Some thoughts on Inglourious Basterds

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I intend to write a scene-by-scene analysis of Quentin Tarantino’s densely layered, altogether captivating new movie, but that will have to wait until the DVD release. For now, I’d like to offer this round table discussion I had over the past couple of days with and long-time WADPAW-commenter The Editor:

TODD: I enjoyed Basterds a lot, but I also sympathize with the people who got bored or restless with it. It seems that people who go expecting to see a kick-ass war picture are confounded by all the talking. I read comments like "It’s twenty minutes of yakking to get to two minutes of violence" and such. I just saw it again last night and I don’t find the dialogue scenes draggy at all, the 2 1/2 hours just flew by. I think when people say that they find it draggy they mean that it starts over no less than three times before it resembles anything like a conventional movie narrative, and then once you get to the conventional movie narrative it becomes anything but conventional. People always forget about how talky Tarantino is — he’s always been talky and his movies have always felt slow on first viewing. Except for Kill Bill Vol 1, I can’t think of a Tarantino movie that didn’t feel draggy the first time I saw it. I was quite underwhelmed by Jackie Brown when I first saw it and now I think it may be his most mature movie. The audiences of Death Proof were outraged at the 40 minutes of yakking that preceded the awesome car-crash sequence. Myself, I’ll admit that the previews suggested to me that Basterds was going to be "Kill Bill Goes to Nazi-Occupied France" and there were parts where I thought "Well, this could have been sped up a little," but I tried to go with it, because while the sequences were repetitive, they were repetitive with a purpose — they were like five little Pinter plays, the conversation full of nuance and menace, with sudden death hiding in every pause. In some ways, it felt like the same scene being played out over and over in different variations, someone has a secret, someone else is pretending they don’t know what it is, and this cat-and-mouse game goes on until someone winds up dead, but usually not the people you anticipate. One of the things that shocked me a little was that over the years I’ve come to expect a certain amount of ambiguity from Tarantino’s villains. Bill in Kill Bill starts as the cruelest monster imaginable, but by the end of the movie it seems like a great tragedy that the Bride has to kill him. Stuntman Mike in Death Proof is a sick, sadistic individual, but he’s also a living, breathing, complex character. The Nazis in Basterds are all thoroughly hateable without a single redeeming feature among them. Which Tarantino needs, I guess, to make his utterly surprising final act work — we have to want to see those Nazis dead so badly that we all cheer during the final staggering massacre. There’s no ambiguity there at all, and everyone cheers again when Brad Pitt carves the swastika onto Landa’s head at the end. That was the only thing that disappointed me a little, that Tarantino didn’t make his villains human, and didn’t make his revenge nuanced or complex or tragic. His "twist" is "Why can’t the Jews fight back?" and he delivers on it, and, perhaps most important, the movie’s a big hit, Tarantino’s biggest from the look of it, so the next time I’m in a story meeting and someone says "And there’s a curly-haired red-headed kid with glasses who’s really nervous and sickly" I can say "No, let’s make the curly-haired red-headed kid the protagonist and let’s make him kick ass, because that’s what audiences want to see." In a way, I felt like making Brad Pitt the leader of the Basterds was a little sad, because why couldn’t a Jewish officer have had the idea to take Jews behind enemy lines? Why did it have to be this Tennessee hillbilly? The answer being, of course, that Brad Pitt is Tarantino, it’s Tarantino who’s from Tennessee, and he’s the one who’s bringing us the movie about the Jews who fight back.

THE EDITOR: I thought Basterds was terrific! When it was over I was just astounded at the sheer audacity and exuberance of the filmmaking, and I want to see this one again if only to break it down and look at it more systematically. I didn’t find it talky or repetitious at all, in that the recurring motifs built on each other and played the same theme out in different ways and I wanted to see where he would go next. (Then, again, I’m baffled that anyone would think that Death Proof could’ve done without those first 40 minutes. I’d have happily stayed right there in the bar, as long as I didn’t know what I was missing by not seeing the next 90 minutes.) I had avoided, as much as possible, reading anything about it, though I did see the trailer, so the ending was particularly surprising, because up until the moment that the double (well, triple) plot actually succeeded, I thought I knew how the story ends — the Nazi high command survives and the war drags on. That Tarantino actually blew up the theater, and with so much flourish (the German Expressionist sort of moment of Shoshanna’s cinematic monologue continuing to unspool first as the flames billow up the screen and then as a projection onto the smoke), made exactly the statement he wanted — that this was about the triumph of art and imagination over fact and history. That, to me, was the twist — not "Why can’t the Jews fight back?" (after all, many Jews fought back and we’ve seen movies about that) but "How far can imagination take you?" One of the things that’s always fascinated me about Tarantino is his ability to make the audience complicit in his fetishism of violence. By making a Jews (and Americans and British)-versus-Nazis movie (and therefore creating much less ambiguous villains), he made that complicity much more obvious. In fact, I think that the audience is so complicit that most people probably don’t realize they’re supposed to be repulsed — we’re rooting for the perpetrators of atrocities, after all, and Landa makes the parallel to the current war (and Chechnya, too) explicit with his line about how some might call blowing up the theater an act of terrorism. The screening I was at — midafternoon on a rainy Saturday on the Upper West Side — was packed and enthusiastic, but I didn’t hear much (or any) cheering over Lt. Raines’ final cutting of Landa’s face. It was just too sick and gruesome, though necessary for completion. I’d argue, by the way, that Landa does have a redeeming feature: his intelligence, which is, of course, betrayed by his arrogance. Also, I wasn’t bothered at all by Raines’ leading the Basterds instead of a Jewish officer.

