Inglourious Basterds part 5

At the top of Act V of Inglourious Basterds, Shoshanna broods in her red dress and puts on her war paint — her makeup — in order to do battle with the Nazis and (as far as she knows) single-handedly win WWII.  As she broods, we are treated to a quick flashback to her and Marcel, her boyfriend/projectionist, making a short movie in the projection-booth stairwell and taking it to the chemist to get it developed.  Unfortunately, the movie is set in Nazi-occupied France, which means that Shoshanna and Marcel have to pin the chemist to a table and threaten him and his family with an axe just to get a roll of film developed — CVS’s one-hour photo services are, apparently, far in the distant future.

Tarantino makes a serious point with the beat about the film developing.  Shoshanna, the most sympathetic character in the movie, is plotting mass murder, with the stakes no less than the end of the Third Reich.  This is serious business.  She can’t get the film developed by just anybody, it contains a message to the Nazis that gives new meaning to the word "inflammatory."  So she must threaten the chemist’s life, and the lives of his family.  She must become a thug, a gangster, using the same tactics as her enemies — bullying, threats and intimidation — to achieve her ends.  But we don’t cringe at Shoshanna’s thuggery, we giggle and applaud it.  Why?  Because Tarantino has made us root for her.  We saw her entire family killed at the hands of that Col Landa guy, we can’t wait to see her get her revenge.  The chemist is a collaborator, who cares about him or his family?  He associates with Nazis, he gets what he deserves, or at least that’s what the movie would have us believe.

The real subject of Inglourious Basterds is, I think, the way we see ourselves and the world through movies.  Movies are lies that tell the truth.  There is nothing real about them, and there is even less real about Inglourious Basterds thanthere is about most movies.  Hitler is the Big Kahuna of Inglourious Basterds, but he’s a straw man — the movie’s real antagonist is Goebbels, the Third Reich’s movie producer.  It’s his job to produce the movies that will sell the lie of Nazi supremacy, just as it’s the job of the Jewish studio heads in Hollywood to sell the lies of Allied supremacy.  The title of this chapter of Basterds is "The Revenge of the Giant Face" — the "giant face" being the close-up on a movie screen.  Reality rarely comforts or inspires, but movies do that all the time — that is, in fact, what they’re made to do.  When the World Trade Center collapsed, there is not a person in the world who didn’t say "My God, it looks just like a movie," and that is, I think, what Basterds is really about.  Movies have come to be the way we understand the world, and when something looks "just like a movie," we understand that to mean that it has taken a moment from drab reality and elevated it to the level of spectacle, justice or poetry.  Hitler understood the power of movies from the very beginning, he knew that the "giant face" on the screen was more powerful and more seductive, more crucial to selling himself, than any number of impassioned speeches.  Which is why Shoshanna’s murderous revenge feels just and complete — she combines the power of the giant face with the impact of real-life explosives, raising the bar, permanently, for cinematic special effects.  (Imagine what William Castle would have done with a movie that actually set the theater on fire.  And don’t think it didn’t occur to the producers of The Towering Inferno.)

After this brief overture, the suspense set-piece that will take up most of the rest of the movie jumps right in.  For a writer who loves to chat, Tarantino the director really knows how to cut to the chase.  Somebody said once that movies are like life with all the boring bits cut out, and Tarantino movies are like movies with all the boring bits cut out.

We’re at the premiere for Nation’s Pride, at Shoshanna’s theater, which she has turned into a giant bomb, a giant oven, to roast the Nazi high command, and their stooges, alive.  Hitler came to power using movies as a tool, and Shoshanna is going to remove him from power using movies as a tool in a way Hitler never even imagined possible.  In the lobby, Goebbels chats with Emil Jannings, star of The Blue Angel and correctly identified as the greatest actor in Germany.  Jannings, the reader will recall, couldn’t make it in Hollywood because of his thick German accent, and so went back to Germany and made movies advancing the Nazi cause.  This makes him, in terms of the narrative of Basterds, as bad as Landa.

And here’s Landa now, coming down the stairs of the lobby to greet Bridget von Hammersmark, who has just shown up, in a cast, with Raine and his Basterds.  Landa, of course, already knows exactly what’s going on, knows why von Hammersmark is there, knows who the Basterds are, and has plans for them all.  And we know, or think we know, what he knows and what his plans are, but Landa, who is, for the most part, a genius, still has some tricks up his sleeve.

He asks von Hammersmark about the cast on her leg, and she tells him she broke her leg mountain-climbing.  Landa busts a gut laughing at this, which is a great joke, since Landa’s response, we know, is at the ludicrousness of her excuse.  The conversation in the lobby, like the one in the tavern, is an improv, and Landa has just corpsed — his improv partner has said something so outrageous that he can’t keep astraight face any longer.

