A decade in the making, Quentin Tarantino‘s World War II fantasy Inglourious Basterds (2009) conclusively answers questions that have hounded the filmmaker in recent years.
Does Tarantino still have the revolutionary directorial voice he displayed in his 1992 debut, Reservoir Dogs? Is he still capable of presenting a familiar genre from a startingly fresh perspective, a knack he had demonstrated with the game-changing, non-linear crime drama Pulp Fiction (1994)? Were the depth and maturity he had shown in his restrained, character-driven Elmore Leonard adaptation Jackie Brown (1997) just a one-shot deal, overridden by his passion for trash cinema?
The answers are yes, yes, and maybe – but if he keeps making films as good as Inglourious Basterds, who cares?
The critical grumblings around Tarantino began with the two-part magnum opus Kill Bill (2003-06), in which he seemed to compress every chopsocky flick and revenge B-picture he had ever seen into one gigantic sprawl. The complaints got louder with 2007’s Death Proof, Tarantino’s contribution to a three-hour double feature titled Grindhouse in which he and director Robert Rodriguez paid homage to the tawdry 1970s exploitation movies that had influenced their craft.
But neither the public nor critics shared the filmmakers’ enthusiasm. Grindhouse bombed when it was released in April 2007, a lackluster follow-up to the profitable but coolly received Kill Bill Vol. 2. Suspicions arose that Tarantino had gotten lost in the junk-movie obsessions of his youth and was no longer relevant to the ordinary filmgoer.
The skepticism continues. Even though Inglourious Basterds received an 11-minute standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival and earned Christoph Waltz the Best Actor prize for his portrayal of Nazi Col. Hans Landa, a self-proclaimed “Jew hunter”, critical reaction to the film was mixed, the most extreme complainers branding it “an armor-plated turkey” and “a misfire”.
The naysayers were wrong. Long, talky, and utterly engrossing from the first scene, Inglourious Basterds is thrilling, invigorating filmmaking. This is Tarantino’s best film since Jackie Brown and a return to form for a director whose contemporary, big-city sensibilities had never hinted at a knack for a period war picture.
The combination sounds odd on paper but works like gangbusters on the screen.
“When I sat down to write Reservoir Dogs, I just wanted to do a heist movie,” Tarantino says from Los Angeles. “Here it was, ‘I’d like to do a movie about a bunch of guys on a mission, but it has to be ‘really cool.’ I’m counting on the fact that I’ll be working in this specific genre and that I will expand it and blow it up to some degree while still offering the pleasures of that genre. So it was never about ‘Let’s do a World War II movie Quentin’s way.’ It’s more ‘Let’s do a guys-on-a-mission movie,’ and the Quentin part will happen on its own.'”
Unlike the fun but self-indulgent Death Proof, which at times felt like a film primarily designed for its creator to enjoy, Tarantino approached “Basterds” with the zeal of a first timer.
“On Death Proof, it was like a party: We had fun, and we all goofed off, and the movie didn’t work as well as his other films,” says Hostel director Eli Roth, a friend and collaborator who acted in Death Proof and plays one of the Basterds, a group of Jewish-American soldiers assigned by their commanding officer (Brad Pitt) to bring back the scalps of 100 dead Nazis.
“By comparison, Inglorious Basterds was like a military operation,” Roth says. “Quentin was like a general on the set. He was very serious and very focused. He was on the set full-time. He didn’t even have a trailer. There were no cellphones on the set, chairs, or monitors. We were there to make a movie, ‘for’ the love of movies, and the fun came in getting our shots right.”
Aside from the Basterds’ exploits and Landa’s heinous crimes, the complex screenplay also interweaves the story of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French-Jewish theater owner in Paris eager to avenge the slaughter of her family, and a German actress (Diane Kruger) helping the Americans’ cause. Tarantino insisted that all the actors be of the same nationality as their characters, and more than half of the dialogue is in French and German, with English subtitles.
“Quentin doesn’t speak French or German, but that doesn’t mean he can’t direct actors who are speaking it,” says the Austrian-born Waltz. “He has this immense ability to pick things up. He would give me direction, and I would stand there with my mouth open sometimes, asking him, ‘How did you know that?’ It didn’t bother him that the words used weren’t familiar because he was concerned with what was happening ‘behind’ the words.”
Here is more from Tarantino on his decision to rewrite world history with Inglourious Basterds and the critical reaction to his recent films.
One of the most surprising things about Inglorious Basterds is that it is a war movie with little action. When the action arrives, it is in potent, shocking little bursts. They’re like Altoids of action, curiously strong.
(laughs) That was intentional. I wasn’t interested in dealing with American and German soldiers on battlefields fighting each other. I was more interested in the human dramas that can happen. If you look at that old TV show Combat!, that’s what they went for. Because it was a TV show, they couldn’t afford to have seven tanks coming over the hill every week. So it would be “Sgt. Saunders is in a cave, and he comes across a German soldier, and a shelling happens, and they’re both trapped in the cave. And as they’re digging themselves out, Saunders finds out the German killed one of his friends. But they still need each other to survive.”
