After Death Proof, something shifted in Quentin Tarantino’s career. Whereas Kill Bill: Volume 2 took his love of monologues to a numbing dead end, Death Proof introduced a more buoyant tone into his body of work. Not only did Death Proof feature more conversations than in any of Tarantino’s films to date, but it paired them with a much more dynamic sense of space. Paradoxically, that more laidback quality meant that Death Proof was also Tarantino’s most suspenseful film at that point in time – and still his only real horror film – as he immersed us in long, languorous scenes that brimmed with incipient, evocative danger. All of those tendencies would be condensed into his next two films, both of which took this languorous dynamism and applied it to the western, although with a very different outcome from the desert landscapes and gunslinger pastiche of Kill Bill: Volume 2.
The first shot of Inglourious Basterds is the first step in that process, and it’s unlike anything else in Tarantino’s career up to this point – even the Del Camo Mall sequence in Jackie Brown. Right away, we’re bound up in a classical sweep and suspense, as Tarantino takes the widescreen vistas of the western, overlays them with Rodrigo-like guitar flourishes, and transplants them to World War II. In the first moments of this opening chapter, titled “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi-Occupied France,” we’re presented with an expansive landscape, where a collection of farmers gradually train their gaze on a troupe of Nazis approaching in the distance. The troupe is commandeered by SS Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, who is hunting down the last remaining Jewish family that is being harboured in the region. In a remarkably suspenseful opening scene, he interrogates the homeowner, first in French, and then in English, before instructing his men to open fire on the hidden Jews, who he eventually uncovers. Only one member of the Jewish family escapes – Shosanna, played by Melanie Laurent, who we next see in disguise, managing a cinema in Nazi-occupied Paris.
The remainder of Inglourious Basterds effectively plays out as five sustained sequences, all of which elliptically and elegantly converge on an assassination attempt on the core members of the Nazi party. The first plot strand revolves around the Inglourious Basterds of the title, a collection of (mainly) American Jewish soldiers, led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine, played by Brad Pitt, who move across German occupied territory, murdering any Nazis in their path. The next plot strand revolves around Operation Kino, an Allied plan to infiltrate the Nazi party with the assistance of Sergeant Archie Hicox, played by Michael Fassbender, and German actress Bridget von Hammersmarck, played by Diane Kruger. The final plot strand revolves around Shosanna’s relationship with Private Fredrick Zoller, a German soldier played by Daniel Bruhl. Zoller is both a war hero and a film star, and is slated to play himself in the next big Nazi picture, Nation’s Pride, in which he relives the event that brought him fame – shooting down over a hundred Allied soldiers while he was trapped in a bell tower. When Zoller becomes obsessed with Shosanna, he convinces Hitler and Goebbels to host the premiere of Nation’s Pride, putting her in an ideal position to enact her revenge on the Nazi party, especially once she realises that Colonel Landa will be attending.
Inglourious Basterds thus marks the beginning of a new engagement, in Tarantino’s career, with institutions of white supremacy, from the Nazi party, to slavery, to the Manson family. It also marks a shift away from his trademark monologues, moving between French, German, Italian and English too fluently for any character to hold centre stage for too long. These constant shifts in language also emphasise the small nuances of conversation, and draw out the minutiae of inflection and body language in a really suspenseful manner. The most nail-biting scene starts with a quibble about an unusual German accent, and escalates by way of an unusual piece of body language, while the pivotal moments all tend to focus on rapid shifts in language, and groups of people who don’t all speak the same set of languages. In this way, Tarantino subsumes his macho monologues into a broader sense of mise-en-scene, more focused on pauses, close-ups, small interruptions and ambient sound than any of his previous films. That’s not to say, however, that he entirely relinquishes those monologic tendencies, since most of the conversations here have the same one-sided power dynamic as his earlier monologues. What’s different here is that it’s not always clear who has the power to eventually turn the conversation into a monologue, or how and when they are going to wield that power, and so undercut the artifice of conversational freedom.
