Death by movies. Could there be a more fitting, more familiar end to the Nazis—perennial villains of history, film, and anti-heath-care-reform campaigners from other planets? While Nazis have certainly inspired all manner of retribution and odium over the past six decades, this mode of punishment seems especially excellent—an overload of emotion and metaphor, delight and cynicism.
It’s well known by now that Quentin Tarantino has been working on the script for his “truly Spaghetti Western” for years, drawing inspiration from Enzo Castellari’s The Inglorious Bastards. In Inglourious Basterds, the heroes are partly silly (introduced in freeze frames with smashy soundtrack) and completely gnarly, beginning with Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, the part-Apache, self-righteous leader of the titular pack of Nazi-killing Jews (featuring as well Eli Roth). These guys are licensed to behave horribly, shooting, stabbing, and scalping their prey with movie-moral impunity.
Primary among the prey is the noxious Colonel Hans Landa (Chrisoph Waltz), coldly cruel enough to make the fervid Aldo seem almost callow, despite the fact that both have deep backgrounds in hunting down and obliterating enemies, whether non-Aryans or Tennessee Klansmen. Both enjoy a certain celebrity and each is determined to bring down the other, their movie structured as a pair of twisty routes they follow to that preordained meeting.
The first step forward comes in the film’s first scene, a gradually developing, wholly entertaining introduction to Landa’s iniquity. As he arrives on the doorstep of the jokily monikered French dairy farmer Perrier LaPadite (Denis Menochet), he raises the expected question: where is the Jewish family that once lived in the area? Perrier puts off his guest, gesturing as he admits he’s heard “rumors.” Landa is giddy, almost clapping his hands as he exults, “I love rumors! Facts can be so misleading.” With that little bit Inglourious Basterds underlines the absurdity of history as it is written and unwritten, by those who triumph and those who would have liked to have triumphed sooner—and certainly more spectacularly. Moreover, it embraces possibility, an alternative history in which the good guys nearly outdo the bad guys when it comes to committing bloody mayhem.
The Basterds’ motivation is pretty much embodied in Landa, a hyper-typical movie-Nazi if ever there was one, heinous and splenetic and smug. Determined to live up to his own nickname, “Jew Hunter,” Landa is as cruel and meticulous in his conversation as he is in other aspects of his work. As Perrier sweats and worries, the camera tilts and circles the table. And Landa waits, sure that his notoriety will do its work.
The movie’s interest in rumors and reputations and their effects is complicated, both narrative and thematic. The most obvious instance is the Basterds: determined to fight fire with fire, Aldo sets out to make them famous for their brutality. Hence the habitual scalping and throat cutting, and his particular penchant for carving swastikas into the foreheads of those few Nazis he lets live (and Aldo’s assertion that they’re only seeking proper entertainment: one Basterd’s work with a baseball bat, he says, “is the closest thing we ever get to goin’ to the movies!”). He and his men go marauding in forests and villages, recruiting killing machines like Sgt. Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), whose self-appointed mission to annihilate the entire SS corps one man at a time is revealed in pithy flashback and punctuated by Aldo’s offer—made as Hugo awaits his execution in a German prison cell—that he change his “amateur” status to “professional.” The Basterds bust him out and the rest is… not quite history.
The other instance of a galvanizing reputation has to do with the Nazis, who surely know how to promote themselves. This plot strand begins with two very famous movie fans, namely, Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) and Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth). The latter commissions an Audie Murphy-style propaganda film, starring newly coined German hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) as himself. As Stoltz der Nation (Nation’s Pride) shows in graphic detail, Zoller shoots 100s of French and American victims from a bell-tower over a period of three days: watching an audience full of Nazis cheer the raucous bloodshed might give pause in another movie, say, one that wasn’t soliciting similar cheers for other raucous bloodshed.
Goebbels (made extra-ugly in a flashback showing his preference for doggy-style sex with his red-lipped translator) asserts that his movie will inspire and thrill audiences in need of reassurance: it’s 1944 and the war isn’t going quite as Hitler’s crew planned, after all. With this in mind, he devises to have the premiere in Paris, at a grand deco theater, attended by a number of Nazis mucky-mucks, including Hitler and Landa. The upcoming event inspires more than one plot against the Nazis, including means ranging from explosions and fires to handguns and locked doors. One of these involves Aldo and the Basterds, working with a British expert on German movies (Michael Fassbender) and Dietrichy German movie actress named Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), furious with her countrymen for being both passive and active parties to the war effort. Another is hatched by the movie theater manager, Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, more an a little Uma-like), currently passing as a gentile, after witnessing the 1941 massacre of her family by none of other than Colonel Landa.
Shosanna’s problems with the Reich are enhanced by the fact that she’s in love/league with her projectionist, Marcel (Jacky Ido), the movie’s only black man and derogated by Landa as such. As all the offenders and offended head toward what may be Tarantino’s most sensational Mexican standoff ever, Marcel’s righteous rage makes for a particularly satisfying climactic image, all movie screen, silhouette, and flicked cigarette. While all other contenders bring major weapons and outsized egos, Marcel appears as if living in his own movie, constituting yet another imagined alterative history. It’s death by movies, overkilled.