TODD: The shock of seeing the Nazi high command killed, in contradiction of my understanding of history, was so extreme that I forgot all about the twin theme of the power of film to overcome reality — which, of course, is exactly what we’re watching, and which makes the lack of ambiguity seem completely irrelevant. Yeah, it’s funny, people go on and on about Tarantino’s use of violence, but no one talks about how he’s a great director of "women’s pictures." When more than half his filmography is taken up with them. Honestly, I’ve never heard him described as a director of "chick flicks," but, as with the Jewish Protagonist problem in Hollywood (even Steven Spielberg made his Holocaust movie about a Christian Who Gains A Conscience) there is, even more, a resistance to female protagonists to action movies. Because, after all, Kill Bill made only $70 million, and therefore people aren’t interested in female action protagonists. Bring up the entire career of James Cameron, who has made, almost exclusively, action movies with female protagonists, and done quite well for himself, and they say "Well, but that’s James Cameron," as though he had some kind of ineffable magic about him, rather than a solid understanding of story and a talent for staging action, both of which can be learned and replicated, if one only chooses to do so. If we were talking about Kubrick, sure, I’d say yeah, he has a specific point of view that no one else can easily replicate (although PT Anderson comes awfully close with There Will Be Blood), but Cameron is, or should be anyway, thought of mainstream American filmmaking, with tools available to anyone.

THE EDITOR: Too bad most chicks dislike violence so much, or Tarantino would be a real chick-flick maker. What he is is a maker of chick-flicks aimed at geeky men who like hot, strong, kick-ass women. I’m the only woman I know who actually likes him — or will even consent to watch his films.

URBANIAK: I found it to be a brain-shattering meditation on film, myth-making and moral responsibility, simultaneously intellectual and visceral. He truly is our Godard.

TODD: Well, indeed. People always criticize him as a popular entertainer and they forget that his movies are really high art, way above the concerns of a movie like, say, Valkyrie. The thing that kind of blows me away about Tarantino is that he manages to make these insular feature-length art-movie in-jokes, but still manages, somehow, to have them become mass-market popular hits.

URBANIAK: I know. I’d go so far as to say that Basterds is radical in what it says about the very idea of representing history. But Tarantino works out his intellectual concerns with a heart-thumping, crowd-pleasing theatricality that satisfies even those who may not "get" the many layers. And there are many layers, including what I take to be a moral critique of Leni Riefenstahl, who went where the money was and when it was all over, took off her uniform, so to speak. (It’s also response to his own critics who suggest his (and other’s) violent content, per se, is somehow morally objectionable.) But you don’t need to receive those messages to enjoy and recommend the movie.

TODD: On a second viewing, I realized that Tarantino not only blows up the Nazi High Command, he also kills Emil Jannings. The first time I saw it, during the last ten minutes I just sat there dumbfounded. "Can you do that in a movie?" I asked. "Is that possible? I guess it is, it’s happening up there on screen."

URBANIAK: It reminded me quite a bit of Death Proof not only for its explicit commenting-on-the-genre-while-working-in-it dynamic but also for its drawn-out people-in-a-bar sequence. And the ending blew me away. When Shosanna got shot I thought, ah, okay, that’s how it ends up that Hitler and his cabinet didn’t die in a move theater. And then they do! And indeed, Schindler’s List isn’t necessarily more "real" than Inglourious Basterds. They’re both representing something and, I believe, they’re both making moral statements. Tarantino is saying that filmmaking/myth-making need not be tied to "reality" or "what really happened." Triumph of the Will is not "real," Inglourious Basterds is not "real," Saving Private Ryan is not "real." They are works of art and myth. Sometimes the myth means hello, sometimes in means goodbye. It’s up to as a people to navigate them.

TODD: Tarantino’s statement seems to be that film can alter and transcend reality, and then the narrative does just that at the moment he’s making the statement. It’s a movie about itself.

URBANIAK: Totally. He is definitely saying film can transcend and alter reality, and the "alter" part is cautionary. There’s a big cry of "think for yourselves!" in there. And, before they put me in the Home for People Who Overthink Things, I’ll add that like Spielberg’s War of the Worlds, there’s a suggestion that these questions of how reality is represented in a society are very relevant to our own times.

I imagine there is much more to say on this monumentally thought-provoking movie, but this seems like a good start.

UPDATE:  mentions in the comments that the audience at the end of Basterds cheers as Raine carves the swastika into Landa’s forehead, just as the audience in the theater in the movie cheers when they see Zoller carve the swastika into the wood in his sniper tower (a scene we see from Soshanna’s POV when she’s in her own sniper tower — the projection booth).  This jibes with something that I’ve been thinking about all day, which is that Inglourious Basterds, in one way, isn’t about Nazi Germany at all, it’s about the 21st-century US.  Lt. Raine and his team of Basterds practice assymetrical warfare on the Nazis, exactly as the 9/11 terrorists practiced it upon us — they weren’t coming in as bad guys, they were coming in as good guys, by their lights anyway.  The result of their attack was that the US has become, if not exactly Nazi Germany, at least a nation much closer to that than it was a decade ago.