In other words, Inglourious Basterds is effectively a series of interrogations whose parameters remain unclear until each one is almost finished. Most of these interrogations touch on Colonel Landa, who is easily one of Tarantino’s best creations. Interestingly, Landa comes closer than any other character to Tarantino’s earlier monologic style, while monologues become a vehicle for white supremacy and white terror in his hands. Rather than applying his micro-observations to popular culture, as occurred with Tarantino’s earlier monologists, Landa instead applies them to the minutiae of Nazi ideology. In the opening scene, he questions the French farmer about why people perceive rats and squirrels differently (“they are both rodents, are they not”), mobilising the German rhetoric around Jewish “vermin” – the precursor to genocide – as a platform for the kinds of observational humour typical of Tarantino’s earliest features. In scene like this, Landa made me realise that the inane sense of play typical of Tarantino’s earliest features was always, in and of itself, a white ideology; the ludic and perverse enjoyment of a subject position so protected by privilege that it can treat the world around it as a vehicle for its own bemused absurdity.
For the most part, it is this inane, ludic quality, rather than any affiliation with the Nazi party, that marks Landa as the film’s main spokesman for white supremacy. In fact, Landa is largely indifferent to ideology, adopting more of a bureaucratic or corporate outlook on his duties: “Like any enterprise, under new management, there is always a slight duplication of efforts.”In the final scenes of the film, he’s quite content for Hitler, Goebbels and the entire Nazi party to die, so long as he is given immunity – and yet it is this ideological slipperiness, and this supreme assurance of his own exceptionalism, that makes him such an asset to the Nazi party in the first place, since it allows him, among other things, to “think like a Jew” when hunting down Jews. While he may not be ideologically aligned with Nazism, then, he is the affective figurehead for white supremacy in the film, even or especially when he assumes that his exceptionalism situates him above, or outside, the ideologues he “serves.”
Rather than presenting Nazism as a series of beliefs, Tarantino thus presents it as a form of pleasure, and a way of structuring pleasure. However, this immediately creates a tension between Landa and the rest of the film, and between Landa and Tarantino’s entire body of work. On the one hand, Landa already seems to have exceeded Tarantino’s career-long process of reinvesting white masculine cinema with a sense of purpose and drive. Not only does his whiteness exceed any other forms of whiteness that the film can possibly conceive, but Landa carries himself with a supremely cinematic sense of timing and mise-en-scene. You might say that Landa identifies with the performative dimension of Nazism more than Nazism itself, making him the campest character in the film, but also the most capable of decisive action, just as he is the actor least known to American audience, even as he exudes the most magnetic and irresistible screen presence, both as an actor and as a character. So confident is Landa in his own exceptionalism and in his own cinematic timing and precision that he becomes a challenge to Tarantino – an incentive for him to deliver a form of white masculine cinema that can address Landa’s provocative suggestion that white masculinity may be nothing but performance and pastiche that Tarantino has always worked to avoid.
In other words, Inglourious Basterds sets out to reclaim white masculinity from Nazism, presenting Hitler and Goebels as beta males, and the Basterds as alphas, making for a film that is more about white Americans than German Jews. More specifically, Tarantino sets out to reclaim white cinematic masculinity from Nazism, in a kind of expansion of his paranoid cinematic universe in which the Nazi party is ultimately responsible for the white pastiche that his films have continually defined themselves against. Just as Django Unchained will expand Tarantino’s agon between authentic and performative white masculinity back into the nineteenth-century, and discover the origins of blaxploitation in slavery, so Inglourious Basterds radically elongates Tarantino’s cinematic universe, or cinematic economy. In Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, Tarantino seemed prescient that white masculinity was doomed to pastiche at the peak of postmodernism, but Inglourious Basterds seems to find both a volatile core of white masculinity, and a disarming acknowledgment that white masculinity is inseparable from performance, in Landa’s ludic presence. To that end, Tarantino makes it clear, from the outset, that Nazi machismo is inseparable from the Nazi film machine, presenting the appropriation of the French film industry as the Nazis’ biggest transgression to date, and their appropriation of the American film industry as the most terrifying future in store if they manage to cross the Pacific and command the United States.
