In which Tarantino reshapes Shakespeare, World War II movies, Leni Riefenstahl, Spaghetti Westerns, and more, under the deft guidance of that Italian master Ovid
Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds (2009) ends with a sentence spoken by Lt. Aldo Raine, “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” In interview Tarantino concedes this is his own judging of the film’s merits. Some take this as arrogance, but I think the point is well taken and compared to its classical antecedent, downright humble. Tarantino’s words evoke the last words of Ovid’s masterpiece Metamorphoses, but unlike Tarantino, Ovid allows no possibility for error. Ovid opines the work will be “famous through the ages” and known “beyond the distant stars.” Even the supreme god Jupiter and the “tooth of time” cannot mar his vehicle to immortality. An exceedingly arrogant prediction, but correct so far. Metamorphoses is remarkable for its comprehensive reworking and retelling of classical mythology, legends, and history, making it Ovid’s own. The work is full of mixed literary genres and styles. Its tales are populated with divinities, monsters, heroes, warriors, lovers, haters, and occasional narrators. The overarching device driving the work is metamorphosis, changing from one thing into another. All the same can be said for Basterds, but its myths are mostly cinematic, the history is World War II, and the genres from American Western to European. A Tarantino associate says about the film, “pretty much 90 percent is based on movie references.” Tarantino describes his appropriation of cinema so:
So I was really using the whole feeling and mood from a scene in another movie, but what happens is that it becomes my scene with my actors and my way of telling the story and I feel like I somehow make it my own.
The word “own” should perhaps be taken in one of its current nuances, to supersede, to better, to outdo. “You are owned” connotes that the object was spectacularly defeated or beaten at his or her game. Ovid owned prior mythologies and lore, and Tarantino follows the example by means of his own Metamorphoses, an adventure film tied together with tales about how Joan of Arc, King Kong, and a band of American Indians converge to knock off the Nazi regime.
The Ovidian motif of human to animal metamorphoses is particularly interesting to poets, exampled by Shakespeare in his A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a taste Tarantino seems to share. The first such metamorphosis is dairy farm girl Shosanna (pronounced Shoshanna) into a rat. She and her Jewish family are hiding under the floorboards of a neighbor’s home when the SS arrives led by Col. Hans Landa, “The Jew Hunter.” While interrogating the neighbor, Landa refers to Goebbels’ propaganda comparing Jews to rats, likely a reference to the 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). But Landa thinks the comparison is not an insult at all. Is not a rat just a squirrel without a cute tail? Do not they carry the same diseases? After Shosanna’s family is slaughtered, Landa follows her movements under the floorboards like a cat — he certainly likes milk — and like a cat playing with its prey he lets her get away.
In Paris, Shosanna undergoes another change, an oppositional metamorphosis from rat to cat. This conversion climaxes in Basterds’ final chapter titled “Revenge of the Giant Face,” wherein she prepares for the premiere of the film Nation’s Pride [Stolz der Nation] (2009). Outwardly she changes from arty French girl into glamour puss, dressed to kill. She applies her war paint, and we watch her wend her way to the theater lobby from an aerial vantage, just as Col. Landa tracked her at the farmhouse. But this time she emerges proudly through the door as a cat, not squalidly through a vent like a rat. Her perch is the landing atop the lobby stairway. Her prey is the assembling Nazi propaganda film industry luminaries and Nazi political elite including all chief officers of the SS and Gestapo (with one notable absence, discussed below). Fittingly, this feline transformation is scored to David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting out the Fire),” the theme song from Cat People (1982), a film about people who turn into cats.
Another faunal metamorphosis evident is from ape to man. King Kong becomes Marcel, the employee of the Parisian theater Shosanna comes to own and the only black character in the film. King Kong (1933) is a film about film, love, and show business, and an important influence in Basterds. In the tavern scene, guess-your-identity party games are played for amusement. The name cards used are emblematic signifiers, not unlike the forehead swastika wounds the Basterds carve on German soldiers. In these games the ape’s name “King Kong” is dealt twice, and the name of King Kong’s screenwriter/creator, “Edgar Wallace,” once. The arguable racial subtext of the film King Kong is gleefully explained by Gestapo Maj. Hellstrom. Message delivered: think King Kong. The original King Kong chomps on people and splits dinosaur skulls and such, but his physical treatment of Ann Darrow is tender. Tarantino extrapolates from King Kong’s soft side to create Marcel, the kindest, gentlest character in Basterds. The understated love between Marcel and Shosanna also allows the audience the space to accept the possibility of another affection between Shosanna and Pvt. Fredrick Zoller, German war hero, film buff, and possible Frankenstein. The film King Kong is not only relevant thematically about prejudice, but provides a key plot point: the theater scene. In King Kong the ape on stage is frightened by the photographers’ taunting flashbulb flashes, and the terrorized audience rushes to the back exits. In Basterds’ theater scene Marcel is on the stage. He starts a fire with burning film stock, and the terrorized audience rushes to the back exits — King Kong gets his revenge. Basterds blends King Kong’s theater scene with the bomb shelter Holocaust allegory in The Dirty Dozen (1967), that film’s fiery climax ignited by that film’s sole black character and victim of racism, Jefferson, played by American icon Jim Brown.
