The impulsive robbery, male rape, heroin ODs, the backseat brain-blasting: Pulp Fiction is spectacle; it’s Tarantino at play. Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino at work. That’s not to say Basterds isn’t fun: Mike Myer’s overstated British lingo and the comic Nazi theatricality do more than season Tarantino’s world—they give it marrow. After all, what’s a Quentin Tarantino film if not an open-mouthed mastication of foreign genres spit out as American pulp? Bad Italian accents, Morricone’s symphonic bombast—the director is clearly nodding to a foreign syntax of cinema. But the cinematic déjà vu’s that run rampant in Inglorious Basterds evidence a filmmaker who has not only studied the geometrics of cinema, but who is concocting his own theorem, his own chain of reasoning about what it means to make a contemporary film. Tarantino knows that cinema is not the world itself, but a way in which one takes liberty to organize the world, and by this reasoning licenses himself to depict history any way he likes it, regardless of the politically correct version. In an age of art that gesticulates either with hip irony or brutal realism, Tarantino somehow avoids both. He bathes in the violence of irony, stripping it of any “hip” seduction: carves swastikas into the heads of unwilling Nazis and forces us to watch the massacre of unarmed Germans in a crowbar-jammed theater-turned-oven. Yet it’s so heavily fantasized that it cannot be realism.
That said, Inglorious Basterds teaches us something important about one of the great living filmmakers of our time: he’s a fool. A jester, to be more precise. Beatrice K. Otto writes that in societies where freedom of speech was not considered a human right, the court jester—precisely because anything he said was by definition “a jest” and “the uttering of a fool”—could speak frankly on controversial issues. Tarantino loves the “pulp” style: jocular, sensational, grimy, deliberately poor in quality. The term “pulp fiction” comes from magazines produced from the 1920s through 1950s. These lurid, fantastical, exploitative rags were printed on cheap paper made of wood pulp. So, pulp is the modus operandi of this masterful jester. We must then approach Inglorious Basterds looking for his controversial truths.
Take, for example, Tarantino’s reference to the King Kong story. In a basement pub, a few Basterd spies and a Nazi SS officer decide to play a game by attaching name cards to their foreheads. Each person must attempt to guess which name is written on his or her own card by asking leading questions. The German SS officer discovers that his persona a) comes from a tropical region, b) was made captive and taken across the sea in chains, and c) arrived in a foreign land against his will. The SS officer narrows his guess to two possibilities: the African-American Negro or King Kong. His first guess is the former, although the answer is the latter. Cleverly, Tarantino reads King Kong as a metaphor for the African Diaspora. But what is even more interesting is the (perhaps unintentional) reversal that happens in his film. The only African presence in Inglorious Basterds is Marcel, the projectionist at the theater and—crucially—the damsel Shosanna’s Negro lover. In the end of the film, Marcel dies in a hail of flames and gunfire, giving his life at the behest of the beautiful girl. Sound familiar? Tarantino arguably casts the Negro Marcel as a King Kong figure. Tarantino hasn’t escaped the metaphor of the tragic Moor; indeed, he’s finished it. In the original 1933 King Kong classic, Denham, the dogged movie director who stole Kong from Skull Island in the first place says, “It wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast.” And it was Beauty that killed Marcel, in the form of Shosanna.
Not only does Tarantino subtly recognize the cinematographically referential nature of his films; he also literally implants films within his films. It bears mentioning that the Grindhouse double feature he co-directed with Robert Rodriguez begins with a number of fake trailers (one of which, Machete, actually entered production after the trailer was filmed). Stolz der Nation, Josef Goebbels’s propaganda film around which the plot culminates, provides another great example of how Tarantino utilizes and subverts distinctly foreign genres to create his own jester-like style—a style humorous, ironic and scarily heavy.
In Stolz der Nation, over three hundred American troops die by the hand of a German sniper, concealed high in a village clock tower. Although the American moviegoer recoils at the sight (even as dramatization) of Fredrick Zoller plugging hundreds of US soldiers with German bullets, what Tarantino does in the third act of the film is enact a clever, ironic, dark role-reversal. At the climax of Inglorious Bastards, the new “German sniper” is Basterd Bear Jew, high in the opera seats, plugging three hundred odd German cinemagoers with slugs from their own machine guns. As the building burns, the helpless victims pound on the theater doors. The statement is hardly subtle: the Jews have now thrown the Germans into the sacrificial furnace. One can’t help but think of the Holocaust. The question is: how satisfied are we with this bloody revenge? The smoky specter of Shosanna hovers above the massacre, laughing, but she is dead and cannot reap what she has sown. Does murder vindicate murder? All we know is that we are still in our seats, hands over our mouths, generally horrified. “The shoe,” as Standartenführer Hans Landa (aka The Jew Hunter) says later, “is on the other foot.”
This unorthodox Nazi officer, the gem of the film, is the embodiment of Quentin Tarantino. Hitler, I’m sure, would wish that the entirety of occupied France be forced to speak German if it were logistically possible. Instead of towing the party line of “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,” Colonel Landa attempts to appreciate the cultures he encounters rather than overcome or destroy them. He speaks several languages. Hitler admires his ability to think like a Jewish “rat” rather than like the metaphorical German “hawk.” The result of this appropriation is not an exact copy of the Frenchman (he often misuses phrases—“That’s a bingo!”), and there’s an inherent theatricality to his pretense. But I wouldn’t call this pretense artificiality. By failing to relate, he creates something new. He is neither an expatriate nor a tourist. Just as the multilingual German officer struggles to appropriate the other languages as his own, Tarantino, having digested a massive amount of cinema, is near-fluent in the language of the blaxploitation film, the French nouvelle vague, the kung-fu epic, and the Spaghetti Western, and he uses them (or rather misuses them) to create something new and bizarrely American.
Inglorious Basterds is a medley—a miscellany of genres baked in a furnace of violence and congealed into one passionate thing that is describable but impossible to identify. It is Tarantino’s adulterated masterpiece, and though each creepy scalping of a freshly shot human being is enough to make any viewer green-around-the-gills, one can’t help but marvel at the jester’s deft cinematic work.
Jason Harper is the film editor for Wunderkammer.