In fairness, Quentin Tarantino was never going to make a straightforward war flick. Guts and glory are not his style. Well, maybe guts. There are certainly plenty of those on show in his latest; a darkly comic, gory ‘spaghetti Western’ set in Nazi-occupied France. But those expecting Saving Private Ryan will be disappointed – ‘Scalping Private Ryan’ would be more accurate. Inglourious Basterds is QT’s long-rumoured ‘men on a mission’ movie; the kind churned out by the (dirty) dozen in the ’50s and ’60s – but spattered with blood and the kind of banter that only a caffeine-wired film-obsessed Tarantino can produce.
This is his opus, 10 years in the making: the brutal story of a group of soldiers, led by Brad Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine, tasked with striking fear into the Third Reich. It is also deemed something of a gamble for the
46-year-old director: it is his first war movie, his first film shot in Europe and his first attempt to grapple with historical reality, however loosely. But the finished product may surprise many: it’s long, chaotic, comical, extremely violent and far more interested in dialogue than action. Time Out gives the motor-mouthed director a chance to explain why…
Inglourious Basterds was originally going to be a straightforward war movie. What happened?
What makes me sit down to start writing is a genre that I’m interested in tackling. But once I start, I explode the borders of that genre. So, even though it is a movie about guys on a mission, it’s a lot more. But that’s my process.
Why didn’t you include any battle scenes in the film?
I never had any intention of doing a battle scene or including a single tank. That s**t bores me. Cannons and climbing rocks and dynamite, that bores me. I would be bored to tears shooting that; getting the tanks to roll. I’m much more interested in the humanity, the suspense. A critic at the time of Pulp Fiction said, ‘Quentin Tarantino will never be a master of suspense, because he’s too fond of minutiae.’ I thought that was a very fair comment at the time. But on this movie I wanted to engage with suspense – but on my terms.
Do you trust dialogue over images to make a scene suspenseful?
It’s not only dialogue; it’s also mood, situation and mise-en-scène [the setting]. But I have no problem relying on dialogue. It’s one of the reasons I can direct my material better than anyone else, because I have a confidence in my material that no one else would.
But weren’t you concerned about humour puncturing the suspense?
That’s what I do. I’m never afraid of a joke or a humorous moment. I don’t think it ever derails the train, it just makes the train ride a little more fun. I pride myself, when it comes to tone, on being able to turn on a dime. I can create a suspenseful thing, then break it with a joke. Then one more line and you’re back on a suspense tip.
Were you making a point with this film about how cinema usually treats World War II?
A point could be made… though that’s not necessarily what I was trying to get across to everyone in the multiplex. On the one hand I’m making a revisionist history of the war, but I’m also dealing with characters who deal with revisionist histories of the war. I’m also looking at the tragedy of genocide. I’m dealing with the Jewish genocide in Europe, but my Jews are going native and taking the roles of American Indians – another genocide. Then there’s a King Kong metaphor about the slave trade – that’s another genocide. And Germany wasn’t always the bad guy…
The film’s opening line is, ‘Once upon a time in occupied France’. Are you suggesting that all movies are fairytales, no matter how serious the subject?
I think it’s the same for all novels, all literature, all history books. History was written by whoever was around to write it. Winston Churchill was asked if he thought history would be kind to him, and he said, ‘I know it will be, I intend to write it.’ That point is made throughout the movie. We have a character who does something phenomenal that helps bring down the Third Reich, but everyone who knows what that character did dies. He’s lost to history; no one will ever know what happened. That character stands for all the characters in real life who did tremendous feats but there was no historian around to jot it down.
Which movies inspired the writing of the film?
I ended up looking at a different type of war film than those I’d watched before: the propaganda movies made in the ’40s, mostly directed by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries. What’s really interesting about them is that World War II was going on; the Nazis were an actual threat, not a theoretical threat – not just movie bad guys. Those directors, in most cases, had personal experience of the Nazis, and they were worried about their loved ones back home. And yet those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and there’s a lot of humour in them, too. And this goes against all the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s. I’m not trying to be pissy about the movies of the past 30 years. It’s just that there’s been a one-note concentration on victimisation.
Dir Quentin Tarantino
You get the feeling with Inglourious Basterds that Quentin Tarantino desperately wants to put away childish things. Nor is he hiding the fact. Not only is Brad Pitt’s closing line of the movie, ‘This may well be my masterpiece,’ but his latest is, a lot of the time, a little more restrained, a little quieter than we’ve come to expect. What’s not so clear is what he wants to do with all this, as the film flits between comedy and violence, revenge and tragedy, sometimes easily, sometimes less comfortably. Tarantino is mostly smart enough to let his usual, entertaining extravagances serve the story rather than the other way around. Pitt’s performance is lively, but he’s upstaged time and again by Christopher Waltz’ Nazi hunter: his is a performance of sly comedy and cruel charm, and his presence in the film lends tension to some of its best scenes. Perhaps the biggest error is introducing real historical characters into the mix. It would be a lot easier to buy Tarantino’s tongue-in-cheek spin on occupied Europe if all the characters were as fictional as
Pitt’s ‘basterds’; putting them side by side is awkward.
For all its shallow pleasures, there’s no getting away from the troubling theme of sadistic revenge at the heart of Inglourious Basterds, a theme that’s hard to take seriously in such a movie, about such a period of history. Watching Hitler having his head pumped full of bullets might sound like divine justice on paper, but in a film it looks tacky and crude. The extended scene of Nazis burning is also troubling because it denies real justice, it denies subtlety, it denies intelligence. It also denies a lot of the good material in this film, which is often arresting and funny. Tarantino’s cinema invites participation in a game steeped in cinema. It works best when the real world isn’t invited to the dinner table.
Four propaganda films that inspired Tarantino’s wartime bloodbath.
Man Hunt (1941)
Dir Fritz Lang
The opening scene (an English hunter moves through the Bavarian forest and lines up Hitler in his gun sights) is legendary in film history and arguably set the tone for Tarantino’s infinitely more brutal Nazi slasher pic.
This Land Is Mine (1943)
Dir Jean Renoir
A cowardly teacher in a small French village is drawn into the resistance. This is another that falls into the ‘ordinary men doing extraordinary things’ category. However, we can’t ever imagine actor Charles Laughton scalping anyone. Maybe offering them tea without any milk…
Hitler’s Madman (1943)
Dir Douglas Sirk
The story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi SS commander known as ‘The Hangman’, by Czech partisans and the reprisals inflicted by the Nazis on the Czechs. It was a story retold by Douglas Sirk in Hangmen Also Die (1943), which Tarantino cites as an influence. Both set a darker tone than the usual propaganda flick.
Action In Arabia (1944)
Dir Leonide Moguy
A pulpy sub-Casablanca B-movie in which an adventurous reporter tangles with Nazis in Damascus, where allies and Nazis struggle to gain Arabic sympathies. We’re not entirely sure why this would influence anyone – we think he threw it in just to look cool; although he did describe Moguy as ‘a wonderful Russian director’.