There are at least two semi-human transformations. The Basterd named the Bear Jew changes into a golem. At least he is a golem in the fearful minds of German soldiers, a matter that infuriates Hitler. Golems are European Jewish mythological humanoid creatures that protect Jewish towns and ghettos. Golems are thought to be an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s monster Frankenstein, more correctly “Frankenstein’s monster,” but I prefer Frankenstein. Fredrick is a Frankenstein. Shelley’s man-made monster has a violent side, but also an intelligent and caring side. Unlike most film Frankensteins, the original literary monster is well spoken and intelligent. He wants to befriend people who abhor his exterior appearance. Fredrick wants to befriend and converse with Shosanna, who sees him as nothing more than a loathsome uniform. Shelley writes her monster is “eloquent and persuasive,” and so is Fredrick. Goebbels says about his film star, “It seems I’ve created a monster. A strangely persuasive monster.” But I could be wrong about Fredrick as a Frankenstein. I admit this for the purpose of film review: Basterds is the most stimulating film I have seen. It is allusively rife, seemingly always referential to something else, and provides the pleasure of thinking about what was meant by its creator, or something else.
Another form of metamorphosis is intra-human, prominently from American Jewish soldier into American Indian warrior, Apache specifically. For Tarantino soldiers and warriors are different, “The Basterds don’t have the luxury of being soldiers . . . they have the duty to be warriors, because they’re fighting an enemy that’s trying to wipe them off the face of the earth.” Western film genres are important to Basterds, and the putative genocide film Little Big Man (1970) plays a part. The titular main character is a white settler boy/man who transforms into a Cheyenne warrior, and back and forth. Col. Landa informs a captured Basterd the Germans’ nickname for him is “Little Man.” The news depresses the Basterd, he thinks the name is insulting. Actually, cinematically, the name comes from respect. It is related in Little Big Man that Little Man is a mythological Cheyenne warrior-hero. Although Little Man was decapitated in battle, his body continued to fight the Pawnees, while his head, stuck on a spear, whooped supportive war cries. “Little Man was small, but his bravery was big,” Chief Old Lodge Skins says.
Another Cheyenne warrior is Younger Bear. Younger Bear is an elite warrior, a “contrary,” the most dangerous kind of Cheyenne. At the end of the film Younger Bear puts two arrows into Gen. George Custer. Likewise, the Basterd named the Bear Jew, also an elite warrior, puts numerous bullets into Hitler. The two even share war whoops with club waving. The Bear Jew shouts Boston (thankfully not clichéd Brooklyn) baseball allusions after taking a baseball bat (an American icon) to a Nazi. Younger Bear’s whoop and war club waving occur after he fulfills a social obligation, a life debt, a moment of emotional release. Other influences from Little Big Man may be Shosanna’s dash for life paralleling Sunshine’s escape attempt and the plot point of luring an enemy into a spatial trap, the coulee at Little Bighorn.
Another great literary figure Basterds borrows from is Shakespeare, the greatest borrower of literature ever. I detect in Col. Landa’s discussion of rats the influence of Shylock’s revenge speech (MV 3.1.47-67) and the oration on the “certain loathing” he has for Antonio (MV 4.1.35-62). When Landa speaks to an unseen American general about all the outrageous benefits he requires, I find a similarity in Lancelot Gobbo’s grandiose imagining about what rewards he will gain for switching sides (MV 2.2.150-160). Basterds has a film within a film, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream has a play within a play. The play, Pyramus and Thisbe, is itself borrowed from Metamorphoses. In turn, Ovid’s tale of lovers who die together influenced another Shakespeare work, Romeo and Juliet. A relationship between Shosanna and Fredrick would perfectly fit a Romeo and Juliet situation of love against social obstacle. The motif of young lovers dying together may be so culturally pervasive that it arises here with no instigation from Shakespeare or Ovid. However, I believe not in this case, for there is a staging clue pointing to an influence. Thisbe falls in love with Pyramus through a hole in a wall. Likewise, Shosanna falls for Fredrick through a hole in a wall.
Hamlet is invoked in the tavern scene. In a discussion of whether a German author could authentically create American characters, the German film star Bridget von Hammersmark says Shakespeare wrote about a Dane: “The character is the character. Hamlet is not British, he is Danish.” Sgt. Wilhelm asks von Hammersmark to sign a little napkin for his newborn son. She signs it “To Max, with love, Bridget von Hammersmark.” Next she busses the fabric with a lipstick kiss. Col. Landa later discovers the napkin. It serves as conclusive proof of von Hammersmark’s betrayal. Likewise, Othello takes the discovery of Desdemona’s little napkin as conclusive proof of her betrayal. But unlike Tarantino’s inversion — and little is not inverted in Basterds — Desdemona is innocent, her napkin was planted. The writing and kiss on the napkin are an interesting appropriation of Emilia’s eyewitness description of Desdemona with her napkin:
For he conjured her she should ever keep it
That she reserves it evermore about her
To kiss and talk to. (Othello 3.3.298-300)
Tarantino metamorphoses Shakespeare’s imagery onto the napkin with pen and lipstick. Also intriguing is that he has it as a napkin. Shakespeareans would normally call it a handkerchief, as it is named twenty-four times in the play. However, three times it is called a napkin, including Othello’s first mention of it, “Your napkin is too little” (Othello 3.3.291).