You also stretch out certain scenes that are dialogue to their breaking point.
I like the idea of taking something that would be a quick thing in a normal movie but slowing it down and really playing it out. Something I never ended up writing, but I hoped would come up, was a scene where a character was stuck on a minefield and playing that out in real time, to see what that must feel like.
My equivalent of that in Inglorious Basterds is the tavern scene, where I play the scene out and let the suspense do its job. It’s building and building, and the rubber band of suspense stretches until it breaks. When it breaks, you get one of those quick bursts of violence.
The violence always turns out to be a lot worse than you expected.
(laughs) Oh, yeah. Exactly. You get these huge, long buildups to these quick bursts, but they’re “cataclysmic”.
The first scene in Inglorious Basterds is a 16-minute conversation between a Nazi and a farmer suspected of hiding Jews in his basement. The scene is reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s famous description of the difference between surprise and suspense. Surprise is having a bomb go off under a table over which two people are talking. Suspense is showing us the bomb before it goes off.
Except you don’t show us the bomb right away in Inglorious Basterds. You wait until halfway through the scene to reveal whether the farmer has anything to worry about. Yet the scene is still excruciating.
Yeah. Very much so. The case can be made that when an SS officer walks into your house, you’re going to be nervous, whether you’re hiding Jews or not laughs. You can even use a modern analogy of when an IRS guy walks into your home to do an audit, you’re going to be nervous, whether or not you’re stashing millions of dollars in your house.
The scene is also a great introduction to the character of the Nazi Col. Landa, played by Christopher Waltz. That character is a great villain. There is absolutely nothing likable about him, but …
No, there isn’t. But oddly enough, he’s disturbingly charismatic.
He’s incredibly magnetic. You’re drawn to him, even though you hate him.
He’s the kind of guy that, when he shows up, things happen, and that’s exciting. He’s also a really good detective. You can’t help but admire his prowess.
Inglorious Basterds begins with the words, “Once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France”. Did you know from the outset the film was going to be a piece of revisionist history or did you originally intend to stay true to the facts of the war?
I had no idea I would change the course of real history in Inglorious Basterds until I came to that point in the movie. I started thinking, “My characters don’t “know” they’re not a part of history. My characters don’t “know” there are things they can’t do. I’ve never had that kind of guiding principle on any of my characters, ever. And now was not the time to start. So there’s a moment toward the movie’s end where real history goes one way, and I go another with it.
My take on that is my characters have changed the course of the war. That didn’t actually happen, because my characters didn’t exist. But if they “had” existed, everything that happens in Inglorious Basterds is quite possible.
You once said that when you put a pop song into a film, you want to use it in a way that will always remind people of your film whenever they hear it, so no other filmmaker can ever use it again. In Inglorious Basterds, you use David Bowie’s “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)”, which was written for the 1982 Cat People remake.
I’ve always loved that song, and I was disappointed by how Paul Schrader used it in the Cat People movie. He didn’t really use it; he threw it over the closing credits. I remember working at the Video Archives and thinking, “If I had a song like that for my movie, I’d build a 20-minute scene around it!” So I guess I did.
There’s a cool sense of dislocation when that song comes on, which still sounds so modern, yet the story is during World War II in France.
When I got the idea to use it, one of the things I liked is that the song was once removed, and you already knew it from something else, as opposed to something that was written for the movie. You’re listening to the song’s lyrics, and you’re watching Shoshanna [Mélanie Laurent] doing all this stuff. You sit there thinking, “Wow, this song was written for Cat People, but it’s totally appropriate for Shoshanna’s story!” It plays like an interior monologue for her.
What do you think when you read critics who say that you’re squandering your potential by making self-referential B movies like Kill Bill and Death Proof?
Well, “particularly” when it comes to Kill Bill, I think they’re full of it. I’m as proud of that as anything I’ve ever done. That’s one of my “tombstone movies”. I think they just don’t “get” it.
What about Death Proof and the whole Grindhouse experiment?
I get what they’re saying. I like Death Proof, but it’s not in the same league as Kill Bill. It was an in-between movie. In between two mountains, it was a hill.
I’ve read a couple of recent interviews where you say you don’t want to be still directing when you hit 60 and be making “old-man movies”. You’re only 46. Did you recently have a moment of reflection that made you decide this?
No. It didn’t come out of something that happened recently. I was talking to cinematographer Bob Richardson about this on the set of Kill Bill. I don’t want to go down that route. I want every one of my movies to have some umbilical cord linked to Reservoir Dogs. I don’t need to do the out-of-touch, old-man stuff.
Now that I’ve said that a few times, it’s starting to maybe sound a little catty, even to myself. I don’t quite mean it that way. It’s just not the way I want to go. If I were a rock ‘n’ roll performer, I wouldn’t want to be doing an album of old crooning tunes 30 years down the road. I want to keep “rocking”.