76 Responses to “Some thoughts on Inglourious Basterds”
  1. swan_tower says:

    I walked out of Inglourious Basterds feeling profoundly unsure as to what I thought of it. I see your point about film and art versus reality, and maybe when I read your greater analysis I’ll be more convinced, but I don’t know — I said to my husband afterward that I think World War II is one of the few pieces of history I’m not ready to accept an alternate history of. Tell me a story about how thus-and-such ended the Civil War or the Black Death or some other atrocity where huge numbers of people died in reality, and sure, I’m on board; but World War II, and with it the Holocaust, is too recent and too raw for me to accept any revision (at least one that makes things better intead of worse). Blowing up the High Command feels too much like wish-fulfillment, and I have a hard time accepting it.

    Which is, of course, why Tarantino chose to do it. But I’m not sure it worked for me.

    Too bad most chicks dislike violence so much

    The Editor hangs out with the wrong crowd if she really is the only woman she knows who likes Tarantino’s movies, or violent films in general. I am one, and know plenty.

    Shoshanna was the most compelling part of the film for me, because you’re right: Tarantino does interesting things with his female characters, and yet nobody ever seems to talk about that. Once I realized the Inglourious Basterds were not in fact the centerpiece of the movie, I really got into her story. Practically every scene she had was a grueling, unblinking look at situational coercion: nobody was actively threatening her, but the unspoken passive threat chained every word she spoke, every gesture she made, every blink and pause. Especially when she was dealing with Zoller. My one regret was that he had such a blatant turn toward being a total dick at the end; I would have rather seen him stay a guy who thought he was being nice, and couldn’t see how his position and history rendered utterly impossible the kind of interaction he was trying to have. On the other hand, if they’d left out the turn at the end, I fear too many audience members would have walked out sympathizing with him — awww, he wasn’t such a bad guy; why did Shosanna shoot him in the back? Because we’re very good at not seeing that passive coercion, unless it comes with a reminder that only a sneeze separates it from more active forms.

    • Todd says:

      And Brigitte von Hammersmark also suffers the same kind of coercion at the hands of the Gestapo officer in the tavern, then Aldo, then Landa.

      • swan_tower says:

        So does LaPadite, in the opening scene.

        My other problem with the movie, really, is that while the individual parts were well-done, I have trouble making them form up into anything like a coherent whole. That running theme of coercion is one of the few things I can really see threading through the whole movie, but I’m not sure what to take away from it in the end.

        • Todd says:

          It’s confusing at first because Tarantino spends a great deal of time in long scenes merely setting up who the characters are, and the movie doesn’t really “get started” until Chapter Four. It keeps beginning again, first LaPadite, who doesn’t ever come back, then the Basterds, then Shoshanna, then Hickox, it seems to take forever to get going. But when you see it again you see that it’s all heading toward the last two chapters and it’s all been very carefully laid out.

    • Anonymous says:


      I have to defend the crowd I hang out with: In fact, I do have women friends who like Tarantino, and violent films in general, and they’re also close friends of Todd’s (including his wife). However, a significant number of my other women friends seem allergic to violence, and I can’t get any of them to see this. Then there’s the one who loves Cronenberg but not Tarantino — clearly, it’s not the violence that bothers her.

    • mimitabu says:

      i loved the movie, though i can see where your apprehension comes from.

      i also agree that it would have been in a way better if zoller had stayed “sympathetic,” but on a purely moral level i’m proud of tarantino for giving a brief glimpse of visible violence to color what was, after all, a set of interactions that were built on and defined by violence. sorry for long sentence; i’m just trying to restate (if only to show i agree/understand) the power dynamic b/w zoller and shoshanna and how thrilled i am that such a thing was featured so prominently in a blockbuster.

      artistically, i think it would be superior to never let him come to overt violence. morally, i think it’s best to show that these unequal power relationships grounded in violence do ultimately come to violence (if more people understood this, maybe this world could do something about rape). and, since i think violence is underneath his presumptuous advances and that he is fully complicit in the effect his position as an occupying nazi has on his interactions with shoshanna, i think the outburst was quite realistic. i also think that showing his duplicitous, manipulative actions regarding his military service help highlight his actions re: gender dynamics.

      as for the movie on a whole, i thought it was amazing. it flew by, it was full of suspense, it was thought-provoking… i can’t really express how good i thought it was w/o writing an essay or a rambling florid passage. it was brilliant, and easily better than pulp fiction or anything else he’s done. even if it ends up offending or offputting the viewer (it didn’t do either to me, but i also don’t think it will be anywhere near my favorite movie or anything), it delivers and accomplishes so much that i can’t see how anyone could deny it’s quality.

    • mimitabu says:

      follow up note: part of why it would be artistically superior to keep the violence passive is that his shooting her back does what the little outburst does only better, with more complexity and impact. the unmasking of his participation in institutional violence is still thematically present, but it’s also a bit more ambiguous. not very ambiguous though; he “shoots her back,” but come on, she’s an escaped jew and he’s a fucking nazi who’s been trying to coerce her to sleep with him for the past couple hours. if anything, the “i hit back when she gets uppity” is an even stronger image and indictment of the situation. still, if even one person makes the connection, or gets on the path to making it, because that inelegant little outburst was thrown in, it’s worth it.

  2. blake_reitz says:

    I was unaware that Tarantino was from Tennessee, which puts a spin on a thought I had regarding the misspelling of Inglourious Basterds. We only see the words once, carved into Aldo’s rifle. He is, quite possibly, semi-illiterate, and now I can’t help but wonder if he’s taking some kind of critical potshot at himself through a weird author proxy. Or maybe he was just homesick.