How about Schindler’s List (1993)? What can one say to that? Basterds has a few cosmetic similarities, and Hans Landa is smarter than Amon Göth. Landa has a firmer recollection of Nazi film propaganda and his invocation of Shakespeare — the revenge speech I detected earlier — is more subtle. But the way Basterds really outshines Schindler’s List is by comparative penmanship. In Schindler’s List there is a close-up shot of a hand writing a name on a list of Jews, a transportation ledger. The writing is legible but clearly not written by a German or a Pole. In particular, take a look at the number 9s on the ledger sheet. They are all over the place, inconsistent. In Basterds the numbers we watch written on a list of Jews shows good German penmanship, including a nice German number 9 with a smoothly curved tail. Some might call this persnickety, or a superfluous Spielberg reference, but I could not be fair at that. Furthermore, there is a second, older-looking ledger sheet partially visible in Schindler’s List. This one’s numbers seem to be genuinely German-written, with some decent distinctive German 0s. Unintentionally, the second sheet works to heighten awareness of the faults on the first, like how the correctly spelled Shoshanna on Basterds’ list calls more attention to the previous Shosanna mistake in Basterds’ opening credits.
An iconic Bowie knife is wielded by Clint Eastwood in Where Eagles Dare (1968), a fantastic action film from which Basterds makes prominent borrowings, my favorite being Gestapo Maj. Hellstrom’s reprise of Gestapo Maj. von Hapen, but without the interesting blond hair. Come to think of it, and now that I have to, von Hapen and his hair are also an inspiration for Nigel, the leader of the French Underground in Top Secret!, and Werner (“Werner!”) the SS chief of counterintelligence for all France in Kiss of the Spider Woman. I now realize Nigel’s character carries a more complex provenance than merely being the blond dopey island boy from The Blue Lagoon (1980) all grown up.
In a situation that would take too long to explicate, typical for Kurt Vonnegut works, Howard walks past Nazi flag banners and confronts his face from an old Nazi propaganda film. Next, his ranting Nazi film face is imposed on his New York face in a visual investigation of contradiction and identity. Shosanna’s face, likewise near Nazi flag banners, contrasts with von Hammersmark’s face seen through the window. The German actress’s face is presented on a poster publicizing a film titled “Fräulein Doktor.” (not the 1969 film by Alberto Lattuada). This is a fictional German-language film, but had it existed, it would have been based on the story of a semi-legendary German spy. The poster is fascinating at several levels. In both “Fräulein Doktor” and Basterds von Hammersmark plays a spy, in the former for Germany, in the latter for Great Britain. Pointedly, the poster is posted across from the theater she aims to destroy. Shosanna’s face against von Hammersmark’s face is an opposition like Howard’s two faces, inviting all sorts of comparative thoughts. For one, the two are not so different since they are working for the same side, carrying out almost the same plan, converging at a single place and time in history. But Shosanna does not know that. Shosanna is like a spy; as she gazes upon the poster she might think herself to be Fräulein Doktor’s French opposite number. Then there is Helga and her little sister Resi to consider. Von Hammersmark’s poster visage is remarkably like Resi’s, as we first see her in New York through a window in Mother Night. Conversely, Shosanna looks like the real-deal Helga; the two wear red dresses and similar hair-dos at their respective premiere events. Both films fashion their fair-skinned women with red dresses and black accessories to feminize and visually conquer Nazi flag imagery. At work here is a thought-provoking mix of images, faces and masks sported by Shosanna and von Hammersmark, Helga and Resi, and the New York and Nazi Howards.
To add to the complexity there is another personage both present yet absent here, actress/auteur Leni Riefenstahl. Fräulein Doktor, usually identified by the French name Mademoiselle Docteur, was one of two spies Riefenstahl desired to play on film. The mythology of Mademoiselle Docteur grew from the experiences of a German military intelligence official in World War I, the sole woman in such service. Although she was less glamorous and exciting than the stories later twisted around her, she really did help train Mata Hari. In 1933 Riefenstahl started to develop a German-language version of “Mademoiselle Docteur” in which she would star. However, the German military was uncomfortable about spy-themed films and objected to its production. Like a light glove slap to Leni’s face, Tarantino gives his character the starring role Riefenstahl desired but could not attain. Although Riefenstahl’s face may not appear on the film poster, she still has an implicit visual presence in the moon window scene, via Shosanna, because Shosanna is the Anti-Leni. I was pleased to read Riefenstahl’s dreams for another spy project were also thwarted. Due to legal problems, production of a film titled “The Black Cat” was canceled. Riefenstahl had been set to star in the film as a spy named the Black Cat. Maybe Shosanna got that role.