The Basterds, of course, are supposed to be Italian.  Raine apparently has a glancing acquaintance with the language (for some reason, maybe with a name like Aldo he has Italian relatives in rural Tennessee), but he doesn’t bother with an accent at all.  He looks visibly uncomfortable with even trying.  Unlike most of the characters in the movie, Raine doesn’t seem comfortable with performance, with pretending to be something he’s not.  His fellow Basterds, meanwhile, can only "pretend to be Italian," the result being exactly the same as it would be in a Hollywood movie of the time — Jews playing Italians with ridiculous accents.  What they’ve seen in movies is probably the only thing Pvts Donowitz and Ulmer know about Italians, and Raine doesn’t even want to deal with that level of pretense.  Which is another reason we kind of like Raine — he’s a Murrican, a know-nothing patriot who’s more comfortable bullying his way through a situation than he is pretending to be something he’s not.

Landa’s impromptu improv ends, Landa escorts von Hammersmark away, Donowitz and Ulmer take their seats, and Raine remains, in his white dinner jacket, looking for all the world like a boy stood up by his date in the lobby of the theater.  Meanwhile, Shoshanna goes over her plan with Marcel, who loves Shoshanna’s new look. (He compares her to Danielle Darrieux, which has a complicated meaning in the current political landscape — Darrieux is a French actress criticized for continuing to work in Nazi-occupied Paris — another performer who, as Landa plans to, "took off her uniform" after the war was over after using the prevailing winds to keep herself afloat.)  Shoshanna and Marcel intend to lock themselves inside the theater with their enemies, and Raine and his men have time-bombs strapped to their legs.  Do any of them plan to get out of the theater before they blow it up?  If not, then they are all suicide bombers.  From our point of view, that elevates them above the Nazis they’re planning to kill, because it means they will die for their cause.  But step back one step further, and they become simple terrorists, no different than the men and women who blow themselves up in marketplaces and buses today.

In Shoshanna’s office, Landa interrogates von Hammersmark, or rather, he tortures her, if only psychologically.  He knows she’s guilty, he knows exactly what her plan is, he merely toys with her, performs another little play, this one based on "Cinderella," until she sighs and gives in, tired of performing.  At which point he leaps upon her and strangles her to death.

Why does Landa kill von Hammersmark?  We will see, soon enough, that he intends to let Raine go through with Operation Kino, and there’s even reason to suspect that he knows that Shoshanna is planning some kind of skullduggery.  Why does he pounce upon von Hammersmark?  I have two theories: one, he suspects that von Hammersmark, as a double agent, may have divided loyalties this evening, and might screw up Operation Kino for some unknown reason, or else he just can’t stand the notion of a woman who pretends to support the Nazis while secretly planning to destroy them.  Which, as we will soon see, is kind of ironic.  "When you purchase friends like Bridget von Hammersmark, you get what you pay for" is how he explains his actions to Raine, which suggests to me that he was worried that von Hammersmark would get in the way of his own plans to exploit Operation Kino.  (Also interesting is that Landa generally is happy to let others do his killing for him, but he makes an exception for von Hammersmark — perhaps there really was some bad blood between them from a prior romantic relationship, or lack thereof.)

Once von Hammersmark is dispatched, Landa has Raine and another Basterd, Utivitch, arrested and brought around to a nearby tavern, for the last interrogation of the movie.  The movie started with a nail-biting interrogation that ended very badly for Shoshanna’s family, and Landa’s last interrogation ended with him throttling his subject, so our expectations for violence are pretty freaking high by the time this last interrogation scene rolls around.  Which makes it all the more surprising when this final interrogation turns out to be substantially more than friendly, which pulls the rug out from under everything we’ve been led to believe is about to happen.

"If I were sitting where you’re sitting, would you show me mercy?" begins Landa, to Raine.  He’s saying that they are different, that Raine is a savage while he, Landa, is a rational, reasonable man.  Justice might suggest that Landa would kill Raine, then scalp him, and carve a Star of David on Utivitch’s forehead, but that would lower Landa to Raine’s level.

On the other hand, Landa is very excited to meet Raine.  Finally, here’s someone whom he feels understands him, someone he can talk to.  Or so he thinks.  He gets offended when Raine asks him how he knows his name.  "We seem not to be operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed," he sniffs, hurt.  He perhaps thought that Raine would have recognized his brilliance by this point.

Landa, it turns out, is not a monster, or at least not a monster in the way we’ve been led to expect.  He is an opportunist.  When it is convenient for him to work for Nazis, he works for Nazis.  When it becomes convenient for him to betray Nazis, he betrays Nazis.  If working for the Nazis means murdering Jews, he does it, if betraying them means murdering them, he’ll do that too.  Which leads me back to von Hammersmark: Landa apparently feels strongly enough about her to strangle her to death, so she must have been some sort of threat to Landa’s master plan of self-preservation, which is the the only cause he has.

So Landa, surprise of surprises, offers to help Raine in his cause, because it will help him in his cause.  Now, a few minutes ago we liked the suicide bombers because they were willing to die for their cause, and now here is Landa, taking their strength and daring and selflessness and turning it into self-serving aggrandizement.  Landa wants equal share in glory not for doing something, but for not doing something.  He’s famous for being ruthless in his prosecution of Nazism, which reputation he now intends to use to upend everything he’s previously stood for.  In exchange for "not doing his job," Landa wants to receive all the credit that, heretofore, would have gone only to Raine and his crew.