    (I had also heard that Tarantino had misspelled it “because that’s just how you say it” and also to differentiate it from the correctly spelled movie. Neither really sat well with me.)

  3. I also loved this film, and was totally engrossed and thrilled the whole two + hours.

    One thing I love about Tarantino is that despite his requisite (and hilarious) irony, he manages moments of absolute sweet earnestness. For instance, I loved the moment when Shoshanna has shot Zoller, and she turns to see his face on the screen. She sees a vulnerable young man and feels sympathy for him.

    The mediated image of him convinces her to ignore her gut, and she rushes to him. He, of course, shoots her (which, one could argue, is his wadpaw — to shoot people).

    It’s as if Tarantino is arguing that it is dangerous to take what we see on screen to literally, if we do, it could be our downfall.

    After that, the foot fetishes, ultra-violence, and dialog-driven scenes more tense than any actions scene I’ve ever seen are a bonus.

    • Todd says:

      I would say that Zoller is sincere when he grows to dislike the movie celebrating shooting all those people. He’s an interesting character and comes close to even being likeable. His goal is to woo Soshanna, and he uses his celebrity to do that, in spite of the fact that his celebrity rests on being a cold-hearted killer — er, “war hero.” Then, when he sees the movie about him, it sickens him — he feels like that’s not “him” at all. He goes to Soshanna to get away from himself, unaware that she’s fixing at that very moment to become a bigger mass-murderer — er, “war hero,” than he is. When she betrays him he falls back to his true nature: a cold-blooded killer.

  4. glumpish says:

    I’m still surprised that people find portions of the movie dull or talky. I can understand it intellectually, but I found the movie achingly suspenseful. I realized how tense I was when at some point I was twitching at any off-camera sound. So when the theater went up at the end, I was overwhelmed with relief. I told a few people that it reminded me of No Country For Old Men, because that’s the only recent movie I can think of that wore me out so completely (in a good way).

    Rather like Reservoir Dogs, I think it owes a lot to horror movies. There’s a quiet scene of mounting tension, and then a sudden burst of horrific violence. Then you ramp the tension up again… There are even a few cat-scares (like Landa’s “One more thing… oh, I forgot what I was going to ask you.”) And finally at the end you get some fabulous justice/catharsis.

    I don’t mean to overlook the movie’s moral complexity, but I want to see it again before I put my thoughts together on that. In the meantime, on a purely visceral level …phew.

    Oh and to echo , I know quite a few women (myself included) who like Tarantino. And I don’t think the violence is the problem for the ones who dislike him, although I can’t claim that my circle of friends is representative.

    • Todd says:

      Landa’s “one more thing” stuck with me, and last night I realized that, at that moment, he’s onto the fact that Soshanna is who she is, but that he’s also hatching his plan to kill Hitler at the same time. So he starts to reveal her identity almost by instinct, or to let her know that he’s onto her, but then he checks himself at the last moment.

      • Anonymous says:

        That makes a lot of sense. I didn’t understand it when it happened, but that’s a case where second viewing makes all the difference.

        • Todd says:

          Landa never means it when he’s being charming or forgetful, it’s always to make his prey make a mistake. He always knows exactly what’s going on when he enters a conversation. That’s why it’s such a great moment when Raine catches him off-guard at the end. “But there was one thing he had forgotten.”

          • Anonymous says:

            Raine catches him off-guard because Landa thought he was dealing with a complete incompetent. Raine’s idiotic performance at the movie premiere duped Landa into forgetting that this guy was smart enough to elude him for years.

            • mimitabu says:

              i don’t know, i think landa out-thought himself. that, actually, was my 1 problem with the movie (or at least the 1 problem i remembered)… why didn’t he just kill the 2 basterds after he got the radio frequency. once the plan worked, it would be obvious that he was making good on his side of the bargain, and what would the american gov.t care about 2 soldiers?

              i’ve been playing a lot of chess recently, and i think what happened with landa is a very common thing in chess. you’ve positioned the board masterfully, you’ve got your opponent doing exactly what you want, but oops, you didn’t see that one little thing–primarily b/c you were so wrapped up in your plot. then again, i guess you could be right… it’s just as often that the chess genius fails to see the “one little thing” because his opponent is simply better than him (not that anyone cares, but i’m gendering the chessplayer male because the characters in the movie were male). however, it seems to me that landa just missed the fact that these guys loved killing and weren’t going to miss this opportunity.

              • Todd says:

                Well, Landa needs Raine to get him to the American command. Until he gets across German lines he’ll be hunted as a traitor, and without Raine he’ll never make it to the American command (in the shape of Harvey Keitel, to judge from the voice on the phone) alive.

                • mimitabu says:

                  regardless of whether raines “outplays” landa or landa “outplays” himself, i love the inevitability of it all. landa has to make this play to get out of this mess, and raine has to do what he does in the end because that’s who he is. great writing (great movie).

      • glumpish says:

        Oh yes, I agree that he deliberately held off there, based on what you learn later. But in the moment my response was “Oh no nonononoNO… whew.”

        Actually, you could make a case that Landa is Tarantino’s proxy as much as Raine is. Landa is certainly the puppet master of the movie, and he does his best to write his own ending, even if he didn’t think ahead to the postscript.

      • notthebuddha says:

        The “one more thing” scene happens before Hitler plans to attend the premiere. Even if Landa guessed that Hitler would be likely to show up, what would he see to gain by a plot before he even knew the Basterds were there to be captured?

