their delight, their sweaty, angry faces beaming with a rapture both large and terrifying. For you see, according to Quentin, Nazis are simply irritable nerds, and death is their porn.
The first moments we spend in Tarantino’s Second World War find a small French dairy farm suddenly crawling with Nazis, and an introduction to Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa questions the farmer about a missing Jewish family, though the conversation is simply a means of showing off Landa and his omniscience. He takes a roundabout way of getting to it, but clearly he’s known all along that the Jewish family is lying under the floor. He simply has style. Somehow one of the Jews escapes, fleeing into the country side, covered in her family’s blood and sobbing as she sprints. Landa delights in her escape. This is fun for him. And then an introduction to the Basterds, Lt. Aldo Raines’ (Brad Pitt) rag tag group of Jewish American soldiers, whose only goal is to spread fear with the deaths of each and every Nazi they come across. They are their own ministers of propaganda, and with members like the menacing Bear Jew, whose baseball bat becomes the stuff of legend, they are clearly masters of the craft. Suddenly in Paris, we see the same young Jewish girl who ran for her life from the clutches of Landa. Her name has changed, as has her bearing. She is now in charge of her fate, and it will take death to relinquish that control. It is her theater where the Nazis decide to gather for Goebbel’s debut, and it is her theater where they will meet the maker of their demise, but we’ll come back to that.
For as many films as there are that center on World War II, a striking few of them take any liberties. Even those that do tend to do it only slightly; nudging the facts of a character closer to heroism or distilling the complexities to darken the whole. It’s a moment in time so genuinely dramatic, it simply doesn’t require much alteration. Leave it to Quentin Tarantino then to change history. His account is his own, and his modifications are anything but slight. But these are not changes made without direction. All the glamorizing and dramatizing serves a purpose: namely, a sort of artistic Jewish vengeance. This film isn’t beholden to anything, and in that freedom resides that which keeps this thing flying straight. Give up preconception, and you’re guaranteed a good time.
While there are inevitably complex issues at stake here, the heart of the film is simple: “Let’s do to them what they did to us.” As you catch bits and pieces of Nation’s Pride, you’re struck by the simplicity of it. Zoller in his cage, round after round finding their targets. Zoller exhausted, fighting just the same. Close on Zoller, see his steeled youth. See him audience, and long to be him. The nature of propaganda is to distill truth into something more malleable, more palatable. Take only that which is significant to your cause and glorify it. If Goebbels was a minister, than Tarantino is a master. Inglourious Basterds takes that element of violence so familiar to him, and adds to it the weight of vengeance. Shoshanna Dreyfuss (Mélanie Laurent) personifies that violent retribution and it is by her hand that the Reich falls to its knees. As her giant face burns in celluloid flames, and her distant, booming voice reveals to the Nazi bourgeois the origin of their fate, Jews everywhere resist applauding. In the Basterds case it’s not necessarily a personal vengeance, but historical. What group deserves this kind of mistreatment more than the Nazis? Their faceless legion will forever be synonymous with anger and hatred and violence and the largest genocide this world has seen. Would anybody mind if Quentin Tarantino did some horrible things to them for a couple hours? I think not.
Still, for all the shallowness of the film, an interesting thing happens in the final moments. Colonel Hans Landa, with his trademark prescience, knows of the Basterds plot to blow up the theater and destroy the Nazi movement. Yet he has chosen to give them an opportunity to continue with the plan, in exchange for complete immunity from the aftermath. He simply wants to be a free man, with, of course, a few deserved perks. If they are willing to provide his emancipation, he will allow their plan to go forward. For any thinking audience member, this is a moment of serious conflict. We’ve spent two hours hating this man, yet he has just removed the final road block to destroying the aggregate of hate in his world. And despite his actions, nobody will dispute his charm. It almost seems as if there’s a new hero for this epic. One of inaction and self service. One perhaps, more like you and I. But no, Aldo, in taking possession of the United States newly “captured” Landa, reminds that intent means as much as deed, and a Nazi is a nazi, no matter how you dress him up.
There’s far more to say about this film, but it’s mostly secondary to what I’ve outlined above, and I’ll allow you to find it on your own. And you will, for this is a film we’ll be talking about for years, whether or not it wins Best Picture. Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s seventh notable film, and perhaps his best. It exemplifies his maturity more than any other. Where Pulp Fiction felt occasionally lucked into, Inglourious Basterds is constructed. From the drowning tension in his opening scene, to the mayhem of his closer, Tarantino’s auteur fingerprints are all over this thing. It’s a logical moment in his career and reflects a man who, without sacrificing the brash swagger that got him here, has added true perception. There are many more films to come in this career, and we’re all lucky for that. A director like this doesn’t come around very often. All we can do now is wait and see, and not get too excited by all the blood.