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Inglorious Basterds, or Tarantino's History Lesson

The killing of Adolf Hitler in 'Inglorious Basterds' is both an outrageous violation of historical truth and audience expectations. It's also another example of Tarantino's filmmaking genius.

Inglorious Basterds (2009) irritated Holocaust protectors by having as a significant part of its plot the Nazi persecution of the Jews in Occupied France in 1943-44.

Implicit in this criticism is the idea that, first, a film that had little historical verisimilitude should not even dare include the Holocaust. Second, and worse, is that Quentin Tarentino, who seems to have little or no gravitas—and were it not that he's a great filmmaker would be considered a buffoon and fraud—would try to treat such a sensitive topic.

(The reaction to his upcoming project, Django Unchained, and its handling of slavery has triggered similar responses. Imagining a special forces unit composed of Jewish-American soldiers motivated strictly by vengeance against Nazis might have had its detractors but seems, in comparison, barely worth anyone's notice.)

Ultimately, most of these objections are meaningless because they have assumed that Tarantino created this film, and used these specific contents, for effect. For source material, he had World War II, the original Inglorious Bastards (1978), and worked over these subjects according to his specific needs to produce a film that stirred audiences with imaginative action, dialogue, violence, and especially vengeance.

The apotheosis of that vengeance comes when Hitler, Goebbels, and Goring are machine-gunned to bloody pulps by two of the Basterds, Donny Donowitz (the Jew Bear) and Ulmer. In fact, so gratifying is the killing, so sweet the vengeance, that audiences went away very untroubled—so much so that it left the Holocaust protectors speechless.

I am most astounded by his violation of the implicit pact between filmmaker and audience (a cinematic social contract) in re the suspension of disbelief. We know Hitler lived until April 30th, 1945; Tarantino killed him in late June, 1944. The audience should simply reject it as both historically untrue and cinematically impossible.

What should have transpired is spelled out in The Eagle Has Landed (1976). We see Michael Caine kill Churchill, but we are not going to be abandoned to that particular ending. Besides, who's rooting for the Germans to accomplish their mission? We know Churchill was not killed. Michael Caine's character dies believing that he has successfully completed his mission, rather than having killed Churchill's double.

Donowitz and Ulmer also die, thinking they have killed Hitler as well. Perhaps many of us expected to learn before the end of the film that it was only Hitler’s double who had been killed (if only because we know Hitler employed many doubles to deter assassins).

That contract is also unbreached by The Day of the Jackal (1974). We know that the assassin's target, Charles DeGaulle, cannot be killed. Nevertheless, the film successfully creates tension to the very end. The same movie remade as The Jackal (1997) does not work, in part, because the target is a fictional leader of the U.S. and not, say, George W. Bush; in Death of a President (2006) someone does kill the 43rd president but, unlike Inglorious Basterds, proceeds in a serious documentary approach, which brought the wrath of nearly everyone down on the film.

However, there is a great catharsis for the audience when no Hitler doubles are revealed. We actually don't feel cheated. By breaking the "contract," Tarantino actually honored its spirit—and maybe more than that.

Yet Tarantino's execution of Hitler increased the perception of the Basterds as a spurious and innocuous film in the mode of, say, the original Bastards movie. It confirmed the feeling that the film shouldn't be taken seriously historically, and that the Holocaust protectors should calm down. After all, the buffoon director has actually killed Hitler 10 months too early! From another perspective, however, Hitler's death actually initiates the film’s historical consciousness.

When you consider that the war ends by the end of June or early July in this film, this means the Allied troops had not yet broken out of Normandy, but were too late to save soldiers slaughtered on Omaha Beach. The uprising in Warsaw hadn't happened yet. Millions of Jews, Slavs, and others would have been dead by then, but another million or more would have liberated from the death camps. No Operation Market Garden or Battle of the Bulge. Most prominently, there wouldn't have been a July 20th plot to kill Hitler.

We cannot honestly imagine what we might not have been available to our historical memory, but “what if” speculations about history are played constantly. What if Kennedy not been killed in Dallas, or Lincoln at Ford's Theater? It can be a game of hope or despair. All we know in Basterds is that Lieutenant Aldo Raines (Brad Pitt) is preparing for the postwar cover-up of German war crimes by marking his German prisoners with a swastika on their foreheads.

