Only a cinematic bad boy like Quentin Tarantino would attempt to undertake a period piece that flagrantly challenges history. In his latest feature, the WWII epic Inglourious Basterds, a band of eponymous American-Jewish soldiers join forces with Shosanna Dreyfus, a French- Jew, to kill Adolf Hitler.
And lo and behold: they succeed. That’s right, they kill Hitler. When the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in March, there was a palpable sense of anticipation. At the movie’s 8:30 a.m. press screening, 2,300 journalists and other members of the entertainment industry hustled into the massive Lumiere Theatre, elbowing through the aisles in search of open seats. Even Harvey Weinstein, the movie’s producer, distributor and Tarantino cheerleader, wound up stuck outside the building. Arriving at a press conference shortly after the screening with his full cast in tow, the director outshone even his stars. When moderator Henri Behar introduced Tarantino as “the uber-Basterd,” a mischievous grin crept across the director’s face.
And then came the inevitable question: “Is this a Jewish revenge fantasy?”
Not surprisingly, Tarantino danced around the reductive question, explaining that his main intent was to make a war movie. He had a point. Basterds has no emotional longevity in the pantheon of Jewish survival narratives, and it’s not a Holocaust movie. But its unending pursuit of escapism suggests a vicarious strategy for unpacking the tumultuous past. The Jews are both incidental and integral to the plot—a paradox essential to the movie’s lasting impact. There is something inherently enjoyable about watching a Jewish platoon go on a Nazi killing spree, but Basterds has its roots in something deep and intangible. “It’s really about the power of movies,” says MÃ©lanie Laurent, the film’s 26-year-old star. Relying on broken English she learned less than a year ago, the actress parses each word as if Quentin Tarantino is standing over her shoulder with a French-to- English dictionary. She pauses and reflects for a moment before saying, “The cinema is a way of taking back power.” Laurent plays Shosanna Dreyfus, a character whose very name seems to be a playful reference to Jewish history—her French last name belonging to Alfred Dreyfus, the most polarizing Jewish figure in the history of France. And her Hebrew first name? Most likely not an homage to Jerry Seinfeld’s ex, but with Tarantino’s record of making esoteric references, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Dreyfus spends much of the movie restraining her rage. In the opening scene, the “Jew Hunter”—Col. Hans Landa (a menacing Christoph Waltz)—discovers the Dreyfus family hiding in the countryside and kills all of its members except the young Shosanna, who manages to escape and find her way back to Paris. There, she passes as a Gentile and insinuates herself as the manager of a movie theater where she endures the advances of a Nazi wunderkind (Daniel BruÌˆhl) who drools over her petite physique, flexes his ego and invites her into his inner circle. And so Dreyfus finds herself dutifully programming a series of propaganda movies commissioned by the Third Reich and hobnobbing with Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and the Jew Hunter himself, all the while quietly plotting her revenge. Laurent’s lust for payback recalls the savage determination of both Jackie Brown and Kill Bill‘s The Bride, but with stakes that transcend her personal narrative.
“I had a lot of pressure on me, being the woman who avenges all the Jews,” Laurent says.
But Dreyfus doesn’t do it alone. Like a twisted Snow White, she has a band of motley accomplices watching her back: The Basterds, who Tarantino says he fashioned after “guys-on-a-mission” characters like those in The Dirty Dozen. Brad Pitt plays Basterd boss Lt. Aldo Raine, an allusion to Aldo Ray, an actor who specialized in tough guy, war hero roles in the 1950s and ’60s. Tarantino casts a charismatic group of Jewish actors to portray the implacable fighters, including Hostel director Eli Roth, who plays Sgt. Donny Donowitz, NBC’s The Office star B.J. Novak as Pfc. Smithson Utivich and Freaks and Geeks vet Samm Levine as Pfc. Gerold Hirschberg.
To a certain extent, the Basterds descend from the standard American war heroes: eager to fight, relentlessly on the offense, doling out justice with brutal finality. But despite the ferocity of their actions, when it comes to innate manliness, these guys are not exactly Jim Brown, Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin. Unlike traditional American heroes, the Basterds operate with an efficiency and internal moral compass similar to Tarantino’s conniving thieves in Reservoir Dogs and with the same over-the-top, near-lunatic conviction of righteous intent as Samuel L. Jackson’s hitman in Pulp Fiction.