The eighth on my list of World War II films in Basterds is The Dirty Dozen. Normally Basterds must outdo the precedent, so instead of one set of holy warriors we get two. The target is scaled up from German Army officers in rural France to the whole Nazi high command (save one top official) in Paris. There are many thematic and situational similarities between the films. I focus here on two: God and bad accents. In The Dirty Dozen religion is introduced when Lee Marvin interviews Telly Savalas, the latter playing a murderous psychopath named Maggot. The two talk about a biblical injunction against revenge. Savalas quotes from Romans 12:19, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord.” Marvin parries, “Isn’t that supposed to mean we leave punishment of the transgressors to His capable hands?” Savalas replies, “But it doesn’t restrict Him to the kind of tools he would use, now does it?” The scene ends with a bad Southern-accented sneer from Marvin suggesting we should look down on Savalas as insane, and almost worse, religious and a Southerner. But Savalas is right, as he is with the Army psychologist who doubts his religious observation about Marvin saving the Dozen from hell. The Dozen are sprung from military prison and transformed into agents of God’s revenge to be tried and tested in their personal purgatory, the attack on the French chateau. They eat their last meal, portrayed as the Twelve Apostles at the Last Supper. Marvin is the Jesus figure but a weak one; he cannot offer the prisoners pardon, but he says he will try his best to get their earthly sentences commuted. The Americans planned an American-style shoot-’em-up attack, a “turkey shoot.” But Savalas shoots at his fellow soldiers before the planned attack begins. The gunplay alerts the Germans. The highest-ranking officers, and their female companions, remove themselves with Germanic efficiency to an underground bomb shelter, a demise the Americans would not have thought up. It is an allegorical Nazi death chamber and Savalas is a necessary Judas; his treason is required to realize God’s plan in this film, revenge.
One can encounter World War II films and texts and Munich (2005), in which Jewish characters confer on whether fighting back constitutes the biblically forbidden revenge. I think Tarantino would find these conversations, often tinged with authorial moral superiority over subject, trite and stupid in the face of people who really want to kill you. If Basterds is responsive to these Jewish characters and their creators, it is as if Tarantino reeducates and reforms them boot camp-style about the reality of Hitler and World War II in Europe. The instructor is Tarantino, who is part-Cherokee and from Tennessee, metamorphosed into Lt. Aldo Raine, who is a part-Indian Tennessean too. Explorations of moral equivalency and the common (in)humanity of man in World War II cinema are not new ideas, and Tarantino treats these sentiments like toys. The only developed German characters who are possible good guys, Fredrick and Wilhelm, get a pass because they know film, and are not killed by the Basterds anyway. Elsewhere, German prison guards are emblemized with evil via a copy of the newspaper Der Stürmer, the most fanatical of Nazi racist media. Tarantino makes sure the newspaper is utterly destroyed. In another scene, three German regulars are captured in the woods. They seem to be nice guys. Sgt. Werner Rachtman is developed to be an honorable man, the good German soldier. But the buildup is a setup. When the Bear Jew asks Werner if he earned his Iron Cross “for killing Jews,” the German replies with one word, “bravery.” By itself the word is an unresponsive redundancy since the Iron Cross is a bravery medal. (See, e.g., Cross of Iron.) But the way he sneers “bravery” confirms the the Bear Jew’s inquiry, reforming the act of murdering civilians into praiseworthy heroism. With a single word the film destroys the motif of the presumed innocence of regular German army personnel, and puts to question what this unit of nice guys had been up to. In my back story for the scene, the Bear Jew’s emotional release arises from the realization that this time his victim is assuredly guilty.
Back to Ovid and divine intervention, a matter much present in Metamorphoses. On the screen within the screen, Shosanna says the theater fire is “Jewish vengeance.” But there is no such thing as Jewish or Christian revenge. As in the The Dirty Dozen, the religious tension about acts purported to be revenge is resolved in Basterds with the intervention of God. This is the “Revenge of the Giant Face.” Shosanna’s big face appears on the theater’s screen after Fredrick’s. It reminded me of Joan of Arc’s big face in the big-face film La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), because Shosanna is a savior of France too. In interview, Tarantino confirms Shosanna is a Joan of Arc figure. But the giant face of God ultimately supersedes Shosanna’s face in the transforming smoke that fills the theater; even his feet appear. The smoke and faces are inspired by the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) where the Holy Ark is desecrated. Some might call this “homage.” It looks more like an owning to me.
Basterds and The Dirty Dozen explore failed metamorphoses too. Americans do not do European well, and given the Gen. Fenech character, the same applies to Canadians too. Americans think bad accents, foreign and domestic, are funny. Representations of bad accents are replete in the American World War II film and television genre of the 1960s and ’70s. In The Dirty Dozen there are bad and corny accents, and Charles Bronson’s self-acknowledged weak grasp of German. Lee Marvin, besides providing an inspiration for the gruff mid-American portion of Aldo’s miscellaneous accent, takes some turns at different bad accents and inflections. His Southern is much worse than Savalas’, and purposely humorous. Elsewhere he enunciates seemingly ironic vocal inflections that are jarringly awful. Perhaps these are humorous references to earlier filmic precedents. But with one word, “arrivederci,” actor Brad Pitt as Aldo the Apache owns all previous presentations of American military gruff talk. This word, and Col. Landa’s Italian lesson, are also Tarantino’s linguistic owning and trashing of Leni Riefenstahl, which will take some explaining.
There are several open borrowings from Das blaue Licht in Basterds’ first chapter. Junta and Shosanna at the dairy farm wear the same tattered frock and similar blouses. Both experience a running escape to a forest, both chased by weapons, rocks, and sticks after Junta, handguns after Shosanna, and Sunshine in Little Big Man. The French dairy farm house feels like Junta’s pastoral farm house. Farmer Perrier LaPadite manly chops a tree stump, Vigo axes small pieces of wood against a boulder — he is a city guy from Vienna. Both rural settings are beautiful and affecting. However, the setting Vigo describes as “schön,” Tarantino makes terrifying. Crucially, both films have milk drinking by Germanic intruders. For Basterds, the LaPadites and Dreyfuses had to be dairy farmers, not vintners or some other agricultural enterprise, because the farm house is in large part a cinematic interaction with Das blaue Licht. What Riefenstahl offers as an idyllic refuge of bucolic purity Tarantino recasts as, or shows to be, a locus of Nazi horror.
