(Every month, we at The Spool select a Filmmaker of the Month, honoring the life and works of influential auteurs with a singular voice, for good or ill. Given that July sees the release of Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, the ninth film from Quentin Tarantino, we’re exploring the filmography of one of 20th-century cinema’s most breathlessly referential directors. Read the rest of our Filmmaker of the Month coverage of Tarantino here.)
So you could be forgiven for taking the climax of Inglourious Basterds — a crescendo of blood and flame and spent lead that kills a theater’s worth of Nazi brass on behalf of their Jewish victims — as the peak of his longstanding fascinations. Here, after all, are his favorite elements, combined under the soft, haunting glow of the projectionist’s light, luring the audience into another bright and bloody revenge fantasy.
That scene is the key to the film, but it’s the punchline to its subversion, rather than an affirmation of Tarantino’s usual instincts. The pulse-pounding climax represents the bigger idea of Inglourious Basterds — the stunning power of film to sway, to propagandize, and to earn our sympathies and fist-pumps for a myriad of brutal acts. So long as they’re visited on the right people., of course.
Yes, Tarantino’s sixth film works as a revenge fantasy, one buoyed by the shock of its heroes successfully slaying Hitler and his goons in outrageous fashion. But it’s also a stealthy self-expose on how easily filmmakers can manipulate us into rooting for the sort of cruelty we claim to abhor.
That high point sequence possesses a nesting doll irony. When celebrated Nazi sharpshooter Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) watches his exploits fictionalized on the silver screen, he winces, but he is alone. The audience in the theater swoons with each Allied Forces member shot down. The Third Reich patrons cheer when Zoller’s on-screen equivalent carves a swastika into the floor of his bird’s nest. Hitler himself sits enraptured, and Goebbels melts with gratitude in the shadow of his fuehrer’s approval for this work of nationalistic propaganda.
With this, Tarantino aims to earn our scorn for these obvious villains, channeled through Zoller as the unlikely objector. It’s easy to be horrified when a pack of high ranking Nazis sits around and roars with approval as their Aryan hero slowly picks off Allied soldiers. Zoller himself can’t watch it, as he admits to Shoshana (Mélanie Laurent), having seen the true horrors of war gussied up and transformed into objects of patriotic fervor.
It is, in and of itself, both a condemnation and a recognition, of film’s power to turn the horrible into the stirring, the abhorrent into the cheer-worthy, whether or not the real events so fancifully dramatized can support such rousing hagiography.
Tarantino demonstrates that power in Inglorious Basterds with his masterful ability to construct a scene. The opening chapter set at a French dairy farm is a brilliant exercise in introduction and escalation. Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa becomes the director’s virtuoso instrument, with his superlative performance allowing Tarantino to lay out the film’s perspective-shifting themes and build a growing sense of unease that curdles into dread, topped only by the scene’s twin.
Later on, when Shoshana is brought face-to-face with Landa three years later, the echoes of the milk, of the smoke, of very rhythms of the two scenes amplify that feeling of painful suspense to almost unbearable levels. Tarantino plays on the viewer’s expectation that the second scene with play out like the first, stretching the tension as long as possible. That suspense-through-mirroring underscores the moving image’s ability to conjure cause and effect, to tell the audience without words who’s predator and who’s prey.
The same’s true of the famed tavern scene in the middle of the movie, where Inglourious Basterds stretch out a single confrontation, one growing, spiraling problem, for nearly half an hour in the same location and, arguably, through the same conversation. It too is a master class in tension, as the potential exposure of the Basterds (led by Brad Pitt‘s Aldo Raine), Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), and Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) lurks at the edge of possibility, until it can be avoided no longer, and reaches a predictably grisly end.
These superbly-constructed scenes contain a steady stream of brutality, from ball-bursting gunshots to the tableaus of scalp quotas and brain-busting bats. The titular Basterds are uncouth and exacting in their vengeance. Their entire M.O. is blood-drenched psychological warfare, committed to acting so swiftly and brutally that they become frightening folk legends to the German soldiers they aim to eliminate. They add Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger) to their ranks for his Nazi-murdering prowess and cold-blooded creativity. They kill unflinchingly, revel in the joy of death, and brand any survivors by disfiguring them alive.
it’s … a stealthy self-expose on how easily filmmakers can manipulate us into rooting for the sort of cruelty we claim to abhor.
