Enough time has passed by now that I shouldn’t be ruining the storyline to Inglourious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino’s dual-purpose war movie. While giving a sidelong glance at the “Final Solution” through the lens of improbable kitsch, the movie also pays homage — on several levels — to Hollywood types and genres. The frequently-recited premise of the film is that it’s about a group of behind-the-lines Jewish GIs (led by part Apache, part good-old-boy Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raines) exacting murderous revenge on the Germans. Before its release there was even a hint of the film being based on factual events.
First and foremost, this is a Tarantino film: think Kill Bill (either one) without the leggy blonde, or Pulp Fiction without the Ezekiel-quoting Samuel L. Jackson character (my personal favorite). Just so you can suspend disbelief a little more than you otherwise might, the story is supposed to bring together the Fuhrer, his minister of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, and a host of other prominent Nazis at a film premiere in a Paris cinema, where they could be killed by Pitt and his Kosher Commandos. The theater itself is owned and operated by a young Jewish woman — Shosanna Dreyfus — who escaped being murdered with the rest of her family underneath a French farmhouse in the film’s opening chapter. In the tradition of Lee Marvin’s “C’mon, Jiminez, move it!“, this film’s tagline would be S.S. Colonel Hans Landa’s breezy “Au revoir, Shosanna” as she runs from the farmhouse where her family had been hiding (Landa is a special kind of guy).
When asked what I thought of the film, I had two responses: one very shallow and reflexive, the other a little more subjective and thoughtful. Reflexively I liked it, despite my objections to characterizations and historical accuracy — a little knowledge can be dangerous. It was entertaining, and I have to admit it appealed (for all the wrong reasons) to my own immature and and sometimes unsophisticated emotional requirements. I happen to like Tarentino films and this one had the added bonus of severe whoop-ass on Nazis, Brad Pitt tripping on his overdone backwoods accent, and a skinning knife the size of Montana.
So that’s the dollar review. Over time, other thoughts and meanings became clearer. There’s the obvious homage to Robert Aldrich’s 1967 masterpiece, The Dirty Dozen — obvious to me, anyway; maybe it’s a Boomer thing. Some of the parallels jump right out, while others are more subtle. Both groups are deep behind enemy lines, and rely on enemy uniforms in the tried and true “you will be shot as spies if caught” formula to prolong tension. Raines’s Jews aren’t misfits in the way the Dozen are, but they might be more certifiably psychotic because they’re so otherwise normal. Would I rather share a taxi with Eli Roth’s “Bear Jew” (whacks Nazis to death with a bat on command) or Clint Walker’s oversized Dozen character, Sampson Posey? At least Posey killed his victim in a bar fight by accident, without malice. Having said that, Tarrantino’s Basterds dont have a Maggot (Telly Savalas’s scripture-quoting social outcast) to make you appreciate how normal the rest of us are.
If a movie can inspire a degree of serious thought, then this one did bring out an unhappy or unpleasant one: the primacy of and/or fascination with evil. When I left the theater I started thinking back to Schindler’s List, which is based on Thomas Keneally’s novel (originally titled Schindler’s Ark).
You might be asking yourself why I’d think that — the two movies are like night and day in their premise and execution, and one is pure fantasy. But here’s the thing: I hardly remember Liam Neeson’s Oskar Schindler or the Yitzhak Stern character played by Ben Kingsley. In Schindler I was consumed by the malevolent, extroverted charm of Capt. Amon Goeth, as performed by Ralph Fiennes. In Basterds, Tarantino’s Landa affected me the same way. Whether historic (Goeth) or fictional (Landa), evil draws us in.