Basterds has two blue illuminations. The gunfire that kills the Dreyfuses fills the farmhouse with floating detritus. The bits that float in front of Landa’s face are lit blue and shine. Are these the ghosts of the dead victims, or the presence of Crystal Mountain, or something else? It is an enigmatic moment, perhaps a hint at the mesmerizing power of film, a Riefenstahl forté. Easier to interpret is the blue-lit big face of Shosanna at the end of Nation’s Pride. In Das blaue Licht Riefenstahl’s big face is lit by the blue moon above. Shosanna’s face is lit blue from below. She is Leni from hell.
There are laughs too, and these come with the aforementioned accents. Vigo cannot speak Italian. After a stagecoach drops him off near Santa Maria village, he tries his first “arrivederci” accompanied by an attempt at an Italian arm gesture. He later says two more bad arrivedercis to Junta after the discovery of the crystal cave, a poignant moment when she cannot comprehend what Vigo means or intends. There is an Italian lesson where Junta teaches Vigo the Italian word for bread and Vigo shows her a block of cheese and says “formaggio.” Junta replies, “Molto bene, molto bene, molto bene.” By comparison, Col. Landa is economical; he needs only two short “bravos” to make his point. I think Riefenstahl’s voice is cutest here, and is cute elsewhere, kind of like a kitten mewing. But her Italian accent is not great; she is certainly no Landa. Her accent accelerates into camp in the scene where she recounts her escape from the village. Her accent has a different quality here; I thought it was a voice-over from another actress, or she practiced this part more, plus her Italian-like gesticulations are over the top. Anthropomorphically, the farm animals look at her quizzically. I cannot tell if these are German animals who find Italian-ness curious, or Italian animals who find the portrayal ridiculous, like the Basterds’ reaction to Landa’s attempt at American. Anyway, the Italian is bad, and if I had a name like Tarantino I might take offense. He outdoes Riefenstahl by showing a German speak Italian well, an American do a funnier bad arrivederci, and a portrayal of Italian body language with subtlety — though still humorously.
While Metamorphoses explores the transformative effects of love, Basterds explores betrayal. The betrayals grow through the film. They begin with the near meaningless betrayal of the precise whereabouts of the Dreyfus family and end with the humongous and incredible treason of Col. Landa. If there is a “common (in)humanity of man” theme explored studiously in Basterds, it is rage and disgust at traitors. In Paris, Shosanna is the hyper-emblematic French girl. She could be Marianne, Deneuve-style. Her nom de guerre, Emmanuelle Mimieux, is uniquely and mellifluously French. At one point she sits at a Parisian bistro and drinks coffee and smokes a cigarette and reads a book, a very French milieu and characterization — at least in American representation. Shosanna signifies France.
A different kind of France is presented in two other women, Babette and Francesca. Babette is the girlfriend of a Waffen SS soldier. She mistakenly complements Shosanna/Emmanuelle for having a German boyfriend. “You’re a very lucky girl, catching a brave war hero,” Babette says. The next French traitor is Francesca, Goebbels’ mistress and translator. Shosanna meets her in a serious, tension-filled scene at an elegant restaurant. At one side of the table sit Shosanna and Fredrick. Seated on the other side are Goebbels, Francesca, and a French (Standard) Poodle. The French Poodle denotes France in American iconography. “Poodle” in current British usage denotes lapdog, pawn. I think at one or two points the French actress playing Shosanna suppresses a giggle about the poodle. Anyway, Francesca gets her just desserts, but by the Basterds, not Shosanna or Marcel. Hitler and Goebbels are shot together, but Francesca gets the screen all to herself, dispatched with special rage. The only time Shosanna can allow herself to show rage at a traitor is with the kidnapped film editor whom she and Marcel accuse of being a collaborator. If he really is, that is left ambiguous. The film is full of such thought-provoking devices.