Is Landa a good guy?  In the tavern "detective scene," Landa never even glances at Hicox, but he lingers over Stiglitz and drips a disparaging remark upon his body.  Does Landa disapprove of Stiglitz because he thought so small?  Stiglitz killed a handful of Nazi officers, was Landa planning, from the beginning, to destroy the entire Third Reich?  I don’t think so — I think he’s a straight-up amoral opportunist, going whichever way the wind is blowing.

As a side note, I now think I know what Hicox is doing in the movie: he’s Marion Crane.  In Psycho, Hitchcock spends an entire act following around Marion Crane, telling her story, getting us involved in her plight.  Then he yanks the rug out from under her, and it turns out the narrative was never about her in the first place.  Tarantino, over an hour intoBasterds, introduces Hicox to us, gives him all the time and grace he needs to make us care about him, then finishes him off without even a close-up, all for the purpose of throwing us off-balance heading into Act V.  Hicox, who really did seem to know what he was doing, and was the ideal man to find his way into the theater, is yanked from the narrative and replaced by Raine, who is in no way qualified for the job.  Why is Hicox’s death important?  Because we know that Operation Kino cannot possibly succeed.  We know that Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering did not die in a Paris movie theater in 1944.  Hicox’s death raises the level of suspense to ridiculous levels — we knew that Hicox could not succeed, but now we know for sure that Raine cannot succeed.

While Landa and Raine have their surprisingly disarming (sorry) conversation in the tavern, Nation’s Pride unspools in the theater, Shoshanna waits, pensive, and Zoller grows restive.  The movie, from what we can see, consists solely of a massive shoot-out, one man killing hundreds of Italians and Americans.  (Odd that Goebbels was able to find American actors to play the Americans.)  The crowd loves it!  Hitler guffaws at every cool death and tells Goebbels it’s his greatest work, which causes Goebbels, the old softy, to tear up.  The crowd loves violence in movie theaters, and Hitler loves it most of all.  When Zoller, playing himself, carves the swastika on the floor of his bird’s nest, the audience goes wild, a moment that will be revisited before the movie is over.

Zoller is the only one in the audience who’s not enjoying himself.  For some reason, it didn’t bother him to kill the men in real life, and it didn’t bother him to shoot the movie depicting his real-life exploits.  He would have had plenty of time during shooting (sorry) to contemplate the morality of what he was doing, but apparently it never crossed his mind.  After he shot the movie, he could have easily pulled a Garbo, retreated from the spotlight and let the movie speak for itself, but he didn’t do that either — he soaked up the spotlight, threw the weight of his celebrity around and used his international fame and influence to seduce a pretty French theater owner.  He had plenty of opportunities to renounce his acts of violence, but he didn’t.  He is quite pleased with himself, right up until the moment when he sees his acts depicted in a movie, with a house full of Nazis, including Hitler himself, cheering him on with every cool death. 

Two possibilities suggest themselves: either Zoller isn’t a very deep man, or else there is something about the experience of seeing his acts depicted on film, not just on film but in a movie, complete with scoring and editing and close-ups and all the things that make a movie a movie, that he finds discomforting.  Is he upset because his real-life exploits have been turned into cheap entertainment, or does the act of finally seeing truth turned into a movie, the lie that tells the truth, finally show him what he has done?  That is, did he see his record kill as a great moment while he was living it, but now, through the eye of the filmmaker, does he now see it as a grotesque display of mass murder?

Whichever it is, his moment of self-reflection doesn’t last long.  He goes up to the projection booth to woo Shoshanna for the last time, and is rejected for the last time.  He plays humble and sweet, but she doesn’t buy it, and Zoller has finally had enough.  Outraged, he pulls rank on her — after all I’ve done for you, this is how you treat me?  The violence that was always threatened but never spoken before is now plainly spoken: give me what I want orI will kill you.  In the end, Zoller has no humility, and, most likely, no self-reflection — he has only self-pride and ego, backed up by violence.  Zoller turns dramatically from suitor to rapist, and Shoshanna turns the tables on him, switching abruptly from virtuous damsel to seductress and then quickly to murderer.  She shoots Zoller in the back and he, in turn, shoots Shoshanna in the front, and their one-sided wartime romance ends.

Back in the tavern, Landa gets on the radio to Raine’s commander, an unnamed general.  He takes the opportunity to do something rather unique: he re-writes history before the history in question has actually occurred.  He inserts himself into Operation Kino, saying he’s been there all along, and he says that his atrocities were all part of a "cover story" to establish his Nazi credentials.  The detective who pretended to be a Nazi is now pretending to be an Allied double-agent, all the while serving only his agenda to preserve himself.

In the theater, Nation’s Pride reaches a fever pitch of killing.  One shot even offers a "Wilhelm Scream," which makes Hitler chuckle, since Hitler, as history has recorded, always enjoys a good Wilhelm reference.  (This moment turns Basterds, momentarily, into a science-fiction movie, since the Wilhelm Scream was not recorded until 1951: Nation’s Pride is a movie from the future!)  On screen, Movie Zoller addresses the camera, in English, and then is interrupted by Movie Shoshanna, also speaking English.  I’m guessing that Zoller’s English soliloquy is intended to be addressed to English-speaking audiences, but what about Shoshanna’s?  How sad for the Germans at the premiere, never understanding exactly what Shoshanna is saying to them as she blows up the theater.

