Unless you have been living in the proverbial cave – and I don’t mean Plato’s – you should know by now that Basterds is not, nor was it ever meant to be, an accurate historical representation of World War II. (Much less, the Holocaust!) It is a mythologization of history. Nothing new about that. Entire movie genres have been based on the mythologization of history – notably, the Western. Wars have been mythologized since the days of Homer. (See Troy, loosely based on Homer’s The Iliad, and co-starring two of Inglorious Basterd‘s leading performers, Diane Kruger – as the mythic Helen of Troy – and Brad Pitt. And yes, they are both remarkably better in Tarantino’s film.) The title of Inglourious Basterds’ Chapter 1, “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” tells the audience exactly what kind of film they are going to see.
I wanted to talk about what is probably the film’s most memorable image, the ghostly black and white close-up of Mélanie Laurent as the French-Jewish heroine, Shosanna, projected amidst the smoke and flames of the film’s climactic chapter, “Revenge of the Giant Face.”
It invokes – consciously, no doubt – two of the most memorable anima and animus images in cinema: Brigitte Helm as the robotic “False Maria” (top) at the moment she is finally engulfed by flames in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926), and Frank Morgan as “The Great and Powerful Oz” (bottom) terrifying Dorothy and her friends in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Oz’s giant face is also, as it happens, a projected image, a creation of smoke and mirrors.
An anima or animus is another kind of projection. Whether god, goddess, vampire, witch, mermaid, faery, beast, devil, golem, or other paranormal entity, our animi give form to aspects of the human psyche that are larger than life, transcendent, the stuff of legend.
Or the stuff of story. Shosanna does not enter Inglourious Basterds‘ story as an anima. She doesn’t become a true anima until the story’s final chapter, either at the moment she puts on the makeup and red dress of an avenging angel (scored to Bowie & Moroder’s “Putting Out the Fire With Gasoline” from Paul Schrader’s Cat People, another story about animi), or later, when she is “reborn” as the Oz-like Giant Face.
The moment is comparable to those moments in Greek myth when a hero or heroine dies and is reborn as a constellation, something eternal. In Kill Bill, Tarantino aimed at the mythic level (invoking it, for example, in the “Superman speech”). In Inglorious Basterds, even more than Kill Bill, I think he achieves it.