Brad Pitt said the following to the German magazine Stern: “The Second World War could still deliver more stories and films, but I believe that Quentin put a cover on that pot.” And “With Basterds, everything that can be said to this genre has been said. The film destroys every symbol. The work is done, end of story.” The words “the work is done” echo Ovid, literally. “And now the work is done” is Ovid’s segue into his version of “this just might be my masterpiece” at the end of his story. This precise wording is unique to A. S. Kline’s excellent contemporary translation of Metamorphoses, the most popular and accessible edition given that it is freely available on the Internet. Although Ovid is the master of ownership of things past, I venture to say Tarantino could win an award for best individual metamorphosis for his fictional depiction of our missing real-life top Nazi. Several times Basterds instructs all of the Nazi high command will attend the Nation’s Pride premiere. At the theater we recognize Goebbels and Hitler. Surtitles are deployed to didactically point out the presence of Hermann Goering and Martin Bormann. Message delivered: where is Himmler? Heinrich Himmler, the “Architect of the Holocaust,” head of the SS and Gestapo, the regime’s real No. 2 and chief of security, does not appear in the film. In Tarantino’s story there is no exact Himmler, but he appears through a fictional character, Col. Hans Landa. This metamorphosis is a remarkable aesthetic joke, but some history first. Landa’s story of betrayal is Himmler’s little-known story, fictionalized but realized. In the last months of the war Himmler made various secret attempts to cut a deal with the British to surrender Germany to the Western Allies. Each offer was premised on his gaining legal immunity for himself from war crimes trials. He had a surreally respectful meeting with a representative of neutral Sweden’s Jewish community trying to gain the Swede’s assistance in this pursuit, and took the occasion to rationalize his actions in the Holocaust. In his last days Himmler thought if only he could talk to Gen. Eisenhower for an hour he could win himself immunity and the position of Chief of Police of postwar Germany. Landa is a little different. He wants war crimes immunity, but no part of Germany, just a chunk of Nantucket, a pension, and a rewriting of history. To avoid a war crimes trial, Landa offers a deal to not interfere with Operation Kino. This has a resonance in another, earlier episode of self-serving treason by Himmler. As early as 1942, he tried back channel communications with the British to get rid of Hitler and end the war with the Western Allies so he could take over and continue the fight with the Soviets. Of course, this included demands for his legal immunity. It is believed he had an inkling of an idea about the von Stauffenberg bomb plot to kill Hitler in 1944, the one portrayed in the films Valkyrie (2008) and The Night of the Generals. He did not interfere, hoping someone would knock off Hitler and then he could take over. After the plot failed, he rounded up many of the co-conspirators quickly because he already had a good idea who they were.
Himmler is a difficult personage to own cinematically. He is so outwardly plain. Monty Python’s “Mr. Hilter” sketch (1970) takes a funny stab at “Mr. Bimmler” as a buffoon trying to speak like an Englishman — his enunciation of the word “window” is especially horrible — but this was not Himmler’s demeanor. Stephen Henry Roberts, the Australian scholar who met many top Nazis before the war, described Himmler as “the most normal man in Germany.” The first sentence of Metamorphoses reads, “I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms.” Tarantino takes a novel approach. He transforms Himmler into an opposite, Col. Landa, fit, handsome, compelling, and sophisticated. This conversion of the unattractive Himmler into a good-looking monster is more than a visual trick to show how evil can look good. Besides being chief of security for the Nazi state, Himmler was the foremost promoter of the Nazi ideal of “Aryan” beauty, fitness and racial hygiene. For example, he invented the Lebensborn program to breed healthy blue-eyed blondes. The visual dissonance of Himmler in this leadership role is shocking, as if the Jaws character took over the Drax role in the eugenics film Moonraker (1979). A Nazi official said of Himmler, “If I looked like him, I would not speak of race at all.” Tarantino builds his Himmler/Landa monster into cinema’s sharpest representation of Nazi ideology and iconography, then subverts them in the end by revealing that Nazism’s highest adulator of German honor was its brashest betrayer and a buffoon. Landa is Himmler’s apotheosis; one could say he is for all of cinematic Nazism too, torn down, humiliated, owned by a truth. I think this single metamorphosis outdoes any one of Ovid’s. But Ovid was at a disadvantage; he did not have the great monsters of the 20th century for material.
Apollonius of Rhodes, Argonautica. The original “guys on a mission” story. More than following a plot line, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is both a remake of and sequel to Argonautica set in the American Northwest. It begins with Thunderbolt’s prayer at a church next to a field of wheat. Jason’s trek kicks off with his prayer to Apollo at a shrine next to the sea. The film ends with Thunderbolt breaking a cigar in half. In theatrical tradition, Jason dies by a falling timber from the crumbling Argo. The cigar snap marks the death of Lightfoot, but it could also comment that Thunderbolt symbolically dies here too. Both of the titular buddies have Jasonic qualities. Thunderbolt is the leader of the journey and has healing skills, but Lightfoot, like Jason, is the youngest of the crew, and the second heist is his idea. Thunderbolt conquers the “crazy driver” and his smoky Plymouth Fury, an imaginative interpretation of Jason’s defeat of the fire-breathing bulls of Colchis. But Lightfoot is the one who plants the sod and plumbing pipes, metaphorically another of Jason’s Labors, the sowing of the dragon’s teeth. Melody, the very cute Catherine Bach, is half a lonely Lemnian woman, half a hungry Harpy. Another woman, riding a motorcycle beside a river, bashes a truck Lightfoot is driving with a hammer. Symbolically she is the Clashing Rocks of the Bosporus, appropriately dressed in blue. Earlier, in one of the film’s most beautiful scenes, the buddies traverse an American version of Hellespont — coincidentally named Hell’s Canyon — aboard an Argo substitute named “Idaho Dream.” Classically, the buddies are more like a platonic Venus and Adonis advisor/youth relationship than Jason and Medea, but Lightfoot is certainly Medea when he conquers a night watchman guarding the Montanan Golden Fleece. Also, there may be bits of the Labors of Hercules in the film. For one, Cerberus appears as a man-eating Doberman. Creatively, more than one classical personage can be located inside the characters themselves. Thunderbolts are associated with Zeus, and Lightfoot comments that he and Melody might have the same father, which might make Melody the muse Melpomene, and then Lightfoot would be . . . ? Or if Thunderbolt were the war god Ares, would Lightfoot be Anteros? This much is certain: in lieu of nectar, the characters drink Olympia-brand beer.