Which, of course, is what happens.  We been led to believe that we’ve been watching a thriller along the lines of The Eagle Has Landed, where English spies try to assassinate Hitler, and fail, because of course they have to fail.  But Operation Kino succeeds, and, incredibly, Shoshanna’s plan also succeeds.  Both plots to kill Hitler succeed!  We knew they had to fail, but in the end, both succeed!  Which, of course, is meant to be mind-blowing, and boy is it ever.

But who actually succeeds?  Raine is in the tavern with Utivitch, von Hammersmark is dead in Shoshanna’s office.  They don’t succeed in killing Hitler, Shoshanna does, along with Donowitz and Ulmer, and Marcel behind the screen (with his own movie, a movie that, to put it lightly, is a real bomb).  So, in the end, the British don’t kill Hitler, the German double-agent doesn’t kill Hitler, and all-American "Aldo the Apache" doesn’t kill Hitler.  Three Jews and a black Frenchman kill Hitler, and they do so through the power and spectacle of film.  Which, ultimately, is the message, if there is one, of Inglourious Basterds: life is all very good, but movies are where it’s really at.  Movies constantly alter our perception of reality: they chop up time, draw time out, deploy tricks of camera angles, editing and scoring to change performances and manipulate our emotions, they are demonstrably not real, and yet, through their cheap power and seduction, they trump reality at every turn.  There’s no such thing as a "true life story," the very act of turning reality into a story means that it’s no longer "true life."  Basterds takes the idea to its ultimate conclusion: while the Nazis were slaughtering Jews, it implies, Jews were making movies, telling lies that told the truth (Barton Fink comes to this same conclusion).  Who won the war?  Tarantino implies that the Jews won the war against the Nazis, because they got to keep on making movies.

As to the morality of Shoshanna’s and the Basterds’ revenge, what can I say?  Shoshanna locks her victims inside a building and sets it on fire, while Donowiz and Ulmer shoot machine guns indiscriminately into an unarmed crowd, slaughtering civilians and women who are only trying to flee a burning theater, before blowing themselves up with a suicide bomb.  "This is the face of Jewish vengeance" says Movie Shoshanna, her face projected on a cloud of smoke, and the moment sits uncomfortably in the mind.  On the one hand, movies kind of are the face of Jewish vengeance; on the other hand, she’s laughing at the helpless deaths of hundreds of people.  Speaking as a non-Jew (and a non-Nazi), I find this moment both incredibly thrilling and deeply troubling, and I think it was intended to feel so: we really hate those fucking Nazis, we want to see them dead, and Tarantino has done nothing to make us want to "root for them."  He gives us a glory shot of Hitler’s corpse being riddled with bullets, and Donowitz’s crazed expression as he shoots, and we feel the visceral thrill that violence in movies promises — Yeah!  Kill Hitler!  Yeah! — followed quickly by "Wait a minute, what the hell am I cheering?"  On the one hand, it’s okay to cheer because, after all, "it’s only a movie."  On the other hand, Donowitz, Ulmer and Shoshanna are incredibly brutal mass murderers, killing hundreds in cold blood — how does that make them better than the Nazis they slaughter?

Which brings us back to von Hammersmark’s quote about nationality: at this moment in the movie, I have the feeling Tarantino is turning the tables on the audience, saying "Is this what you want to see?  Feels good, doesn’t it?  Well, guess what, you are the Nazis!"  Because Raine, and Shoshanna, and the Basterds, they’re all terrorists, just as the 9/11 hijackers were terrorists, willing to die for a cause they believed in, to level the karma of a nation they hated — only the venue and perspective has changed.

Tarantino then cuts abruptly from the exploding theater to the woods the following morning.  Landa escorts Raine and Utivitch to the Allied border, fondling Raine’s knife all the way.  Landa has Raine’s penis object, but soon will surrender his own to Raine.  Once they cross the Allied lines, Raine cuffs Landa ("I’m a slave to appearances," he says, in what is almost the capping irony of the movie) and shoots Landa’s radio operator, then orders Utivitch to scalp the dead man.

Because Raine isn’t pretending: he hates Nazis, he’s said so all along, and he wants them to pay for their crimes.  Nazism is only a symbol, a symbol covering everyone from Hitler to Pvt Butz, but Raine doesn’t care: they’re all the same to him, there are no good ones, and they all must pay for wearing that symbol.  That’s pretty abhorrent, but Landa is worse: he stands for nothing.  The swastika means nothing to him, but then, nothing means anything to him except his own self-preservation.  Maybe he never considered himself a Nazi, but he pretended to be one, he appeared to be one, and that’s all that matters to Raine.  Appearances mean nothing to Raine, what counts is actions, and the fact is that Landa acted as a Nazi.  As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, his own story on the subject of Nazism, "We are what we pretend to be, sowe must be very careful what we pretend to be."

