Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)


Auteur theory states that directors, as the creative forces behind all films and the ultimate controllers of the photography, music, acting, editing, scenery and everything else, should be classed as artists in the same way Dylan, Dostoevsky and Da Vinci are. If there is ever a director with a style so distinctive, so original and so creative as to justify this high status, then Quentin Tarantino is the man. Inglourious Basterds, like Pulp Fiction and near enough every other film he has ever made, has his name stamped all over it. From the larger-than-life Characters with a capital C to the quirky script and eccentric music, Inglourious Basterds blooms with imagination. The fact that it is a film and thus that anything can happen is used to its maximum potential: World War 2 is rewritten. Reality disappears, and we get to see what we (or at least what Tarantino) really wants.

This takes the form of a group of Jewish Americans (the ‘Basterds’) landing in German-occupied France and, in the words of Brad Pitt’s fantastic Lieutenant Aldo Raine, a man from Tennessee with the most intentionally exaggerated Southern twang you will ever hear, ‘doing one thang, and one thang only: killin’ Nazis.’ These men are not just killing, though. That’s too humane, given Nazi inhumanity. Rather, they capture the German soldiers, beat them with a baseball bat and devour their scalps. The odd soldier is allowed to live, of course, so the message of the Basterds’ existence can be spread. But even these soldiers are left with a mark, since the Basterds like their Nazis in uniform, so that they are easily recognisable. The idea of these soldiers returning home, hugging their mum and burning their outfit is repugnant to them. So Aldo carves a Swastika into their foreheads. That’s something they won’t be able to take off.

At the same time as following these lunatic men, who taunt their captives about eating Sauerkraut sandwiches again and who love to oblige the Nazis willing to die for their country, we also observe the escape from hiding of a Jewish girl named Shosanna, who subsequently gains a new identity and lays low as a nice Parisian cinema-owner; the type that spends her days reading, drinking and smoking in cafés. Thirdly and finally, we follow Hans Landa, nicknamed the ‘Jew Hunter.’ He’s an incredibly twisted Nazi, even for their standards; at times polite and charming, but, naturally, with a vicious streak and a wicked sense of humour, too.

These characters are forced together by a Nazi film premiere, which is chosen by the movie’s star to be hosted at Shosanna’s cinema, unbeknownst to all that she’s Jewish. Landa will be present, as will Hitler. Aldo and his friends will get tickets as the guests of a double agent German actress. An alternative version of how the War (only in Tarantino’s wild imagination) could have crazily and hilariously turned out is shown to us, in truly vivid clarity and colour.

It could be interpreted as distasteful. The Jews may win in Tarantino’s world, obviously unlike they did in reality, but they do so in a way that is supposed to be funny. Aldo Raine and his group aren’t wimpering Oskar Schindler’s in gut-wrenching agony over the mistreatment they see. They’re equally vicious killers that probably, inexplicably, even enjoy their job! Is this distasteful? Possibly. It’s hard to say without sympathising from a Jewish perspective, which I find hard to do because of my context. But moralising aside, and taking Inglourious entirely as a piece of art, it never intended to be a serious treatise on the war and an emotional rollercoaster. The pop music and speed at which the film moves on after each death shows that. It just wants to be funny, and make one feel slightly uncomfortable when you laugh regarding a topic normally so taboo for comedy. And I use the word when you laugh with real purpose here. It’s not a case of if. Aldo Raine’s lines are a delight; it’s impossible not to guffaw.

And this fact leads me on to another incredible thing about this film: it’s two and a half hours in length, but doesn’t feel a second over 90 minutes. This is despite the fact that it is absolutely packed with dialogue. The characters literally do not stop talking. No other director and writer could pull off such a feat and still create a popular film. And yet this popularity isn’t at the cost of a sacrificing of artistic quality, for all the aforementioned reasons.

For cinephiles, Inglourious is also littered with references to film history and film making in general. Most notable is the influence of Jean-Luc Godard, of whom Tarantino is openly a huge fan. The chapter announcements for each extended scene definitely reflect the tableaux used in Vivre Sa Vie and Masculin, Feminin (which were in turn inspired by Brechtian theatre). And the former of these two French New Wave films also adores its protagonist’s handwriting, of which we get a glimpse when Landa scribbles in his notebook at the start. The film even revolves around a cinema as the centre point of its key events, and the explanation of 35-mm film’s flammability further gives Tarantino a chance to educate us on the production process.

Inglourious is a masterpiece. It’s fun and it’s about World War 2. Who else could have possibly achieved that, other than this insane auteur, Quentin Tarantino?

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