“Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest thing we ever get to going to the movies.”
Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, the Tennessean harbinger of death and caustic quips in “Inglourious Basterds” – Quentin Tarantino’s best movie, and released 10 years ago this month – says that line in passing to a swastika-bearing Hitler footsoldier in the backwoods of France before the Bear Jew comes out, bat in hand, and, as advertised, proceeds to beat a Nazi to death.
The Basterds hoop and the Basterds holler like they’re at a movie where hooping and hollering goes unpunished, and so do we. It’s an explosion of catharsis, a bloody denouement to the suspense built on the words of Tarantino’s epic screenplay. The writer-director allows us to breath a guilty sigh of relief—the standoff has ended. And it ends for the better; the other Nazis in their capture don’t want their heads bashed off by an exuberant Eli Roth channeling his inner “Teddy Fuckin’ Ballgame” and wielding his bat with the might of an entire people behind it, and immediately provide the information Aldo was searching for.
The scene may indeed be a too-scarce, fleeting moment of unrestrained entertainment for the Basterds sneaking (and scalping) their way through enemy territory. But then it’s back to business, onto ambushing the next group. In a way, we, the ones bearing witness, are in the same situation. So much of “Inglourious Basterds” is a Blitzkrieg of suspense manifested with such virtuosity by Tarantino that it practically seeps through the screen. Even when the good guys have the upper hand – as with that aforementioned scene early in the film – the tension is unbearable. It’s a blinking contest with the gravitas of a Mexican standoff.
More than perhaps any of his other movies that unfold as a set of vignettes, each distinguished chapter in “Basterds” is as efficient an isolated short film as it is a torch-bearer of the bigger picture: War is hell – Tarantino creates that literal inferno at movie’s end – and it is because of the inevitability of violence that war is hell. Even when the violence is manifested in darkly comical ways (Tarantino gonna Tarantino), that is an unwavering fact in a movie that strays from fact in revolutionary ways once the Bear Jew trades his bat for an MP-40 and turns Hitler’s face into Swiss cheese.
I’ve often wondered how “Inglourious Basterds” avoided being widely categorized as satire. It’s as hyperbolic and over-the-top as anything the hyperbolic and over-the-top Tarantino had done up to that point (save for, perhaps, Beatrix Kiddo’s bloody tango with the Crazy 88s in “Kill Bill”), and what is his fantasy of a squad of mostly lanky American soldiers terrorizing the Nazi regime like the plague if not making a mockery of real-life history’s most despised villains? With all due respect to Paul Rust and B.J. Novak, seeing them sweep through Hitler’s forces patrol-group-by-patrol-group is like going to a James Bond movie and seeing Captain Quint asking for a martini, let alone the justification of that impression when Martin Wuttke’s coked-out Führer compares the Basterds to a supernatural force, able to appear and disappear at will.
I have to imagine that what keeps “Basterds” from ever veering into the territory of satire is how devoted Tarantino clearly is to shaping his characters, especially Christoph Waltz’s devilish Jew hunter, Hans Landa; Pitt’s rambunctious, confident Aldo; and Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna, the Jewish avenger who brings the movie full circle. The devotion is so deep you could almost call it sentimentality, much in the same way Jules transcends his profane, cheeky hitman persona with philosophical musings in the final act of “Pulp Fiction,” or how Jackie Brown takes on the men around her by taking matters into her own hands. The central triumvirate of “Basterds” instantly became three more iconic Tarantino figures—monarchs of hellfire with a special brand of coolness and verve and sublety that’s manifested largely through a lack thereof. Waltz – whose performance was the delightfully, horrifyingly, defiantly least subtle of them all – even won an Academy Award for his turn.
There aren’t many scenes where these three characters directly interact with one another (something Tarantino expertly ensures largely goes unnoticed over 150 minutes), and, really, for a large chunk of the story they’re completely unaware of each other’s existence—even when they’re in close proximity. Tarantino was nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2010 for this movie, and his exhaustive manifestation of suspense in these scenes, especially, explains why: He has never been better at disarming us of our control as the audience at the same time as he’s disarming his characters. His dialogue crackles and whips and engrosses to near-unnerving levels that, before you know it, you’re practically next to each character on the screen when the suspense – the horror, even – begins to rear its head. Subtlety, manifested largely through a lack thereof. The audience is rarely in the dark about what the movie’s different factions are scheming, but “Basterds” – because of the writing, but also in part because of its exhaustingly tense music and camerawork – still reeks of inevitability, of impending gunfire through floorboards or in a basement bar or in a movie theater. The conversations in “Basterds” are merry mirth, and they are decadent dynamite. This is what we talk about when we talk about talking.