So Raine carves the swastika on Landa’s forehead, and in both theaters where I saw the movie, the audience cheered, exactly as the audience in Shoshanna’s theater cheered at Zoller carving the swastika on the floor of his bird’s-nest.  Tarantino makes the audience complicit in his movie’s violence and seduction.

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50 Responses to “Inglourious Basterds part 5”
  1. rattsu says:

    This have been a very interesting analysis to say the least. I never had any intention of seeing this movie, Tarantino bores me as a movie-maker regardless of however clever a scriptwriter he is. But, after reading these five parts I have to admit I am rather curious.

    I’m very glad I was tipped off about your journal, it’s interesting to see this side of things.

  2. perich says:

    we feel the visceral thrill that violence in movies promises — Yeah! Kill Hitler! Yeah! — followed quickly by “Wait a minute, what the hell am I cheering?”

    Yes. This.

    I don’t normally think much of Tarantino as an editor or a writer of dialogue, but I can’t think of anyone else who (A) would have seen the need to tell this kind of story, (B) chosen this method to tell it, and (C) pulled it off so perfectly.

  3. “Speaking as a non-Jew (and a non-Nazi), I find this moment both incredibly thrilling and deeply troubling, and I think it was intended to feel so: we really hate those fucking Nazis, we want to see them dead, and Tarantino has done nothing to make us want to “root for them.” He gives us a glory shot of Hitler’s corpse being riddled with bullets, and Donowitz’s crazed expression as he shoots, and we feel the visceral thrill that violence in movies promises — Yeah! Kill Hitler! Yeah! — followed quickly by “Wait a minute, what the hell am I cheering?””

    I think part of what makes this film as so interesting and complex is that it’s almost working at cross purposes to itself and relies on the viewer to fill in a lot of the blanks to make its point. As you note, Tarantino isn’t making a movie where the Nazis are mostly sympathetic, conflicted human beings. He gives us virtually no reason to like any of these people and doesn’t spend much time pondering the fate of even those Nazis we might have had a chance of liking. Instead, Tarantino makes a movie that largely plays in to all of the pre-existing feelings we have surrounding WWII and Nazis and then asks us to consider why we react to it the way we do and whether our bloodlust is all that different from that of the Nazi audience watching [i]Nation’s Pride[/i]. In other words, much of the movie is devoted into getting us pumped up about the idea of killing Nazis, but at the same time, the film poses the question of what it means that we feel that way. (I’m hesitant to say that Tarantino is outright trying to say “It’s wrong for you to cheer when Hitler’s corpse is being riddled with bullets,” because I think the movie would be very different if Tarantino had wanted to say what we should or shouldn’t be feeling rather than presenting us with the comparison and leaving us to sort out what it means.)

    The things is, I’m not sure everyone who saw this movie went quite so quickly from “Hooray! Dead Hitler!” to “Wait, what am I doing?” I don’t think I completely got it until I was thinking about the movie later and reading some of the inital responses to it here. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people never got to the second thought. It’s the nature of the beast that the film’s call for the audience to get excited about people killing Nazis are the loud and obvious ones while the calls to examine that reaction are someone more muted. Aside from that, it’s a rare movie that asks an audience to compare what’s happening on screen not only to other events on screen or current world events, but something that most films ask viewers to forget about: the audience sitting in the theater watching the movie and you the viewer yourself reacting to a movie.

    This was a great read as always. I’ve still got my fingers crossed for some juicy animation analysis in the near future.

    • samedietc says:

      I didn’t get to the second thought (“Wait, what am I doing?”) until Raine kills the radio operator and scars Landa (and then I didn’t necessarily object to the Basterds’ terrorism for moral reasons, but only b/c Landa is charming).

      But in the theater scene (and this may be related to the fact that I watched the movie alone on DVD), I wasn’t cheering for them to kill Nazis–I was flabbergasted by the movie’s killing of Hitler.

      • swan_tower says:

        Ditto. I was so gobsmacked by the wild turn into alternate history that cheering may have been an impulse, but it isn’t the one that won. In fact, I walked out of the theatre wrestling uncomfortably with the way the movie seemed to be pure wish-fulfillment — Jews killed Hitler! — of a piece of history that is still so fresh. Alt-hist is a perfectly fine genre, and I’ve enjoyed many examples of it, but it turns out I’m leery of things that make relatively recent history “go better.” Which is an interesting reaction to explore in its own right. (Why is it that I feel you can only make older history “go better,” whereas anything recent can only be altered into a dystopia?)

        • samedietc says:

          Gobsmacked is the right word.

          There was a moment where I almost thought that killing Hitler must’ve been a planning sequence–what the Basterds thought they were going to accomplish, but what they obviously wouldn’t. (You know the feeling, when you’re watching something and it goes a certain way, and you ask yourself, “is this a dream sequence?” Gobsmacked, indeed.)

          I’m leery of things that make relatively recent history “go better.”

          I didn’t even feel like history went better in this movie; all the agents of change were so morally compromised that I didn’t feel that anything had really changed. (What’s really the difference between Zoller sharpshooting and carving the swastika in the tower and Raine carving the swastika in people’s foreheads?)