Before it radically revises history, then, Inglourious Basterds is haunted by an alternative future – what if the Nazi party had conquered the United States, conquered the American film industry, and left us with nothing but white pastiche right up until the present? Of course, the fact that Tarantino is haunted by that question means that he believes that this future has in some sense already occurred, and that the fate of white cinematic masculinity in America has been indubitably compromised by not managing to address World War II with the same rigour and conviction as the Nazi film machine. Tarantino therefore makes it his mission to create a film that outdoes Leni Riefenstahl for its passion and conviction around white masculinity – a fantasy that will allow him to finally bring World War II to a close by asserting the supremacy of American cinematic machismo. As a result, Raine and his troupe often feel as if they are in a different film – a film-within-the-film, or the kind of film that Hollywood should have made at the time – since their broad style of acting is quite different from the naturalistic suspense of the other subplots, while the chaptered structure keeps them sequestered from most of the action until the very end. Although Inglourious Basterds is renowned for both the actions of the Basterds, and the suspenseful scenes, the two rarely occur at the same time, while Pitt, especially, appears less than you might think.
This standoff between the American and German film image converges on Daniel Bruhl’s character, Private Zoller, the self-described “Sergeant York” of the Third Reich. As both a war hero and film hero, Zoller conflates the machismo of the Nazi Party into a cinematic-military confection that means that resistance must depend on cinematic as much as military knowledge. Tarantino and his characters always before their taste in a militaristic manner, so Fassbender’s character, Archie Hicox, feels like a particularly close cipher for Tarantino. Before becoming a soldier Hicox wrote two books on German Expressionism, and the influence of Jewish communities on both German and American cinema, making him the ideal candidate for an operation that demands a military-cinematic pedigree. For a while, Hicox’s presence and expertise works to reiterate cinema as a Jewish institution, due to the influence of Jewish culture in Weimar Germany, and the presence of émigré Jewish communities in Hollywood. After a while, though, the balance starts to shift, as the threat to Jewish communities is subsumed into the Third Reich’s threat to Hollywood, and anti-semitism becomes just another facet of the Nazi film machine’s presumption in challenging the American film image. Thwarting Goebbels’ plans for a new film era, devoid of Jewish people, means thwarting a German film industry that dares to question Hollywood masculinity. In the process, Shosanna’s plan is gradually fused with Operation Kino, headed by Wilcox, his cinematic knowledge, and the cinematic-military apparatus that it reiterates.
For that reason, Jewish culture is weirdly absent from Inglourious Basterds, deflected into precisely the masculine tropes that would have been aligned against Jewish culture in Hollywood at this time, rather than used to serve the proud Jewish identity that the film is supposedly extolling. While Tarantino revises several historical events, this is perhaps the central revisionist gesture in Inglourious Basterds – the assurance that classical Hollywood could conceivably have been used to serve Jewish interests. In that respect, the Basterds are as invested in disseminating a certain kind of Hollywood strut as they are in killing Nazis, forming a roving troupe of film tropes that don’t actually do all that much in the movie, instead operating as the cinematic substrate, and the confidence in American film power, that Operation Kino needs to survive in the first place. During some of their alpha moments, it’s hard not to feel that the key gesture of Inglourious Basterds is repressing the similarities between the American and the German film image, their investment in whiteness, and their opposition to Jewish culture, at this point in time, as Tarantino instead fantasises an American film industry that was even more invested in whiteness than the Nazi film industry, but which was able to use this against the Nazi film industry, in the service of Jews.
