Inglourious Basterds: Quentin-ssential history
Not too many people took the hint Quentin Tarantino was doling out at the Cannes Film Festival this year, when he arrived on the very prestigious, very formal red carpet doing an outrageous dance. The occasion: the world premiere of his Holocaust film, Inglourious Basterds. We think Holocaust and we stop thinking because images from the innumerous Holocaust films – all the way from Sophie’s Choice up to Life is Beautiful and beyond – come rushing back to us, and all we can think of is the cruelty man is capable of, and how that became apparent in the work of the Nazis under Hitler. We forget that the only thing we are really capable of knowing is what is told to us by history text books – six million Jews died, and Hitler killed them. Try as we might, and god knows cinema has continued to try ever since, we will never really know what happened.
The story of Inglourious Basterds, or should we say, stories, revolve around some counter movements, and attempts at attacking the Nazis. One such group was The Basterds, headed by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), who were in the business of killing Nazis, and always leaving one alive to spread the word of their existence so as to inculcate a terror in the heart of every Nazi. The other is a more singular effort, that of Shoshanna (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew who managed to escape Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), also known as the Jew Hunter even as he massacred her entire family in front of her eyes.
The ever irreverent Tarantino has pulled the Holocaust out of our somber text books and thrown it into the realm of the comic book. A sacrilege some would think, but Inglourious Basterds is less a film about the Holocaust than about our somewhat dubious, labyrinthine knowledge bank about it – the numbers and the figures and our desperate attempts at understanding that moment in our history.
The curious thing however is, that this film, though it makes a laughing stock of history the way it is written, does so, by using techniques very similar to history writing. Unlike most films on the Holocaust, this one is not based on a real life story that came out of the concentration camps or out of the journals of a tormented Nazi. In fact, it doesn’t try to give much interiority to any of the characters at all. And in that it brings its version of the events closer to history writing than most Holocaust films. Every character in the film is a caricature, historical and aesthetic. Take Brad Pitt’s character for instance. Everything from his look to his accent to his dialogues is embedded in irony. He is supposed to be the heroic figure who is fighting the Nazis, the saviour of the victims, but he is easily one of the most comic characters in the film. The scene where he escorts Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to a film premiere pretending to be Italian puts him in the most undignified position imaginable. There is simply no room for heroism in this film. If at all, Shoshanna comes close to it, despite being another typified figure…the quintessential femme fatale, complete with her red dress, lipstick and heightened sexuality.
The masterstroke in the film is its play with the real. For starters, unlike a majority of Holocaust films, this one actually dares to engage with Hitler, while the commander in chief of the Nazi operations remains but an absent presence in most films, thereby becoming larger than life. In this film, Tarantino refuses to let Hitler become that haunting figure. Instead, he drowns Hitler (Martin Wuttke) in the Chalplinesque. This Hitler is awkward and clumsy and from the looks of it, fairly easy to frighten. The smallness of his frame is highlighted and in fact his entire persona is dripping with the ridiculous. But through him, Tarantino raises the most uncomfortable question: what was it about this little man with a toothbrush moustache that managed to grip people and change the course of history forever. The most scary, dignified looking men in the film spoke with utmost reverence to him and visually that makes no sense, and come to think of it, historically it doesn’t make any sense either.
There are few children in this world who aren’t aware of how Adolf Hitler died. He never allowed the Allies the satisfaction of capturing him, trying him and judging him – he took his own life. But today, Hitler is more legend than reality, and it is that that Tarantino plays with and in the process reminds us. In the film, most scenes with Hitler have a huge portrait of him – a work in progress – that is visible in the background. And it is so much larger than the actual man. The end of the film, where Hitler was killed in the movie hall, is spectacular in every way, and has had historians spewing venom right left and centre.
What we are reminded of by the time the film is over, that what we watched was a work of fiction, which is mostly what anything, including history can be. Once an event and a person transforms from the real to the legendary, he and it are public property, open to interpretation, selection, and of course the umbrella term for it all – manipulation. There is a scene in the second half of the film that had a tiny clue to this – the scene in the basement bar where Bridget von Hammersmark meets some of the Basterds to give them information, when they are suddenly discovered and caught by a Gestapo officer. What follows is a dramatic exchange with many guns being pointed at many testicles and much about loyalty, sensitivity, weakness comes to the fore.
One of the most well-deserved awards given by the Cannes jury this year was to Christoph Waltz for his performance as Hans Landa. The monster that Hitler brought out in the Germans was most evident in this man whose every entry spelled doom. His eerie quality of smooth talking all the while making the person squirm with nervousness in his seat was flawless as was his turn-around of sorts towards the end, when he predicts the fall of Nazism and tries to negotiate an easy way out for himself. The consciousness with which operations were held suddenly hits us when we see this Nazi man making a very personal and at the same time political deal with the Allies.
Inglourious Basterds is not trying to rewrite history, it isn’t a testimony of how we have finally moved on after nearly 65 years to a place where an alternative look is possible. It isn’t underplaying the evil of the Nazis, it isn’t blaming the Jews and it certainly isn’t bringing to light any new evidence. It is just cinema, is all that it’s saying. And saying it with staggering panache.