          • swan_tower says:

            Re: Gobsmacked is the right word.

            I think in this context, the simple fact of “Jews getting revenge on Hitler” is sufficient to count as “history going better.” You can step back and have arguments about what the actual effect on history would have been, and whether the character Tarantino uses to tell that story are good people or not, but the death of Hitler and other Nazi high officials, at the hands of representatives from the people they wronged the worst, is still wish-fulfillment.

            • samedietc says:

              Re: Gobsmacked is the right word.

              Ah, I see now.

              Maybe my feelings at the end could be summed up by the clash between the hope of wish-fulfillment and the fear that nothing gets better (historically speaking) after this wish.

  4. Thanks

    I never figured out why I liked it but was uncomfortable about it (other than all the violence — I knew there was more to it than that) … thanks for your thoughts, they’ve helped to clarify my feelings about the film.

  5. londonkds says:

    I really enjoyed this series of essays. But I’m much more uncomfortable about the “Jewish revenge” line than you are, because there’s such a very strong tradition in Western culture of comparing “Jewish revenge” to “Christian mercy” in a potentially or absolutely anti-Semitic manner (see The Merchant of Venice for instance). I don’t think Tarantino means it in that way at all, but it’s an association he maybe should have known about.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Quick question?

    Tarantino said he wanted the movie to be regarded as a Western with World War II iconography and I wonder if there’s symbolism in Aldo shooting Landa’s radio operator/sidekick with a German gun. It reminds me of Robert Ryan trading in his .22 automatic pistol for William Holden’s six-shooter at the end of The Wild Bunch, but I’m not sure what it’s meant to represent beyond equating Aldo/Landa in some other, subtle way.

    Excellent wrap-up to an excellent discussion of an excellent film! Do you feel like Aldo’s last line re: “my masterpiece” is a stand-in for QT’s thoughts on the film? Do you think that, because of the questions it brings up about violence and its meanings that it is his masterpiece? Are you gonna go back and do Barry Lyndon now?

    -Le Ted

    • Todd says:

      Re: Quick question?

      I think Tarantino is teasing us. So many of his movies are excellent, and I’m certain he will continue to blow us away as time goes on.

      • mimitabu says:

        Re: Quick question?

        when i first (and next) heard the masterpiece line, i thought tarantino was basically saying, “you just saw an excellent movie, didn’t you?” and didn’t go much deeper. as i think about it though, i think it’s a necessary acknowledgment that aldo is (and realizes he is) getting what he most wants. all the other swastikas he carved were necessary in his mind, but in landa he meets his own opposite, an incarnation of everything he despises (an incarnation of the whole point of carving those swastikas to begin with). landa is a man whose whole character is based on being able to take off the uniform. aldo would have marked him even if it meant his own death, i’m sure.

        what’s great about this, of course, is that with one line and action we get to the heart of two character’s characters, we see one character demonstrate a complete understanding of another, and finally one character fulfills his largest goal while another has his deepest fear (taking responsibility/ownership for his actions) realized with the same act. it’s a perfect climax, don’t you think? it doesn’t get much tighter than that.

        • mimitabu says:

          Re: Quick question?

          as an addendum, i think aldo is more satisfied by marking landa than by killing hitler. if i recall, when he hears that hitler will be at the theater, he’s pretty businesslike about it. “head nazi coming, i kill nazis, need to go kill the head nazi,” more or less. i think killing hitler is his job, but marking landa is his actual desire. interestingly, carving a swastika into hitler’s head wouldn’t have made any difference at all; hitler is as iconic as the swastika itself. there was never any fear of hitler taking off his uniform. i think aldo far more enjoys making people take responsibility for their crimes by being marked than by being killed (though he’ll take killing if that’s how it has to go).

          • Re: Quick question?

            “i think aldo is more satisfied by marking landa than by killing hitler.”

            Well put. Scalping and marking Nazis is what he does, and now he gets to mark the top Nazi who could easily go invisible through the rest of his life after he took off his uniform, especially since he may well be regarded as a war hero thanks to part of the deal he makes.

            • mattyoung says:

              Re: Quick question?

              Exactly mimitabu. Aldo is all about pretense-less identity being worn right on one’s sleeve. And, damn, that is such a tight wrapping up of the themes of violence and intentions and iconography all together so beautifully.

  7. “Somebody said once that movies are like life with all the boring bits cut out, and Tarantino movies are like movies with all the boring bits cut out.”

    Having seen Jackie Brown, I cannot agree with this statement.

    • Todd says:

      I thought that at first too, but I’ve gone back to it and, when I’ve re-adjusted my viewing to what the movie is actually trying to be, I find it is Tarantino’s most mature, most acutely observed movie.

    • Jackie Brown holds my attention every moment. It’s parts of Kill Bill and most of Death Proof that bore me. But either way, I agree Tarantino could use some editing at the script stage.

  8. The audience in the movie theatre cheering the violence was one of the smartest moments Tarantino has ever put on screen. Inglourious Basterds really allows us to make our own moral judgments, and I admire that.