Much has been said about the film’s opening — as unnervingly great today as it was in 2009 — and the basement bar scene — a masterclass in creating, maintaining and paying off enough tension to stretch a rubber band across the Atlantic — but I don’t think the restaurant scene in Chapter 3 (“German Night in Paris”) between Shosanna and Hans gets its due. Even before Hans arrives to an alarming musical cue that sounds like the devil’s army marching in to take Shosanna away, there’s a fascinating labyrinth of lingual interplay afoot between her, the German war hero Fredrick Zoller, and German Minister of Propoganda Joseph Goebbels and his translator—the only one in the room who can speak both French and German. Tarantino writes the scene, in which they discuss holding the premiere of Goebbels’s new film at Shosanna’s theater, with a matter-of-factness and leaves it up to the language barriers to create the dramatic irony for him.
Subtitles allow us to know what everyone is saying; Shosanna, though, in this brightly lit cafe where brunch is being served, is in the dark. When Zoller and Goebbles briefly squabble about their priorities in choosing a theater, all she can go by are intonations and body language; when the discussion de-escalates and they’re laughing and toying with one another, all she can do is acknowledge, and provide an eternal gif in the process.
Because Tarantino employs this trick of bilingual conversations in the opening scene – when Hans coerces LaPadite, in English, into revealing the Jewish Dreyfuses hiding under his floorboards – we expect something horrifying to happen, even though the story at this point involves stakes that are dramatically reduced. And Shosanna has kept her identity so closely guarded for four years after her family was massacred at the farm anyway, that we begin to think we might not have to worry—until Hans walks in and places her hand on his shoulder. At this point, all bets are off; no matter how many times you watch “Inglourious Basterds,” we can never quite know what knowledge Waltz is managing to hide behind Hans’s scrupulous eyes, or if his extinguishing of the cigarette in the strudel should be construed as a threat. Even when he eventually leaves without ever mentioning the name Dreyfus or LaPadite, we still don’t know if she’s been made, if he’s just biding his time, enjoying his games. The glass of milk he orders for her certainly suggests it.
As Hans, Waltz is free of ambiguity, even business-like. I’m hard-pressed to think of a villain in recent years – aside from Heath Ledger’s Joker – that so eerily charms us in spite of everything; he’s the Hannibal Lecter for a new millennia. The characterization by Tarantino works over the course of the whole film, but also provides a sandbox for him to toy with our expectations in specific moments. For one: When Hans lunges at the throat of Von Hammersmark in the final act. Up until now, we haven’t seen him get his hands dirty, and it makes the moment all the more terrifying.
It’s a jump scare as much as anything in the movie, and just one example of Sally Menke’s contributions to “Basterds”—contributions which cannot be overstated enough. The stitching-together of moments, sequences, snippets is as delightfully intrusive as it is seamless. Some of the edits cut as sharply as a machete and jolt with the force of a bullet, even when it’s just for a second. We don’t think of Basterds as a horror movie (unless, I suppose, you’re a Nazi) but there are some sneaky field trips that are just a degree or two removed from being, as mentioned, an outright jump scare: Think the sudden close-up to a head being gruesomely scalped; and the roughly 1.6-second hop to Goebbels engaged with his translator in some…extra-curriculars; and, of course, the quick cut to a close-up of a screaming Hans’s forehead as Aldo’s Rambo-sized knife slices a swastika into it. It’s part of the allure of “Basterds” that we can’t know why, compared to all the violence and mayhem we just witnessed at the theater, this shot is even more likely to make our jaw drop, make us bristle in our seats. It’s unpredictable in that way, and I somehow never am quite prepared for it no matter how many times I watch.
One of my favorites, and a bit of a longer one, of these detours: The Sam Jackson-narrated aside describing Hugo Stiglitz’s ultraviolent backstory seemingly for no other reason other than the movie can, casually turning Tarantino’s western war epic into a comic book movie for about, oh, 75 seconds? In it: Aldo talks to Stiglitz, at this point behind bars for the murder of 13 Gestapo officers about his “great talent” as a Nazi-killer with the candor of a baseball scout; Pitt’s Billy Beane two years before Moneyball came out. It’s over almost as soon as it begins, and you’re almost left wondering if you had just imagined it.
