This week, I chose Quentin Tarantino’s Ingloriuos Basterds for our film, as a follow up to Rob’s last pick, another WWII film, Overlord. Where Overlord has an overwhelming dehumanizing tone of alienation, Inglorious Basterds feels, in contrast, deeply human and personal. That’s all I’ll say about the film before we watch it.
Per usual, I want to start with a short clip that I found while preparing for this week’s edition. I went deep into some Tarantino interview rabbitholes over the weekend, and came across this spectacular clip from Sleep with Me, a 1994 comedy with scenes authored by six different writers. Tarantino and Roger Avery wrote this scene about the homoerotic subtext of Top Gun:
I’ve never found the ultraviolence in Tarantino’s films disturbing, and was struck by this more so in Inglorious Basterds, as this is a war movie, and often the climactic or disturbing moments in war movies are scenes from the battle fields of death and gore (cf. Saving Private Ryan, Gettysburg, and countless others).
Death in this film is violent, but swift and final–the memorable moments are those leading up to death, the contemplation of death, and especially, the moments where life hangs in the balance, and you’re unsure if a soldier will detect an enemy under his nose.
I think it is no mistake that the most suspenseful scenes all occur at dining tables – in the dairy farm cottage, in the Parisian cafe, in the basement tavern – not on the battlefield. There’s something neat, explicit, almost comforting about the idea that war is contained to the battlefield, but in all of these scenes the war invades the domestic spaces where we typically feel the most safe.
Because life hangs in the balance and as an audience we’re as unsure whether or not the protagonists will be detected and killed, the banal conversation, eating of food, drinking of drink – Landa drinking milk or eating a Danish – feel obscene, as ludicrous as eating a Danish on a battlefield. It’s excruciating to endure these domestic rituals when death may be minutes or seconds away.
This absurd juxtaposition of banal everyday life with the horror of death feels more Lynchian – for example, the diner scene from *Mulholland Drive – than any of Tarantino’s other films. It reminds us of the fragility of civilization and life.
The other juxtaposition that struck me in this film was that of war and bureaucracy. Consider this exchange from the opening scene:
PERRIER But the meaning of your visit, pleasant though it is, is mysterious to me. The Germans looked through my house nine months ago for hiding Jews and found nothing. COL. LANDA I'm aware of that. I read the report on this area. But like any enterprise, while under new management, there's always a slight duplication of efforts. Most of it being a complete waste of time, but it needs to be done nevertheless. I just have a few questions, Monsieur LaPadite. If you can assist me with my answers, my department can close the file on your family.
Landa is all business, a bureaucrat suffering the inefficiencies of a scaling organization. He’s just following the rules, and a logic of government ideology.
One of the other things that always horrified me most about WWII and the Holocaust was that it happened in post-Enlightenment Europe, after period of immense amount of cultural and intellectual progress, much of which happened in Germany (Kant, Hegel, Nietzsche).
Landa’s logic, while perhaps completely rational given a certain set of axioms and goals, looks cold and ruthless when we see the human victims of its execution in this dairy farm.
WWII was a sobering reminder that while we have much to be thankful for in the Enlightenment and progress in rational thinking, pure reason – like evolutionary biology and the survival of the fittest – can lead to inhumane outcomes. In Star Trek terms – it’s good to have both Spock and Kirk, working together.
I’ve always thought it was admirable that the human species rejected the survival of the fittest and developed mores to protect the lives of every human, not simply the most fit. I’m not sure this message was not Tarantino’s intention with the film, but it is the idea that comes to my mind after watching it again.
I also want to throw in a few other tidbits I learned about this film while prepping…
Most of Tarantino’s films are genre flicks (The Hateful Eight is a whodunit, Reservoir Dogs a heist, Kill Bill a revenge flick, etc). One read of Inglorious Basterds is that it’s a war film, but another is that it’s a detective story (and Col. Landa is the detective). Michael Tucker points this out (in the video I include below), and, in reading the screenplay for this film over the weekend, I noticed this explicit reference in the action lines:
The Jew Hunter removes both a pipe and a bag of tobacco fixings. The pipe, strangely enough, is a calabash, made from an S-shaped gourd with a yellow skin and made famous by Sherlock Holmes.
The other observation from Michael Tucker’s film essay I thought was quite insightful was that WWII was a war in which it was quite difficult to discern friend from enemy. Your enemies were not clearly of a different race, and although they might have a different native tongue, many participants spoke multiple languages. Language plays an important role in the film, with various characters slipping back and forth across languages throughout, to either disguise themselves or communicate in a way they know someone within earshot will be unable to understand. As an audience, we typically get subtitles, an omniscient vantage point, and Tarantino uses this to heighten the dramatic irony and suspense.
I also happened to watch True Romance for the first time this weekend, because one of the Tarantino interviews I dug up mentioned it – it was very Tarantino, even though he only wrote it (and did not direct it).