    Your idea of Hicox as Marion Crane makes narrative sense, but I still find it awkward that we’re introduced to him so late in the story, and so close to when he’s killed off. If chapters three and four were reversed it might’ve worked better, or if the two chapters were intercut with each other. The structure of the film just doesn’t quite work for me in the middle there – Hicox’s arc, however thematically sound and dramatically connected, feels like a rabbit trail rather than part of the main narrative.

  9. rjwhite says:

    I would really like to know if they stuffed cotton in Brad Pitt’s cheeks for his Vito Corleone impression in the theater lobby. It seemed like an odd little thing that maybe wasn’t on purpose, but I saw the scene again recently, without sound (at a bar? why they were showing it, no idea) and it could not have been an accident.

    • Pitt’s a great actor who loves doing those actor-y things – the teeth in Snatch, the contact lenses in Twelve Monkeys and Seven, the eating in Ocean’s 11, and the underbite in his Basterds performance. I didn’t notice his face looking any different in that section of the film than in the rest, though. I’ll have to watch for that next time I see it.

  10. naltrexone says:

    Did no one else get the impression that Landa’s radio operator was his lover?

    • It didn’t occur to me but now that you mention it, he did seem oddly concerned when Raine shoots the radio operator, especially for a guy whose primary concern is self-preservation. Though maybe he was just worried that Raine had the same thing in mind for him?

    • Todd says:

      In the tavern, Landa can barely remember his radio operator’s name. Of course, he could be pretending not to remember his name.

      • naltrexone says:

        I only saw the movie once, back during its theatrical run, so my memory may be flawed. I think I got that impression based on Landa bringing Herrman along and on several exchanged looks between them, both in the truck and on exiting the truck. I somehow had it in my head that Herrman was accompanying Landa to his new home on Nantuckett island.

        Perhaps Landa was just bringing him along as a reward for helping make good his defection. I was struggling to find another reason for him to request that Herrman accompany him. If he wanted to cover his tracks, I assumed he simply would have shot him.

        At the time, I was actually a little irritated by it because it seemed like a cliché. But if true, it did make the scene between Landa and von Hammersmark.

        I do intend to watch the film again, so I’ll try to figure out what gave me that impression next time I see it.

      • naltrexone says:

        Found the last few minutes on YouTube. I think it was just him bringing Herrman along and his reaction to Herrman being shot — “Are you mad? What have you DONE? I made a deal with your general for that man’s life.” Seemed like he felt like he had a bit of an investment in Herrman. Could be entirely wrong, though.

      • protomodo says:

        Did no one else get the impression that Landa’s radio operator was his lover

        It didn’t occur to me, but I wouldn’t rule it out.
        Did it occur to anyone else that Landa might be a Jew passing as German? Not impossible, as Landa is a common German Jewish name, and as Landa said, he can think like a Jew?

  11. moroccomole says:

    Interesting piece, although you definitely liked the film way more than I did. One thing that really bugged me — and that you didn’t cover — was the use of the David Bowie song from the Cat People remake. Yes, it’s from a movie, and it has “fire” in it, but for me, it was just another moment of QT (to paraphrase Steven Soderbergh talking about showy directors in general) standing between the screen and the audience, waving his arms about.

    I think the line about movies being life without the boring bits comes from Day for Night, but I couldn’t say for sure.

    • curt_holman says:

      Putting Out Fire…

      Well, the possible justification for the David Bowie song lies in the line/chorus “Putting out fire / With gasoline.” If the film is a critique of violence, terrorism, torture, etc., then the violent “good” characters could be considered to be putting out fire with gasoline — if their violence has the potential to beget more violence or destructive behavior in the future.

      However, I’m not certain that the film really IS a critique of violence/terrorism/torture, or that it gives evidence that violence against Nazis is anything but justified, so I’m not sure what to do with it.

    • Todd says:

      I didn’t mention the use of “Cat People” because it’s not really a script issue. If I were to analyze the meanings of every element of a Tarantino movie we’d be here all day.

  12. hexjumper says:


    –So Raine carves the swastika on Landa’s forehead, and in both theaters where I saw the movie, the audience cheered, exactly as the audience in Shoshanna’s theater cheered at Zoller carving the swastika on the floor of his bird’s-nest. —

    I guess that my response to that is that Zoller’s carving of the swastika is designed to evoke nationalist pride in the German cause; what’s being cheered is his personification of the Nazi cause.

    Raine, by contrast, is delivering karmic justic to an individual who’s betrayed literally everybody and sent many innocent people to their deaths. The two crowds are cheering, but not for the same reason.

    Now, if he somehow had the kind of skill that you see only in mall kiosk artisans and carved an _American flag_ into Landa’s head, and we cheered…

    -Darren MacLennan

    • Todd says:

      Re: Hmm…

      I was trying to think of what Landa could conceivably carve into Raine’s forehead, since carving an American flag would be so incredibly cumbersome and time-consuming. The Allied symbol was a white five-pointed star, which would have the double impact of looking like a Satanist symbol.

  13. “Tarantino makes the audience complicit in his movie’s violence and seduction.”


