What would you get if you combined The Great Dictator with Pulp Fiction and shifted the scene to France? One answer might be Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Inglourious Basterds, but it’s not a great answer because the film itself is so many things. Of the identifiable movies within its fanciful confines, one is rather good, another is so bad you have to like it and the third is just meandering. The overall effect is not unpleasant, a special sort of déjà vu. You find yourself trying not so much to identify Tarantino’s allusions as to remember the imaginary films he makes you believe you have actually seen: Sergio Leone’s Once upon a Time in the Resistance, for instance, or David Lean’s Bridge on the River Seine, or Jean-Pierre Melville’s Shadows of the Army.
The film opens with a homage to Leone, Morricone-style music (by Morricone, as it happens) on the soundtrack, and the words ‘Once upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France’. Not Occupied France, you notice, or even German-occupied France. In this movie as in so many others, the party is the country, the only Germans are the Nazis. Not that this is any grounds for complaint, since Inglourious Basterds has two of the finest movie Nazis you will see anywhere, all unctuous charm, fluency in several languages, and infinite sadism. Christoph Waltz, as the Jew-hunting Colonel Hans Landa, steals several shows but August Diehl, as an endlessly smiling SS officer, is also pretty impressive. These people make you feel the Nazis have all the fun, and certainly the best lines.
In the first of what Tarantino calls his ‘chapters’, we meet Colonel Landa taunting an unfortunate French farmer who has hidden a Jewish family in his house. Landa knows the family is there, the farmer knows he knows, and the only real question is how long Landa can string out his ghastly impersonation of cordiality before he gets the farmer to admit that he is hiding the fugitives. The farmer finally confesses, weeping, and Landa calls his men in to execute the family – only one member manages to make her escape. The whole thing is lit and directed very soberly, but also so broadly that you find yourself wondering why you are so disturbed by this obvious scene, a sort of photographed cartoon. One reason is simple and historical: there is no rule that says cartoons can’t kill. The other has to do with Tarantino’s skill as a movie-maker. Even when deep in cliché he can make it look as if the person in charge, the one who needs to ham things up and draw them out, is the character rather than the director.
In the next chapter we meet the Basterds of the title, itself borrowed, Philip French says, from ‘a schlocky Italian exploitation movie’ released in 1978. I take it the funny spelling represents both a nerdy joke and a precaution against copyright trouble. They are a Jewish commando group under the orders of the Tennessee hillbilly Lieutenant Aldo Raine, alias Brad Pitt. He has the worst imitation of a rural Southern accent imaginable, but he talks less and less as the movie goes on, and he does a lot of meaningful squinting to show how tough he is. He and his group hunt Nazis, with extraordinary and unexplained success. They kill and scalp most of their victims – Lieutenant Raine tells his men he is part Indian – and carve a swastika on the foreheads of the ones they spare, pour encourager les autres. If there is a moral point in the parallel between the savagery of the two headhunters, Landa and Raine, it escapes me, although as the movie goes on it’s clear there is a none too submerged allegory waiting for us. Those Germans are going to lose the war because they’re so clever. American stupidity will win out in the end because nothing will have diluted it. What’s impossible to know is how Tarantino himself views this story. Irony is not his thing, but stupidity isn’t either.
The chapter that follows is the most surprising. We meet Shosanna, the escapee from the first scene, who is now the owner of a Paris cinema, taking down the letters describing last week’s films from the marquee. An amiable young German soldier shows up, who turns out to be a war hero – he killed 350 Americans single-handedly – and the star of a movie about his exploits. Here the plot distinctly thickens. Goebbels is in town for the movie’s premiere, and so, we learn, will be all the other Nazi bigwigs: Göring, Bormann and Hitler himself. The young soldier imagines he is doing Shosanna a favour by getting Goebbels to hold the premiere in her cinema, and the whole sequence begins to acquire the obvious but still worrying air of menace we encountered at the beginning of the film. Shosanna is played by Mélanie Laurent, who manages to look properly panicked and perfectly calm at the same time. She has the film’s one truly brilliant idea: she will burn down the cinema with the Nazis in it, using all the nitrate stock she has to create and fuel the blaze. She announces this scheme to her friend in the beautifully photographed empty lobby of her cinema. It’s as if she has to kill the movies to get rid of the Nazis.
After this, Inglourious Basterds just gets lost. There is an English plot to blow up the same cinema. When the plot is half-foiled, Shosanna’s arsonist plan still does the trick, and all the targeted Nazis get fried, along with everyone else in the cinema. We are now in the realm not only of the fictional but of the deeply counter-factual.
Three features of the movie hang in the mind for me. Its most beautiful scene is its most meaningless – or, rather, it is full of meanings that make no sense in the context of the film. As Shosanna is about to substitute a piece of a film of her own for a reel of the Nazi movie, a brief scene in which she explains they are all going to die, she is interrupted by the not-so-well-meaning German soldier. She shoots him, he shoots her, they lie spreadeagled and dead on the projection room floor, caught in a fine high-angle shot, sentimental music on the soundtrack. This is memorable and Wagnerian, a sort of love-death, but I don’t know what it’s doing here.
Next, the film is spoken in German and French for most of its duration, with large excursions into English and a brief comic scene in Italian. The language in each case is very elaborate, almost baroque, and an essential part of the fun. What are we to do if we have only the subtitles to go by? How shall we grasp, let alone enjoy the moment when a German actor playing an English soldier is caught out by another German because of the imperfections of his German accent?
And finally, what do we make of the constant invitation to find simple, mindless violence funny, while cunning cruelty is as scary as can be? When Hitler and his pals are in Shosanna’s cinema watching the exploits of their hero, they laugh their heads off every time an American is killed. In the Lincoln Odeon where I saw Inglourious Basterds almost everyone laughed any time anyone got killed. It’s true the killings were mainly ludicrous in film terms, but the ludicrous isn’t always funny. I don’t believe Tarantino wants to line his audiences up with Hitler but of course this is one of the risks of treating history as fantasy: the dreams and the laughs are ours, the spectators are the only protagonists. We can accuse Tarantino of seeing reality as a movie, which he certainly does. But then we need to make sure we don’t just mean we prefer another, more sentimental movie.