From a large hotel balcony overlooking the French Riviera at Cannes, Eli Roth discusses beefing up to play Donowitz, “The Bear Jew”—a batwielding, skull-crushing executioner—in order to look good on the big screen next to Brad Pitt. I asked him if that defeated the point—weren’t the Basterds a bunch of scrawny Jewish boys? Though he has referred to the revenge elements in the film as “kosher porn,” Roth makes it clear that those elements don’t make it just a Jewish story. “Even non-Jewish people have fantasized about killing Nazis,” he says. “Fantasizing about going back in time and stopping evil is a human thing.”
In the hallway of the hotel a few feet away, Tarantino saunters by with an army of publicists. Constantly distracted, he fiddles with the drapes in front of a window, blabbers about some photos from a party the night before and erupts into maniacal laughter as he continues along. Behind the director’s back, a publicist refers to him as a “little leprechaun.”
As he vanishes into an elevator, I start thinking about how Tarantino’s unbridled energy, rather than any dense philosophical motive, is the force behind his art. I bring this up to Roth, who suggests that Tarantino’s fantastical narrative has a greater immediacy than one that clings to historical vicissitudes. “When I watch World War II movies, I think it’s terrible that it happened, but it happened years ago,” he says. “When I watch a fantasy, I think, â€˜What am I going to do if this happens today?’ It actually provokes more stimulating thoughts.”
Co-star Samm Levine agrees, “It manages to put the war on a broad scale for what was at stake for the world, and it also manages to make the war very, very personal.”
And that’s where Basterds differs from all other Nazi flicks—that refusal to fit within the breast-beating mold of self-righteous sentimentality. Films about the period generally exhibit a slavish adherence to history and “the real,” and so they never offer as tantalizing a release as does Basterds. Up to this point, auteurs have shied away from taking liberties with the historical record out of fear that doing so would pervert collective memory. Gloriously unencumbered by the real world, Tarantino inadvertently manages to liberate a genre that has, for decades, remained constricted by the awful truth. He excuses himself from history’s burden even before a single image appears on screen. “Once upon a time in Nazi Germany,” the film begins. “In one sense, it’s a fairy tale,” says Tarantino’s producing partner, Lawrence Bender. “It’s like any of his movies.”
In the film’s climactic scene, Dreyfus’s plan finally comes to fruition. After collaborating with the Basterds in a scheme to lure Hitler and the Nazi top brass into her theater for a screening of a German propaganda film called Nation’s Pride, the Basterds seal the doors from the outside and the movie begins. The propaganda film is switched out for Shosanna’s own pre-filmed message and the Basterds start a fire behind the screen—presumably igniting Nazi propaganda films to do so. As prominent members of the Third Reich slowly burn to death like combustible celluloid, the image of a vengeful woman looks down upon them from the screen. The Basterds burst in with machine guns as the scene is engulfed by weapon-wielding, fire-spewing glee. Shosanna triumphantly declares: “This is the face of the Jewish vengeance.” In the ensuing chaos, yes, Hitler is surprisingly gunned down.
Tarantino isn’t the first artist to take on the fuhrer. in 1941, Charlie Chaplin effectively stole his mustache back from Hitler with a comic revenge fantasy called The Great Dictator. In the movie, Chaplin plays both a mock Hitler (“Hinkel”) and an oppressed Jewish barber. Through a case of mistaken identity, the barber replaces Hinkel and uses the opportunity to declare an end to inequality in a rousing speech broadcast to all of Germany. It is not a literal death for Hitler, but perhaps it is a metaphoric one as it imagines a satisfactory end to the war for which Hitler was responsible.
More recently, Indiana Jones found himself face-to-face with the Fuhrer at a Nazi book burning in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Jones, who is disguised as a Nazi official, theoretically could have shot Hitler and made one of his signature escapes—after all, he had found his way out of much more difficult situations than a pep rally in Berlin. Instead, director Stephen Spielberg plays the scene for awkward comic relief and has Hitler sign an autograph for a star-struck Jones—a clever, albeit unfulfilling way to bow to history’s constraints.
History has presented director Bryan Singer’s Nazi-era narratives with similar aesthetic challenges. When he inherited the universe of Marvel’s X-Men and the villain Magneto’s backstory, he decided to play up Magneto’s survival in Auschwitz. In the opening scene of X2: X-Men United, Magneto’s parents are dragged to the ovens as the young mutant’s rage inadvertently destroys the gates, illustrating his uncanny ability to bend metal with his mind. But both the comic and Singer’s narrative ultimately prostrate themselves to history—seeing it as an inexorable limit on fantasy. Despite his amazing strength, Magneto doesn’t save his parents and ends up spending years in Auschwitz, never getting the chance to kick Nazi butt (forget about Hitler). With history seemingly more powerful than his mutant abilities, Magneto ends up destroying as many train tracks to Auschwitz as FDR did.