The film depicts a strange, equal and opposite sort of dignity from its German officers, with Hans Landa leading the way. But these individuals’ genteel qualities mask a harshness and a menace beneath their seemingly polite, respectful faux-nobility. In the end, Landa is shocked at his enemies’ unwillingness to participate in such theater, as their American directness and characteristically Tarantino-esque savagery, overwhelms his little show.
That inviting barbarism reaches its apex, as does the film, in the theater. It’s there that Tarantino tugs away at the veneer of propriety put on by these unwelcome occupiers. The film initially presents Zoller as the only person who recognizes the base propaganda of Nation’s Pride for what it is, and humanizes him in the process. It’s a marked shift for the character. However friendly his bearing, to this point Zoller has still pestered Shoshanna, ignored her wishes and insinuated himself into her life despite her polite but obvious disdain. It speaks to a sort of privilege and entitlement that damns him no matter the chipper demeanor it’s wrapped in.
But his moment of self-hatred and pity at seeing his deeds represented on screen softens him, paints him as, perhaps, one of the good ones. Only then, when our sympathies are roused, does Tarantino have him demand Shoshana’s affections, her deference, and submission, as the mandated recompense for all he’s done. It’s there that his velvet-lined bully pulpit turns into a bare threat, and the true ugliness that lies beneath is exposed. His mortal reveal proves one more instance of the director playing his audience’s sympathies like a fiddle from moment to moment.
The same holds true in the climax. Audiences have a natural inclination to side with a film’s protagonists and want to see their plans work out. So there’s a whiff of triumph when Shoshana’s message begins playing as the fire start to rise. And yet, Tarantino has the same mission that Goebbels’s fictional film did — to convince his audience to cheer, in patriotic fervor, as the right people are butchered.
“The Revenge of the Giant Face” quickly becomes over the top, as flames start to consume the panicked members of the audience. Two of the Basterds blast Hitler and his goons away with a comical array of bullets long after he’s clearly done for. They then take aim on the crowd, with shots that call to mind Scarface amid the high-volume, rapid-fire killings. And then, the entire sequence erupts in one final cathartic explosion. It’s an almost Looney Tunes level of violence stacked on violence stacked on violence.
That may be Tarantino’s specialty, but it holds a different purpose here. In the context of this film, it’s almost a challenge — how much camera-ready brutality can one film inflict upon nameless characters, identifiable only by the uniforms they wear and still get the audience to cheer for their horrific demise? That scene is the apex of the film’s power to show, well, the power of film. Inglourious Basterds builds to that moment, with scene after scene that asks the viewer to root for that type of savagery, and slips in the realization that the syntax of cinema can make it all palatable and even fun.
It’s no coincidence, then. Inglourious Basterds‘ true hero operates a theater. Its biggest villains (beyond Hitler himself) are the Nazi minister of propaganda and his new leading man. Our heroes’ allies are a student of cinematic history and a defecting German movie star. Even the fuel that starts the deadly blaze is a pile of nitrate film. Amid the 20th century’s defining political and military conflict, Tarantino puts the cinema (and those who operate in and around it) at the center of his story, making their figurative power to destroy as literal as it is liminal.
It’s a recognition of his chosen medium’s transformative effects for good and for ill. As a Nazi officer notes, the ghastly story of American Slavery is abstracted and made palatable when transmuted into the story of King Kong. Acts of brutality become reasons to hoot and holler when doled out with flair upon acceptable targets. Movies let us sublimate those impulses — to excuse, to indulge, to revenge — but they also shape them.
With that, Tarantino uses those tricks of the trade to expose the same in himself, to critique the propagandizing fury of a cinematic sway, at the same time he deploys it. The movie is one long dose of self-awareness, while simultaneously relishing in the tension of all these grand plans lurching toward fruition, until the ugly relief and satisfaction of that final act.
He wraps an otherwise navel-gazing “film about film” into a rollicking collection of moments, that collide and combust until the viewer is as ready to cheer the deaths of the bad guys as the bad guys themselves were moments ago. With that, Aldo Raine (and, by extension, Tarantino himself) have it right about Inglourious Basterds — this is his masterpiece.