Clark, Greydon, personal correspondence (2011). Greydon Clark is the creator of Final Justice and graciously replied to my inquiries. About Joe Don Baker he says, “I wrote the script specifically for Joe Don . . . In Joe Don’s case I knew him well and tried to incorporate some of his actual traits into the character.” Regarding the film’s title, “The meaning to me is that Joe Don’s character believes in the concept of `Final Justice.'” I asked Clark about Spaghetti Westerns and Dirty Harry-type films, “Certainly the shootout in the park is a tribute to Sergio Leone and his Spaghetti Westerns. Geronimo’s single mindedness on getting his man does hark back to Dirty Harry.” I see in Final Justice responses to prior films such as Brannigan (1975), French Connection II (1975), The Mackintosh Man (1973), and even A Clockwork Orange (1971). Especially interesting is the scene where Geronimo searches for the bad guy amidst a colorful Carnival parade in Malta. It is a remake of, although broadly different than, the Pigeon Toed Orange Peel psychedelic rave scene inCoogan’s Bluff. Also, Joe Don’s peeling of an orange while talking about Apache torture techniques inFinal Justice is a vast improvement over his earlier orange peeling in Mitchell where he peels the fruit as if he were ad-libbing the action out of boredom. Clark instructs, “the audience wants to be entertained” and “a director has an obligation to their audience” to do so. In response to a general observation about Tarantino and Brian DePalma films, Clark tells me, “You’ve just mentioned two of my favorite directors.”
Garson, Charlotte, and Méranger, Thierry, “Entretien avec Quentin Tarantino,” Cahiers du cinéma,August 19, 2009,
Goldstein, Patrick, “Quentin Tarantino on His Movie Influences: From ‘Operation Amsterdam’ to ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,'” Los Angeles Times, February 15, 2010. This interview introduced me to the subculture of critics “IMDB-ing” and “trashing” Tarantino for his artistic precedents. Yet his borrowings fit a long and praiseworthy tradition. But then, Tarantino nourishes some of the playfulness. Here he says, “For example, the whole opening scene in ‘Basterds‘ is completely and utterly taken from the first appearance of Angel Eyes [Lee Van Cleef] in ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.'” The interrogation of Perrier LaPadite (M. Patate?) certainly parallels that film, but strictly construed Basterds’ opening scene has a collage of film influences. Another one is La Grande Illusion (1937) for the device of people shifting conversations into English to disguise meanings from people beneath them.
Harryhausen, Ray, and Dalton, Tony, The Art of Ray Harryhausen, London, Aurum Press, 2005. Harryhausen recognizes that Arabian Nights’ cyclopean monster is influenced by the GreekOdyssey. He says he gave his Cyclops in The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) the goat-like legs of a Greek Satyr because, “I did not want the audience to think that the creature was a man in costume.” In both 7th Voyage and Odyssey there are giant-sized wooden clubs at hand, but in both works the Cyclops do not use them. However, in 7th Voyage, the Cyclops uproots a dead tree with its top half missing for use as a weapon like a pestle. A possible source for this imagery is Virgil’s Aeneid, in which a giant Cyclops uses a pine tree shorn of its branches as a walking cane, or as the Loeb edition has it, a “lopped pine.” In The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974), Harryhausen changes his half-Satyr Cyclops into half a horse-like Centaur. This Cyclops does use a club as a weapon. In O Brother, Where Art Thou? actor John Goodman plays a well-spoken Cyclops who tromps around like the Cyclops in 7th Voyage, but wields a club like the Cyclops in Golden Voyage. In Basterds, the Bear Jew hits his victim almost exactly like Goodman clubs actor George Clooney in O Brother, but his earlier bat-tapping sounds come from Golden Voyage’s ominous approaching Centaurean hoof clops. Whether Golden Voyage’s Cyclops influenced The Warriors‘ Baseball Furies emergence I do not know — they are certainly analogous — but the Bear Jew’s celebration after hitting Werner is almost assuredly part cinematic Cheyenne, not cyclopean. Thus, the Bear Jew having dual classical sources, a Fury and a Cyclops, has a parallel or source in Harryhausen’s hybrids.
Hohenadel, Kristin, “Bunch of Guys on a Mission Movie,” New York Times, May 6, 2009.
Lester, Paul, “Quentin Tarantino’s Design Team Takes You Behind the Scenes of Inglourious Basterds,” Flavorwire.com, August 21, 2009. This article says that the opening scene farm house is “based” on the ranch house in The Searchers (1956). The Searchers’ house has stunning, strong ceiling beams, visible in the interior shots. Basterds’ set designers should be lauded for building a structure that outwardly looks like it might actually contain such beams. Also, Basterds’ big round window nearly duplicates the one in The Private Affairs of Bel Ami (1947). I viewed it, it is a good film, and ends in a great duel. Bel Ami and The Night of the Generals share a curiosity: near mental breakdowns triggered by three close encounters with paintings. Actor George Sanders as “Bel Ami” is hypnotically seized by Max Ernst’s The Temptation of St. Anthony, and Peter O’Toole nearly freaks out twice upon two viewings of a reddened imitation of Vincent Van Gogh’s Self Portrait — 1889” in Night of the Generals. Tarantino and his crew talk about and recommend many films in the articles and interviews connected to Basterds’ release. I have seen several of them upon these promptings, and for most relevance to Basterds I recommend Douglas Sirk’s Hitler’s Madman(1943), and also The Searchers for dialog bits, a Bowie knife, and borrowings from Das blaue Licht.