Singer found himself with a strikingly similar aesthetic conundrum in his last feature, Valkyrie, a poorly received reenactment of the true story of the ill-fated attempt by Wehrmacht Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) to assassinate Hitler and regain control of the country. The movie unfolds with droll eventuality—you know Hitler will survive the attack as he did in real life and von Stauffenberg will find himself on the unfortunate end of a firing squad. Depressing and thinly conceived, Valkyrie bows ceremoniously and uncreatively to history, and, as a result, never rings true. On the commentary track included with the DVD, Singer actually thanks Cruise for not exploiting his star power and forcing him to rewrite the story so that von Stauffenberg would triumph over Hitler. But Valkyrie was ill-suited to mercilessly blast the Fuhrer away. Had Cruise forced the issue, the film would have likely rung even more hollow than the one that got made.
In the battle against Hitler, filmmakers sometimes come up with creative ways to have their cake and eat it too—that is, to dole out justice against him while simultaneously staying true to the historical record. In the Adam Sandler vehicle Little Nicky (2000), we get a window into Hitler’s afterlife in Hell, where he’s dressed as a French maid and the Devil (Harvey Keitel) regularly shoves pineapples up his ass. In the script of Jon Kesselman’s unproduced sequel to the 2003 film Hebrew Hammer the titular hero actually enters a time machine and returns to the 1940s to take on Hitler and change the course of history. In both cases, breaking the time-space continuum is easier than altering the historical record.
Even in comic book universes, the aesthetic imperatives against killing Hitler have reigned supreme. Superman, for instance, did battle with Hitler in both cartoons and the comic books, but even when the superhero caught Hitler, the Nazi dictator only ended up in jail, where he could theoretically escape, return to Germany and regain power— another case of a complicated tango with history instead of a more intuitive and what some might consider more satisfying ending for the villain.
Finally, in 2009, the long-awaited thirst for aesthetic revenge was quenched with Basterds. “At the premiere, everyone was like children,” Laurent tells me. “It’s a risk to change history, but it’s about someone who terrorized everybody. It’s a dream to see that.” It’s taken more than half a century for one of the most cinematically rendered periods in history to represent Hitler getting his comeuppance. Hell, even George W. got whacked before Hitler (2006’s Death of a President) on the silver screen.
With so much hype, Basterds needed to be an absolute knockout to please everyone, so it was no great surprise that the steady backlash began simply because the movie amounted to something less than an instant classic. Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times called the film “a self-indulgent piece of violent, alternate history” and The Guardian went so far as to wonder whether certain directors should be barred from even attempting to represent the Holocaust in their films.
Some of the critics had a point. Overly talky, at times slow moving and tonally uneven, Basterds is not necessarily the masterpiece Tarantino has led us to expect. But still, there is something at its core that strikes a nerve. “It’s an amazing way to change the story,” says Laurent.
And that’s why it would not be so outrageous were the Basterds to reprise their roles on the big screen. In interviews, Tarantino has discussed the possibility of another movie in which the Basterds travel to the Deep South and demolish the Ku Klux Klan. But make no mistake, he’s not trying to use the Basterds to whitewash the crimes of history. Tarantino repackages history when it fits into his own makeshift agenda; in these cases, it provides the ideal bad guys, the kind of people who deserve their horrific demise. Tarantino makes pictures based on what he likes, eschewing naturalism for unapologetic self-indulgence. Basterds, then, is less about the Jews than it is about Quentin Tarantino.
So now that Hitler has been knocked off on the big screen, what’s next for the Nazi flick? Riddled with bullet holes, the ultimate personification of evil is now an empty metaphor. Will future films about the Fuhrer seem like stale kitsch? Will a new bogeyman emerge to inherit Hitler’s nightmarish power? Will cinema find a new go-to historical canvas to play paint-by-numbers upon, or will Tarantino’s killing of Hitler free filmmakers from the pretensions of communicating unmediated truth in their work?
Certainly the Nazis will continue to goose-step through our popular culture, but perhaps they will do so a little less in sync with history’s drum beat. In turn, they will lose their status in the pantheon of villainhood and become banal—like werewolves or vampires—playthings for our cheap thrills. Tarantino has effectively destroyed the Nazi film. Like mercifully putting down a sick dog, Tarantino has brought an end to the knee-jerk respect for a tired genre.
Talk about a spoiler.