    I was very aware of this sentiment during my first viewing of the movie. During the climactic scene where the theater erupts in flames, the thought that kept rushing through my brain was that I was sitting in a theater myself, watching a movie with a crowd of cinephiles, just like the Nazis who were about to be incinerated. It was like someone was whispering in my ear that I was somehow like these Nazis, that Tarantino was suggesting that there was something fascistic, racist, or nihilistic about me, a member of the audience watching IB.

    I can’t remember if it’s the last shot of the film, or simply one leading up to it, but the last image I remember seeing is the shot of Raine and Donowitz hovering over Landa after Raine has makes his mark on Landa. It’s a facsimile of the trademark Tarantino car trunk shot, minus the car, taken from Landa’s point of view. This once again places the audience in the shoes of a Nazi, specifically one who has been marked for life as a Nazi. By extension, a person who is more a monster than a human being, not just deserving but owed the status of a pariah.


    So I got the feeling that Tarantino was saying that there was something corrupt, perhaps even Nazi-like, about the audience’s participation in his film. But far be it from me to put myself at the center of Tarantino’s universe, it should be pointed out that Tarantino himself is the man peering through the viewfinder for that final shot. Perhaps Tarantino is having that bloody mark applied to his own forehead.

    • Todd says:

      I know what you mean, except I think Raine is Tarantino’s stand-in, carving the swastika on the audience’s forehead.

      Also, the still you’ve chosen, although almost exactly like the final shot of the movie, comes from the scene with Pvt Butz. Donowitz is long blown to bits by the time Raine finishes with Landa.

  14. Anonymous says:

    “This might just be my masterpiece”

    I’ve been thinking about the last line and wondering whether Tarantino thinks, “this might just be my masterpiece.” I think that he probably does.
    Tarantino doesn’t just love movies. His whole life has revolved around movies, and his is passion is film (there’s an interview with Tarantino on Charlie Rose after Pulp Fiction came out that is pretty cool for those interested in it. It’s on youtube.). Although he has made incredible films that many people may like more than Inglourious Basterds, in this film, Tarantino does more than show off his film knowledge, write a great, unconventional script, or make an entertaining movie. He actually rewrites history and shows how powerful film can be. He, as you say, “makes the audience complicit in his movie’s violence and seduction.”
    As someone who has such a deep passion and appreciation for film, I think that Tarantino is probably impressed with what he has accomplished. I know I was.

  15. notthebuddha says:

    I’m guessing that Zoller’s English soliloquy is intended to be addressed to English-speaking audiences, but what about Shoshanna’s?

    In some of the publicity featurettes IIRC, Q says he switches to English to prevent anything from distancing the audience, no subtitles to distract their eyes from looking directly at the face in the smoke.

  16. musicpsych says:

    I think the difference in how we perceive the Nazis vs. how we perceive Shoshanna and the Americans is that the Nazis “started it.” They are violent and savage first, and it’s only in response to that violence and savageness that Shoshanna and the Americans become violent. They have the capacity for violence, but don’t use it until the Nazis come along. I’d argue it’s the same way with movies that incorporate violence in general – we expect our heroes to use violence to eliminate the threat (i.e., kill the villain), but it’s okay because the villain has it coming, and the hero isn’t inherently violent.

    I think you’re right about why Landa kills Von Hammersmarck. The other Nazi investigators (whatever you want to call them) were with him when they found her shoe at the bar, so he has to make it appear to them that he didn’t just let her walk right into the theater, but rather took care of the threat. Not only that, but it allows him to step into her role as the double agent.

    As far as Zoller goes, I’m wondering if he became distressed because the image of himself on the screen (as a murderer) was much different than the celebrity actor he imagined himself to be. He may have pretended to himself to be more civilized now, but realized that he was still a savage – if that is his truth depicted on screen – and it was too much for him to deal with.

  17. Wow. Well done.

    It’s this kind of quality that makes me want to pay to read your blog.

    I have my own thoughts on Basterds, to give another perspective on the movie.

  18. dougo says:

    Do you think Inglorious Basterds has any chance to win Best Picture? Do you think it would have been nominated if there were only five slots? I’m thinking “no way” and “maybe but not likely”. My guess is that Best Original Screenplay is its best shot (besides Best Supporting Actor for Christoph Waltz, which is almost a shoe-in).

  19. Anonymous says:

    The Eagle Has Landed

    The Eagle Has Landed was about German paratroopers (diguised as Polish soldiers) trying to assassinate Churchill. Top movie.

  20. Anonymous says:

    Little Fugitive

    Hi Todd,
    View “Little Fugitive” by Morris Engel and edited by his wife, Ruth Orkin;
    find it through;
    Let me know what you think.
    Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours,

  21. mattyoung says:

    The moment that really opened this movie up to me was after Shoshanna shoots Zoller (in the back! Our heroine!) and she turns to see the sympathetic film version of him being projected AND THAT MOMENT OF FICTION AFFECTS HER PERCEPTION OF HER REALITY. She moves towars Zoller and he shoots her.

    Thanks for these excellent essays!

  22. nekosensei says:

    Hey! I’m just dropping you a note saying that I’m here from . I read your analysis of Inglorious Basterds and thought it was amazing so I friended you.