    • “I’m still surprised that people find portions of the movie dull or talky. I can understand it intellectually, but I found the movie achingly suspenseful. I realized how tense I was when at some point I was twitching at any off-camera sound. So when the theater went up at the end, I was overwhelmed with relief. I told a few people that it reminded me of No Country For Old Men, because that’s the only recent movie I can think of that wore me out so completely (in a good way).”

      I must echo this. I am prone to anxiety and within 5 minutes, the first scene of the movie was driving me towards a panic attack it was so intense. On more than one occasion the tension of the movie had my heart pounding in my chest and my forehead sweating with suspense. I too, was EXHAUSTED when it was over (in a good way). I should probably remember to bring my Xanax next time I see a Tarantino film for the first time…

      • prog says:

        I made the mistake of drinking a large coffee right before sitting down to watch this, having no idea what I was in for.

        There were several moments where I had to close my eyes and control my breathing for a few moments, lest something rupture.

    • dougo says:

      I felt the same similarity to No Country For Old Men, and not just because it wears you out. Tarantino and the Coen Brothers seem to be converging on a common style, though Tarantino is still more flamboyant (and somewhat raggedy), with the David Bowie music and the “Hugo Stiglitz” graphic and the occasional narration.

    • Then you ramp the tension up again… There are even a few cat-scares (like Landa’s “One more thing… oh, I forgot what I was going to ask you.”

      The audience I saw it with didn’t cheer at any point that I can recall, but there was a very audible half-gasp, half-moan when Landa ordered a glass of milk for Shosanna.

  5. I really liked it. I just saw it last night. I want to see it again.

    My wife didn’t want to go (she didn’t see GRINDHOUSE or KILL BILL, either, but she loves PULP FICTION and JACKIE BROWN), so I went with a male companion. Maybe I can convince her.

    Not a lot of movies with this much layered, idiosyncratic artistry, this year or any year. Tarantino has his problems, but he gives us so much that all is generally forgiven.

    • mimitabu says:

      it’s interesting that this movie (like no country for old men in my opinion) is one of the few arguments for the whole theater-experience-as-it-is to keep going. i’d happily pay another admission price to see this movie (though i’ll probably see it again for free w/ my friend who works at a movie theater), not b/c i can’t wait for DVDs but b/c a movie this dense, action-packed, suspenseful, etc can only be fully enjoyed on the big screen.

  6. jadeintheatl says:

    Even more layers!

    I’m going back to see it again tomorrow. You folks have given me even more to consider.



  7. catwalk says:

    here’s what a friend of mine, , said about it:
    In defense of Zack Snyder’s Watchmen I have heard it said that the director was attempting to deconstruct the narrative and visual tropes of the traditional superhero movie, presumably in a manner similar to how Alan Moore’s Watchmen deconstructed the superhero comic books of the time (if not comic books in general). I believe Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds operates on a similar premise, a war movie that is also about how war movies affect we the audience on both a cultural and psychological level.

    Within the simple premise of an all american jewish commando team raising hell and hunting nazis behind enemy lines is a sort of mirror Tarantion holds up to the audience. If we look deep enough what we see is a statement about the power of cinema to satiate collective revenge fantasies in the audience that behold them (especially during a time of war). However art’s power to fascinate us often lies in its ability to exaggerate that which it represents, as such the director’s mirror here is of the fun house variety and the charm of the Basterds is in watching the dance of the distortions unfold. Invoking the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone and facist-kitsch era David Bowie at times, a self-referential ouroboros emerges when two seperate (but complimenting) plots to kill Hitler in a french cinema during the premiere of a Gobel’s produced propaganda war film (think a Third Reich treatment of Sgt. Yorke).

    However I can see where this cinematic (and at times lovingly meticulous) taking apart of the metaphorical watch might pose a problem for the audience (along with the few critics I’ve read online so far). Watching the coming attractions for the Basterds and one can justifiably expect a 21st century update of The Dirty Dozen (a traditional action flick punched up with the staccato dialouge we’ve come to expect from Tarantio). When Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) drawls – “Each and every man under my command owes me one hundred Nazi scalps… and I want my scalps!” – I can see how some in the audience might make a similar demand by the film’s end.

    While on the other hand I’ve heard a few people take offense to the films conclusion. Some believing that it cheapens (if not insults) the historical backdrop it represents, others finding the film’s penultimate act in the before mentioned cinema far too over the top for common sense to absorb properly, a gesture so grandiose that it distracts the audience from the carefully constructed spell that preceded it.

    I disagree.

    The conclusion is in a way the magician revealing how the trick works. The artist points to the reflection embeded within his art and if you can look past the blood and flames that glitter across the surface, you will see how the war movie acts as a sublimation of the visceral desires inherent in the masses into socially acceptable and often feel good myths. A hyperbolic pop culture greek chorus that simultaneously awakens and placates the dionysian shadow trembling in the still post 9/11 America… and yet for all it’s grand intentions is not afraid to laugh at itself.

    The last line of the movie is something like Lt. Raine smiling: “This just might be my masterpiece”. I don’t know if that’s the director’s final wink at us or not, Mssr. Tarantino’s way of sneaking himself into the film as he’s done in past efforts of his (if he’s in this one I didn’t see him). While I must respectfully disagree with the good lt., if that is the case, (being not a critic but a fan I would have to give that paticular honor Reservoir Dogs while I understand most folks can present a tempting arguement for the same to be said of Pulp Fiction), I will applaud both the ambition and the result of the Basterds.