It all lends credence to the movie’s greatest accomplishment: Despite the fact it almost goes out of its way to ensure the audience is in on everything that’s happening on the screen – the horror we harbor is for its characters, not ourselves – we almost talk ourselves into thinking that Hans, Aldo or Shosanna are up to something Tarantino isn’t telling us about. Tarantino’s screenplay is so generous in allowing us to know more than the characters to at all times, but it’s a testament to his filmmaking here that, 10 years later, the thought still lingers in our mind on rewatches. “Inglourious Basterds” doesn’t simply wear its suspense on its bloodied, vengeful sleeve…it’s the movie’s whole outfit. Scalped head to toe.
I also appreciate that Tarantino’s tricks and treatises in “Basterds” are, in many scenes, synonymous with the cinema. In “Pulp Fiction” it was food and restaurants – the Royale with Cheese, the Big Kahuna Burger, Jack Rabbit Slim’s, the $5 milkshake – that his words seemed to show a particularly keen affection for. Here, it’s WWII-era filmmakers and cinemas. Tarantino is often characterized, both in praise and criticism, as an indulgent filmmaker; it doesn’t get more gleefully indulgent than a pile of nitrate film stock serving as the keystone to his exuberantly revisionist history in Chapter 5 (“Revenge of the Giant Face”). When Shosanna tells Marcel – in the special movie they’ve created, and the last one the cadre of Nazi superiors will ever watch – to set it all ablaze, she’s now doing so from behind the veil of death, having been shot by Zoller who finally creates the violence we’ve felt from their first encounter that he’s capable of. In “Basterds,” cinema immortalizes. And cinema kills.
Our knowledge of Tarantino’s background as a lover of movies sometimes blurs the lines between character intention and subtext, as well. When Shosanna strides out of the Paris restaurant after making the connection that the pestering Zoller stars in a movie about the three days in a bell tower that made him a war hero, we assume she’s disgusted at his having killed over 200 soldiers; perhaps some of them were French. But I’m not completely sure it isn’t Tarantino taking over the character, if for a moment, as he’s unable to fathom the idea of a movie being produced where the main subject is played by the very same person that inspired him. For someone whose indulgences many would refer to as masturbatory, the idea that Tarantino is offering a glimpse at what he considers to be a deadly sin of the cinema is one that I’ve gravitated to with that scene over the years.
It isn’t a stretch to say that the funnier scenes Tarantino has written over the course of his career are high-brow sitcoms, if there ever was such a thing. Everything that happens in “Basterds” is sacramentally circumstantial, a byproduct of everything happening in its own little cinematic region—the politics, the denizens, the atmosphere. And, also, the humor. One of my favorite weird little moments in “Basterds” that only Tarantino could come up with comes across as a bit of advice to the audience through Aldo’s lips which, upon further reflection, we’d never have any use for: Never set up a rendezvous behind enemy lines in a fuckin’ basement. The line is so colorfully off-kilter and so perfectly delivered by Pitt with a brief silence following that you expect a laugh track to fill the void.
A few moments later, Michael Fassbender’s even-keeled temporary Basterd, the British Lt. Archie Hicox, makes a point to Aldo about how Hugo, diligently sharpening his knife in the room over, isn’t exactly “the loquacious type.”
“Is that what you need, Lieutenant? The loquacious type?” Aldo responds. As it turns out…yeah, it is. The only thing the Basterds could hope to do in that fuckin’ basement is talk their way out; the only weapon they have, literally, is loquaciousness. War remains as unpredictable as ever.
Aldo learns that for himself, of course, following the blown cover in that fuckin’ basement and the brief mayhem that serves as this chapter’s explosion of tension—the inevitable snapping of the rubber band—the gunfire ripping through beer steins and bodies—the denouement to a scene that many would allege is the movie’s very best. It takes a special madman of a screenwriter to take a sequence that begins with drunken celebration of a new father and end it with a room full of bodies; it takes Tarantino to do it with the precision of someone who is intent on making sure we’re sweating beads for our protagonists as they do something as positively harmless as playing a game of Guess Who. No Nazis make it out of that basement alive, and no Basterds do either. It’s the only one of those explosions of catharsis in “Basterds” in which neither faction ends up having defeated the other.
“Inglourious Basterds” may be revisionist history, but there’s nothing glossed over about the chaos and unpredictability of war—no matter how cartoonishly Tarantino chooses to portray it. His sensibilities may be misleading, but the end product is often revealing.