Bright Lights Film Journal

Tarantino’s <em>Inglourious Basterds:</em> Film Kills

“Tarantino thus concedes some of his omnipotence to the medium he so deftly manipulates.”

Quentin Tarantino’s latest film rewrites the ending of the Second World War. In a crammed theater, Hitler and most of his High Command officers are slaughtered and burned; the fire is ignited from behind the screen, and it moves very swiftly thanks to a large quantity of nitrate film stock. Film literally consumes the Nazis in attendance, much like Tarantino’s film consumes us, the people in the real audience. This is one of the many tricks and winks that Tarantino – Hollywood’s quintessential auteur – throws at the audience. His constant dialogue with the viewers ends with a rhetorical comment. In the film’s last shot, Lieutenant Aldo, played by Brad Pitt, looks down at Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz, brilliant in four languages), in whose forehead he has just deeply carved a swastika symbol. There is no reverse shot, so Aldo’s words, diegetically spoken to one of his “basterds” on the right, appear in fact to be addressing the audience: “I think this might just be my masterpiece.” The point-of-view (Landa’s and ours), coupled with the low-angle shot, place the spectators in an inferior position. Aldo and Tarantino tower above the viewers, and the declaration takes on further meaning: this is Tarantino speaking directly to the audience, but after subjugating it and branding it with a big knife. What possible answer could the audience have to Aldo/Tarantino’s line?

In classic Hitchcock style, Tarantino would of course deny any further inference from that line. But then again, this is someone who claimed that Truffaut’s The Bride Wore Black did not influence the Kill Bill films in any way, even though Tarantino’s connections to and respect for the French New Wave directors has been well documented. However, his infatuation with himself does not bother me in the slightest. He is simply following in the footsteps of such greats as Godard – also arrogant enough to make films in his own image. My particular choice of words is not haphazard: Godard and Truffaut were both critics for Cahiers du cinéma and supported the auteur theory, which gave the director unlimited power over the creative process; filmmakers became gods. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino often uses crane shots and tracks the characters from above, establishing a sort of Eye of God camera angle that underlines his authority. Moreover, the camera occasionally moves between rooms or floors in a continuous shot that reveals the top of the walls, emphasizing an omniscient quality. Tarantino is obviously aware of his place in the history of cinema and within the select brotherhood of auteurs.

Inglourious Basterds follows multiple plots that eventually come to an explosive intersection point: an American special unit whose sole purpose is to kill German troops, a German colonel in charge of eradicating France of Jewish people, a double-agent German actress named Bridget, and a young Jewish woman, Shosanna, the sole survivor of a German massacre. There are no actual war battles and little shooting. The film is laden with typical Tarantino moments: long, tense dialogues followed by brief, intense action, intertexuality, or a film within a film. Maybe the most obvious Tarantino theme is the homage to the spaghetti western, punctuated once again by the haunting music of Ennio Morricone. After adjusting the spaghetti western and the Mexican standoff to kung-fu and sword fighting in Kill Bill (this was in fact a double return because Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns were adaptations of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films), Tarantino finds another context in which to stage Mexican standoffs. In the first sequence, Colonel Landa convinces the farmer Lapadite to reveal where he is hiding a Jewish family, but there are no firearms involved. Instead, during the intense verbal standoff, the two men smoke pipes, and the German’s is noticeably bulbous and considerably bigger. The bigger phallus prevails. Then there is the shooting sequence in an underground tavern that offers another nuance on the traditional Mexican standoff: two officers, one British and one German, face off with their revolvers pointed at each other’s groins. Tarantino appropriately characterizes this scene as a miniature Reservoir Dogs in an extended interview in the June 2009 issue of Cahiers du cinéma. The thirty-minute scene, shot in a small, confined space, epitomizes the entire film: meandering and seemingly never-ending dialogue climaxes into a short, violent burst that leads to everyone’s death. Another example is the unusual standoff between Shosanna and the German hero Fredrick Zoller, which leads to both their deaths, too. Just in case the audience missed the references to the spaghetti westerns, Lieutenant Aldo actually tells a German soldier that they are in a Mexican standoff. Even in this instance, though, it is not the typical face-to-face confrontation, because Aldo speaks to the German soldier from outside the tavern.

This type of repetition is another Godardian characteristic: repeatedly hitting the viewer over the head with meaning. Both Godard and Tarantino want to make sure that the audience does not miss out on the subtleties of their films, which really demonstrates how little faith they have in their audiences as well as how much they love to show off. The repetition technique, though, contributes to the creation of the most beautiful and telling shot of the film. Shosanna is in her dressing room, getting ready to welcome all the Nazis into her theater, which she plans to burn down during the projection. The initial full shot shows her standing next to a large, circular window. There is a reflection of her face in the window, which is superimposed on a poster seen outside of the building. The poster features one of Bridget’s films, Fräulein doktor, and it displays a large close-up of the actress (which is in fact a picture of Diane Kruger, the actress playing a double-agent actress, further contributing to Tarantino’s play on doubles). The two women, who never meet in the film, are coalesced and form a potent, albeit virtual, alliance. In spite of the male-dominated cast, these two women essentially make the film work. They are linked by a common goal, to wipe out the Nazis, and they turn out to be more successful than the basterds themselves. The film that announced itself as a testosterone-filled action film is in fact fueled by estrogen. And again, just in case the audience misses the subtle connection between the two women, Tarantino brings us in closer, in a medium shot, so that we can see them better. Two Shosannas (revealing a split subjectivity suggestive of her hidden agenda) and two Bridgets (the actress in the film and the real actress), all fused together in a reflection on a suggestive window that symbolizes a very large vagina. They both die in the very typical fashion of the film noir punishment of the femmes fatales. Actually, Shosanna suffers two deaths: one by shooting and the second one when the fire devours the screen of her theater on which we could see a large close-up of her (Tarantino said he thought of a connection to Joan of Arc for this particular shot). In the end, the power of film reigns supreme. The nitrate film stock in corroboration with explosives wipes out everyone and everything in the grand finale explosion. Tarantino thus concedes some of his omnipotence to the medium he so deftly manipulates. In so doing, he separates himself from the other auteurs. And that might just mean Inglourious Basterds is his masterpiece.