    • Anonymous says:

      if he’s in this one I didn’t see him…

      the seen in which the German actress is being choked to death.

      the hands that we see choking her are QT’s.

  8. mchesnut says:

    I disagree that “The Nazis in Basterds are all thoroughly hateable without a single redeeming feature among them.” I think Tarantino goes out of his way to make Landa a semi-likable character (and then to contrast his likable qualities with his hateable ones). Also Zoller is given a chance to show that he’s human afterall, which you acknowledged in the comments.

    I definitely agree that the underlying message of the whole film is that film is magic and has the ability and power to alter and transcend reality. He even takes this metaphor to its literal conclusion–physical film is, quite literally, the catalyst for the justice delivered at the film’s climax.

    • Todd says:

      If justice is what happens at the end of the movie. As my wife said, “He makes you complicit in what’s happening on screen, even though all the characters you’re watching are murderers.”

      • mchesnut says:

        I’ve read several thoughts along these lines, some going so far as to equate the film to Holocaust denial (which I think is a laughable accusation). As far as feeling complicit with murder goes, I think killin’ Nat-sees is as close to universal approval as you’re gonna get. And it certainly seems “just” to me within the context of the film as a revenge story.

    • Todd says:

      On a second viewing I also found that the Nazis, except Hitler and Goebbels, all had redeeming features, which made it harder to watch them die.

      • One thing I noticed:

        Throughout the movie the audience is hungry for Nazi blood, whetting their appetites with moments like the baseball bat scene (notice that we come in after a big gunfight has already happened, not before), cheering on the violence that happens against the ultimate human monsters…

        …and then he shows the Nazis in the movie theatre doing the exact same thing from the opposite side of the war. They sit there cheering the violence against the enemy, and Tarantino holds a mirror up to us, saying, “this is what you look like sitting there watching this film.”

        Then, and only then, are we given our bloody, fiery climax, with unarmed men trapped like rats being shot and burning to death. I, for one, was unable to enjoy that sight – it was justice on some level, because these were, after all, Nazis, with Hitler among them, but it was also the horrific death of human beings and not something that I could cheer on.

        To me, that was a metaphor for how the film itself works – Tarantino trapped the audience in a theatre with a promise of violent anti-Nazi propaganda, and then partway through the final reel he switched things around on us.

        Excellent filmmaking.

        • Todd says:

          Oh, and he doesn’t just trap the unarmed people in the theater and then mow them down: he burns them alive, while a Jewish woman laughs and says “This is the face of Jewish vengeance.”

      • On a second viewing I also found that the Nazis, except Hitler and Goebbels, all had redeeming features, which made it harder to watch them die.

        Just caught this, Todd.

        Still, my other post (below) points out the Sgt. Ratchman scene which no one else had mentioned.

        • Todd says:

          Yeah, Sgt Ratchman is pretty cool. He’s caught in a tough spot and there’s nothing he can do — he chooses to die rather than be responsible for the killing of more Germans.

          On the other hand, as far as Raine is concerned (and he’s at least partly a stand-in for Tarantino) Ratchman is wearing the Nazi uniform and that makes him evil, no matter how cool he is.

          • notthebuddha says:

            as far as Raine is concerned (and he’s at least partly a stand-in for Tarantino) Ratchman is wearing the Nazi uniform and that makes him evil, no matter how cool he is.

            That makes my brain hurt in contemplation of the Basterds’ wearing of Nazi uniforms to ambush patrols, and their inclusion of Stiglitz into their band.

      • I was going to question your initial conclusion about the portrayal of the Nazis, but it seems like the point has already been made. I doubt there are a tons of WWII narratives that go through the trouble of showing a German soldier as a new father out celebrating the birth of his son and then have one of the “good guys,” who is not really a soldier and who knows this guy’s story and was just moments before using his son to try to convince him to end the standoff he’s in peacefully, shoot him.

      • greyaenigma says:

        Goebbels certainly loved being praised for his film. My take on it was that he loved film, but it’s also possible he just loved praise from Hitler.

  9. The Nazis in Basterds are all thoroughly hateable without a single redeeming feature among them. Which Tarantino needs, I guess, to make his utterly surprising final act work — we have to want to see those Nazis dead so badly that we all cheer during the final staggering massacre.

    What about Nazi Sargent Werner Ratchman, who Donowitz slayed with his bat near the start of the movie? I thought he was pretty awesome for not selling out his comrades by withholding the information from Aldo. I actually felt a bit bad when he died.

    Sgt. Donowitz: How did you get that medal on your chest? Killing Jews?
    Sgt. Rachtman: Bravery.

    I also came to feel sympathy for Landa at the film’s end. Yeah, he was a monster and an asshole not only for his gruesome actions but also for selling out his mates…but he ended the war. He ended the war. Not the Basterds.

    • Todd says:

      Well, but he did so only after selling his soul to the Nazis.

      I’ve been thinking about Landa and his motivations, and how there’s always an element of performance to his scenes. Yes, he says near the end that he hated being called “Jew Hunter,” but that’s just what he’s saying now, he seemed to love the name in the first scene. One of the times he must be lying. What’s happened between 1941 and 1944 is D-Day, Landa has seen the writing on the wall and he knows that Germany’s days are numbered — he’s going to sell out his party, his leadership and his whole country for a plot on Nantucket and absolution for his sins. He’s a diabolical monster.