In the final chapter of the film, this reframes World War II as a struggle for the cinematic mode of production, in which film literally becomes the weapon of attack, as Shosanna outlines a plan to trap the Nazi party in her theatre, stack up all the film stock, and then use it to burn the theatre to the ground. Through this plan, we finally return to the basic cinematic economy of Tarantino’s earlier films, in which white machismo can only survive with the assistance of black machismo, as Shosanna finds herself bookended by the only two black voices in Inglourious Basterds. The first belongs to Marcel, the African projectionist, played by Jacky Ido, who questions whether there will be enough heat to destroy the theatre. The second comes from Samuel L. Jackson, who narrates a short aside demonstrating the flammable properties of nitrate, and so proving that there will indeed be enough fire to consume the entire Nazi party. The volatility of film here is as dependent upon Jackson’s voice as on the footage of nitrate burning, so it’s no coincidence that this is the only part of the film where Jackson’s narration has any kind of real import on the action taking place. Like Holdaway in Reservoir Dogs, or Marsellus Wallace in Pulp Fiction, black machismo ratifies the volatility of the Hollywood machine, and its vision of white masculinity, as projectionist and narrator are fused into the substrate of Tarantino’s vision.With the volatility and flammability of film ratified in this way, Shosanna reveals that she is not merely planning to burn the nitrate in the theatre, but to make a film about it, and screen it before the theatre burns, fusing the creative and destructive powers of film into one sublime gesture. The final sequence of Inglourious Basterds is poised between the film she is destroying and the film she is making, and starts with a hyperreal sequence scored to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, taken from Paul Schrader’s 1982 film Cat People, as a series of slow fades follow Shosanna getting ready to meet the Nazis.
At the very moment at which this reclamation of the American film image begins, then, Tarantino’s vision becomes totally ahistorical, fusing the Nazi party with the wildest and most flamboyant moments in American cinema and post-war pop culture, making this final scene feel like a Bowie music clip as much as a historical recreation. Decked out in Nazi regalia, the cinema now becomes the most vividly etched space in Tarantino’s career, after the Del Camo Mall in Jackie Brown, even as Hitler and Goebbels are presented with more banality and bathos than they have ever exuded on the big screen. The Nazi image machine, rather than the Nazi party, is what threatens and entrances Tarantino’s vision of World War II, which can only end with the wholesale destruction of this space of maximal white cinematic machismo. In a sublime sequence, Shosanna piles a stock of film behind the screen, and then shoots Zoller in the projection booth while his character is also shooting on screen, destroying him at the very moment at which his military and cinematic personae come together, and so putting a major dent in the military-cinematic complex that he is supposed to serve. While Zoller shoots Shosanna in turn, she is immediately deflected, through the projector, onto the big screen, where her home-made film taunts the audience with the death they are about to endure. Finally, the nitrate is lit, behind the screen, by Marcel, fusing the film stock, the film screen and the film theatre into a single infernal miasma, all of which warps and distorts Shosanna’s image, which continues to be projected.
The only person to escape this extraordinary final sequence – a literal attack on the cinematic mode of production – is Marcel, who must remain in place to affirm the white cinematic machismo whose wrath has been unleashed by Tarantino on the Nazi cinematic infrastructure that dares to compete with it. Indeed, so thoroughly are stock, screen and space fused in this finale that it is as if Tarantino has waged war with his own celluloid, making this a particularly visceral sequence to see on actual film. Having absorbed Jewish resistance and black machismo into this fiery spectacle, Inglourious Basterds is finally free to return to the white swagger of Raine and his troupes, and to affirm Tarantino’s own auteurism once again. The film ends with Raine freeing Landa, but not before carving a Nazi symbol in his forehead, observing to one of his sidekicks that he may have created his “masterpiece” with this one. The same probably holds for Inglourious Basterds, since while it may not depart drastically from the worldview of Tarantino’s earliest films, it elaborates that worldview more flamboyantly and idiosyncratically than any of those works, with the exception of Jackie Brown. Still, it doesn’t quite shine in the same way as Jackie Brown either, since its determination to wage war at – or reduce war to – the cinematic mode of production means that there is finally nothing but cinema in Inglourious Basterds. Much of the time, that’s exhilarating, but it also creates a faintly hermetic quality, a slightly impotent plasticity, that Tarantino would address further with Django Unchained, the spiritual sequel to Jackie Brown, and the apex of this later flourishing of the western in Tarantino’s career.