The Munsters (1964-66). This television series’ second season opening credits features Herman Munster crashing through a door, followed by his family. Herman is a Frankenstein creature, like Pvt. Fredrick Zoller. Eddie, Herman’s son, walks through the door swinging an oversize baseball bat. If this is one of the sources for the Bear Jew, it means he is part-werewolf too, an American werewolf in Paris, perhaps seeking revenge for that bad dream in London. Herman’s wife Lily is a vampire, and Shosanna enters her premiere through a door a little like a blend of Lily and niece Marilyn, maybe. Besides being a feline Joan of Arc, Shosanna could also be a Parisian-Apache vampire, a matter hinted at in two fashions in Basterds. If all this seems unlikely, less so should be the relevance of Herman’s “Bingo” in the first-season episode titled “Herman the Rookie.” Herman auditions for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and after one of his home run swings he says “Bingo,” accompanied by ridiculous gesticulations.
The New Avengers (1976-77). I am unfamiliar with this series, but as a by-product of my research into baseball bats and clubs in films I discovered the first fifteen seconds of the episode entitled “Hostage” (Season 2, episode 7) has language remarkably like that between the Bear Jew and Werner about his Iron Cross. For those who have doubts about my assertion, the Bear Jew and Werner are talking about the same thing.
Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. A. S. Kline, 2000, http://www.poetryintranslation.com. AllMetamorphoses quotations come from this edition.
Padfield, Peter, Himmler: Reichsführer SS, London, Macmillan, 1990.
Puig, Manuel, Kiss of the Spider Woman, trans. Thos. Colchie, New York, Knopf, 1979. In the book, prisoner Molina recounts four films to entertain his cellmate, the second being the Nazi propaganda romance central to the film Kiss of the Spider Woman. This German film is an invention of Puig’s imagination. However, the book’s first film, about a “panther woman,” is a retelling of a real American film, Cat People (1942). 1982’s Cat People is a remake of that film.
Rentschler, Eric, Ministry of Illusion: Nazi Cinema and its Afterlife, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1996.
Riefenstahl, Leni, Leni Riefenstahl: a Memoir, New York, Picador USA, 1995. I like Das blaue Licht. It is by far her least objectionable masterpiece. I recalled the film shows a blue effect at night, but could not find evidence of the same in preparation for the present article. Riefenstahl talks about using newly invented film stocks for her beautiful “night” shots, but she does not say her film actually shows blue, and blue effects are not evident in the 2006 DVD conversion. Patrick Zarate ofwww.dasblauelicht.net has kindly informed me that my memory may be crossed with the color effects in the documentary Die Macht der Bilder, which I first saw in theater almost twenty years ago. I do not recall such blue effects in the VHS version of Die Macht der Bilder I viewed in early 2010. But in the DVD version I recently rented there are definitely scenes from Das blaue Licht and other old films tinted blue. Elsewhere in the documentary there are occasional blue lighting effects, most notably the underwater shots opening and closing the film, blue-lit visions of Riefenstahl scuba diving amongst beautiful and strange reef creatures, which made me think of Avatar, again.
Roberts, Stephen H., The House That Hitler Built, New York & London, Harper & Bros, 1938.
Shakespeare, William, The Norton Shakespeare, gen. ed. Stephen Greenblatt, New York, W. W. Norton & Co., 1997. Jokes about Anglophone monolinguality are not new. Shakespeare tells one inThe Merchant of Venice. Portia and Nerissa, two Italian women, discuss the noblemen from various nations who seek Portia’s hand in marriage. The two dismiss each of the men by reason of their stereotypical ethnic failings. The English get this observation:
Nerissa: What say you then to Falconbridge, the young baron of England?
Portia: You know I say nothing to him, for he understands not me, nor I him. He hath neither Latin, French, nor Italian, and you will come into court and swear that I have a poor pennyworth in the English. (1.2.55-60)
Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus, London, Harding, Mavor & Jones, 1818.
Tarantino, Quentin, “Inglourious Basterds” — Last Draft, dated July 2, 2008. This suspicious document was “leaked” in February 2009, six months before the film’s release. This “Last” draft is so different than the final film that its “leak” probably amounts to playful disinformation. However, a few matters that are not different, just omitted from the final film, can help here. The restaurant in which Shosanna meets Goebbels is named: Maxim’s. Peter O’Toole dines there in The Night of the Generals, and Erich von Stroheim reminisces about it in La Grande Illusion. Last Draft also relates that Francesca is an actress in Goebbels’ propaganda industry. There is a clip from the film “Sentimental Combat,” in which Francesca plays a peasant in love with a German soldier. She says, “I love you, I can’t help it. My country or my heart, which do I betray?” These words essentialize the several similar statements made by chanteuse Leni Lamaison and Michelle the cigarette girl about their German beaux in Kiss of the Spider Woman. (Re: the name “Leni,” the book says she is from Alsace.) So, at one point at least, it was contemplated that Basterds would contain, like Kiss of the Spider Woman, a campy propaganda film within a film about a Nazi-French romance.
Unknown artist, Fräulein Doktor poster, 2009. The poster for this hypothetical film was released in January 2009. In Basterds the poster is recognizable, but difficult to see clearly.