      • Anonymous says:

        It’s not just an element of performance — it is pure performance. In a film about filmmaking, Landa is The Actor.


      • I was glancing at the TVTropes entry for Inglourious Basterds (which you should check out, if you haven’t already), and they have Col. Landa under both Affably Evil and Complete Monster. I thought this was right on the money in terms of his character. Landa is not only two-sided, but three and maybe even four-sided as well. He’s a villain and yet probably has the most screen time out of any of the characters. He’s also the character who is the link between all the stories floating around. In truth, it could be said he is a Villian Protagonist. I don’t think there is a more well-rounded Tarantino character.

        Now that I think on it…pretty much all of Tarantino’s films have had villains as the main character, or at least nearly the main (the Reservoir Dogs, Jules and Vincent, Ordell Robbie, Stuntman Mike…I’m forgetting a couple here). I say Jules and Vincent are villains, because, well…I shouldn’t really have to elaborate on their professions. And Ordell I list not because he gets more screen time than Jackie Brown, but because we get to really know Ordell’s character before Jackie’s true story is laid out.

        • Todd says:

          I guess it depends on what you mean by “villain.” They’re all killers of one sort or another, I don’t think there’s a single Tarantino protagonist that escapes a movie without blood on his or her hands. The Bride is certainly the “good guy” in Kill Bill and the two teams of ladies are the “good guy” ensemble protagonists in Death Proof but the first team wind up terribly, terribly dead and the second wind up cheering, high-fiving murderers, which I found utterly disturbing.

          I prefer to think of them not in terms of “hero” and “villain” but “protagonist” and “antagonist.” If Soshanna and Raine are the protagonist duo of Basterds, then Landa is certainly their antagonist.

          • I’m not arguing, Col. Landa is supposedly the villain of the film. But then we have Hitler and Goebbels…who undoubtedly appear more evil, so by instinct I believe the audience is meant to feel some sympathy for Landa through his far more humanistic characterization and portrayal by Christoph Waltz (Oscar gold coming his way, I can feel it). Although, while Hitler and Goebbels die horrible deaths, Landa lives, albeit with some baggage to carry around with him for the rest of his life.

            After reading your last reply, though, I came upon the question of Are there truly solidly identifiable protagonists and antagonists within this film? Hitler and Goebbels don’t count–they’re too much like cartoony caricatures. Everyone else in the film is multi-dimensional. You even see ranges of emotions on the Basterd’s faces as they gun down trapped Germans in the theater. I swear I saw something that appeared to be pure, unrestrained fear in Donowitz’s eyes. So, who are the protagonists and antagonists? From either side, the other side is seen as “the bad guy”. Both sides commit atrocities. Yet at the finale, the war comes to an end because of a sub-plan put into motion by the film’s most obvious “antagonist”. I think the answer may appear simple, but when delved into the layers of complexity in this picture make it difficult to identify.

    • ninebelow says:

      Yes, having read the post, I came here to mention Rachtman.

      As for the response: “Well, but he did so only after selling his soul to the Nazis.” It is true that they have literally no redeeming qualities because whatever the positive aspects of their characters it is not seen to redeem the fact they have worn the uniform.

  10. squidattack says:

    I definitely agree with Aldo being Tarantino, himself, as a filmmaker. The audience finds itself cheering for the finale forehead-carving in the same way the Nazi audience cheered for the swastika being carefully carved in the floor during Nation’s Pride.

    • Todd says:

      Aha. So they do. Good call.

      • Anonymous says:

        In a similar vein, the burning theatre reminded me very much of the ovens in Aushwitz, and Landa says ‘which I may remind you is a terrorist attack’, an aside which has much more potency now than in the 1940’s.

  11. teamwak says:

    I have to say I loved this film! His best since Pulp Fiction, IMO.

    I watched it at a cinema in London and to my amazement the audience gave the film a round of applause at the end (which is pretty rare for the Brits).

    I loved Landa and his fantastic Leone entrance. What a find Christoph Waltz is. I hope to see him in loads more stuff soon.

    Although Zollers turning bad a the last was a little out of character, I thought.

    All in all, a bloody brilliant film! Well done, QT.

  12. Another lady who enjoys Tarantino flicks checking in.

    I was having a conversation about this movie with my dad a couple of days ago. I have seen it. He has not. He likes Tarantino films too and I was trying to convince him to check it out, despite the somewhat lukewarm reviews he had been reading. The one he cited particularly seemed to feel that the first scene was extremely powerful, but didn’t really fit with the rest of the film which the reviewer felt was more of a typical summer slugfest punched up with Tarantino’s trademark style. I argued that the first scene is an integral emotional part of the film, not just “OK, we got the Nazi atrocities bit out of the way, now here’s your action movie.” Tarantino isn’t just taking for granted that the audience already knows to hate the Nazis; he provides an opening scene that leave us primed to see the Basterds tear into them and Landa in particular.

    I’m wondering if the marketing for this film is a little misleading. From the trailers, my husband was expecting and looking forward to “Quentin Tarantino’s Sgt. Rock.” He liked the movie regardless, but was a little surprised that it didn’t focus more on the Basterds’ exploits. But who am I to argue with success?

    • Todd says:

      The trailers are misleading, and your husband was justified in expecting a Tarantino-style Sgt Rock, or at least a Tarantino-style Dirty Dozen. What Tarantino gives us here though is so much more interesting than that.

      • My husband has not seen The Dirty Dozen a fact which actually came up during the same dinner where I talked with my dad about Inglorious Basterds and led to a conversation about movies that make us cry, due to that scene in Sleepless in Seattle. (Or maybe it came up because of the sad movies conversation. Now I can’t remember.)

        To be fair, I haven’t seen it either, though I like to pretend that I have an excuse ’cause I’m a girl.

        It’s on our list. Our very, very, very long list.

        • Todd says:

          As long as you’re there, if you get there, there’s also Where Eagles Dare, which puts Clint Eastwood and Richard Burton in Austria to kill Nazis behind enemy lines. And one of them is a spy! Which Tarantino used for Reservoir Dogs.

      • I think it’s always interesting to see what happens when a movie is advertised as being on thing and then turns out to be something very different (especially when the actual movie is still as good as or much better than the movie being advertised). I was looking forward to the Brad Pitt has fun killing Nazis movie from the previews, but quickly adapted my expectations when it was clear that wasn’t what I was watching.

        I think, unfortunately, many people have trouble adjusting as quickly and just become frustrated that they’re not getting what they paid for, even if they paid for a hot dog and are served a steak.

        On the other hand, “Brad Pitt has fun killing Nazis” is almost certainly going to sell more tickets, even if it leaves a lot of those ticketholders confused and frustrated. Hopefully the word of mouth gets around to the people who wanted steak in the first place.

        • Todd says:

          In the case of Inglourious Basterds I’d say it’s more like they paid for a hot dog and got an epic, fanciful critique of hot dogs, one that ultimately makes them feel bad for wanting a hot dog in the first place.

  13. greyaenigma says:

    The Mark of Raine

    I’m guessing that Landa fancied himself the Sherlock Holmes of the Third Reich. (It could explain the pipe.) No doubt he changed the family name to Colombo when he got to Nantucket.

    My audience cheered at a lot of the sporadic violence through the first half, which had me me wondering, “don’t you see the paralells?” By the time Nation’s Pride was underway, it seemed they might have gotten the point. (I loved the shot of the piles of bullets projected over the piles of nitrate film.)

    I admit it was pretty satisfying to see Hitler get it. Although I did wonder: if the Basterds in the theater we prepared for a suicide mission, why not just set off the dynamite? Makes for a shorter scene and less interesting drama, I suppose.

    While Aldo’s methods were disturbing, I really did like what appeared to be his personal moral, that you shouldn’t be allowed to simply walk away from atrocities you have committed.

    • Re: The Mark of Raine

      I loved the shot of the piles of bullets projected over the piles of nitrate film.

      That was a fantastic shot. It lasted only a few moments, but it was one of my favorites of the film.

    • mimitabu says:

      Re: The Mark of Raine

      “Although I did wonder: if the Basterds in the theater we prepared for a suicide mission, why not just set off the dynamite? Makes for a shorter scene and less interesting drama, I suppose.”

      i think it was pretty clear that these guys liked hands-on killing. i’m surprised they’d jeopardize the mission by having them both fight the guards (especially after it should have been clear that their two associates were discovered). however, these guys were thugs. they don’t blow up the theater out of patriotism; they do it out of hatred and bloodlust. probably the thought of shooting adolf hitler was too tantalizing for either to resist–even if the attempt meant possibly botching the whole mission, or letting some nazis in the house live. they’re too deep into it to pass up game that big.

      • Todd says:

        Re: The Mark of Raine

        I assumed that they didn’t know that Soshanna had locked the doors, and they had to both blow up the theater and shoot the audience in order to make sure the high command died.

        • mimitabu says:

          Re: The Mark of Raine

          (sorry for commenting so much; i was pretty impressed by this movie) i’m sure there was an element of “we should make sure we get hitler,” though you’ll notice that the bomb had enough firepower to destroy the building outright. it would be pretty shocking if the people in the balconies survived the blast… since the basterds had no idea that the fire would start in advance, i can’t see how raw tactical necessity would take them anywhere besides where they were. if there’s no fire–which they didn’t plan for–shooting guns results in fewer kills since people would naturally scramble and they didn’t expect the doors to be locked. i could be missing something, but i can’t get away from seeing some bloodlust in their actions, especially since fighting guards is inherently more dangerous to success than sitting in a theater and waiting for a bomb to go off.

          (i guess they could have not known how powerful the bomb would be and wanted to make sure they got hitler and goebbels… and certainly their years of guerrilla warfare make them adaptive tacticians–layering the shooting attempt on top of the bombs thus making sense–but i still don’t quite buy it w/o “i’m going to go shoot these people and love it.” for a comparison, raines’s branding of nazis clearly illustrates that he’s making a moral stand, but i’m on the fence as to whether he loves to kill… i would imagine he does. whether he does or not, i don’t think the rest of the basterds make such distinctions… i think every last one of them has gone over that line that kurtz crosses in apocalypse now. not to make the comparison more convoluted…)

  14. dougo says:

    Why did it have to be this Tennessee hillbilly?

    Raines was part Apache, which should be enough genocide-victim cred to lead a team of Jews.

  15. jbacardi says:

    Just saw this tonight, and I can’t really add much that the other, more erudite commenters haven’t already added, but one thing that occurred to me about Raine, and Brad Pitt’s performance of the character, was that perhaps he and QT thought at some point that it would be a hoot if Clark Gable had led the Dirty Dozen…