We might also wonder whether Hitler's death was desirable; another question implied in the film. Would Churchill and Roosevelt have even bothered to unleash Operation Kino on the Third Reich leadership? And since there was a second, independent action (by Shoshonna to incinerate and blow up the movie theater), is what the Allied Leaders wanted a moot point?

The television sequel to The Dirty Dozen (1967), “Next Mission” (1985), answers with a resounding no. Major Reisman (Lee Marvin) leads a new dozen into France to kill the very men who want to overthrow Hitler. When there's a chance to shoot Hitler, the Dozen's marksman is told to stand down. Why? The High Command believes that the war will be completed faster with Hitler in command. A new group of officers in control might concoct a better strategy.

Two great fears haunted the Allied leaders in World War II. Should Germany be let off the hook—as they were after World War I—a second time? Should the war end too early, will Germany rise again to fight World War III? Well, we have Ernest Borgnine's word in Next Mission that Hitler is doing an awful job, which might seem appropriate in light of the totally fictional source of these historical speculations.

Another fear was the fate of Hitler at the end of the war. Would he allow himself to be captured or commit suicide? A psychological report commissioned in 1942 and published in the form of a book called The Mind of Adolf Hitler concluded that Hitler would commit suicide. And he did that, though he wanted more; namely, the complete destruction of Germany and its people for not winning his war. The image of the man getting a face full of machinegun fire seems a minimal punishment.

Inglorious Basterds allayed both fears. Maybe the creation of an all-Jewish unit should have been considered by the Allied High Command. Yet, when the original “dirty dozen” was created, Lee Marvin's Major Reisman commented to his immediate superiors that someone at the top had to be lunatic to create a special unit from a bunch of deadheads. Even Borgnine's general had to agree with the assessment. It was a stupid idea because it was a suicide mission, and it doesn't get any smarter with the television sequels (unless one believes that the American military had found the best way to handle men destined for capital punishment.)

The Basterds platoon, on the other hand, was created for the long haul. Yes, their mission was extremely dangerous, but Lieutenant Raines had extremely motivated soldiers. The unit was extremely successful, instilling fear into the Wehrmacht that was felt all the way to Hitler. His death at the hands of the Basterds was an accident, albeit a happy one, but it fully justified their being placed in Occupied France.

I nearly have to catch myself, talking about the Dirty Dozen and the Basterds as if they could be evaluated by how they were formed and had performed in the field. Really, these films seem silly beside Saving Private Ryan(1998).

I remember watching Battleground (1949) back in the 1960s (was it on NBC's Saturday Night at the Movies) and received my first lessons about the Battle of the Bulge and the siege of Bastogne. Plus, there were countless other World War II movies that provided a similar foundation and curiosity: Bataan (1943), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1956), The Longest Day (1962), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and many others. What comparable lessons or meaning about the Good War could The Dirty Dozen and Inglorious Basterds bring?

Some critics make a case that The Dirty Dozen is critiquing the Vietnam War, but I fail to see it. The mission is to kill German officers to disrupt the chain of command at the time of the D-Day invasion. When the unit attacks the palatial officer residence, Reisman and his men improvise and herd the officers and their women into an underground shelter, trap them there, and proceed to kill them all. Only one of the dozen survives, along with Reisman and a staff sergeant (Richard Jaeckel, who was in Guadalcanal Diary). The payoff for the audience is strong. Theoretically, the mission helped the Allied Forces maintain its foothold in Normandy. We can rejoice in all of the German officers dying, and there seems little reflection about the way of the condemned prisoners were used by the High Command or the results that were attained. The audience could rejoice, affirmed by another ingenious way we beat the Nazis. Director Robert Aldrich upheld his end of the cinematic contract.

How is Inglorious Basterds any different? The well-deserved fiery death for the Nazi officers (and Der Fuhrer and friends) resembled the end of The Dirty Dozen. As mentioned above, the audience gratification over the success of the Basterds mission was huge and, in comparison, goes well beyond what anyone feels at the end of The Dirty Dozen. If anything, Tarantino panders to the audience more than Robert Aldrich could have dreamed. 

However, on the way to his personal holocaust of an ending, Tarantino has created an apparatus with his film that provides some reflection—even historical reflection—by having his holocaust occur in a movie theater.

Indeed, at the moment the leadership of the Third Reich are cut down, they are watching a war movie, a “true life” war movie, about a German sniper in the Italian campaign who killed over two hundred Americans. Tarantino’s use of this film allows him to make a cinematic commentary on war films and, indirectly, the wars in these war films, specifically the Second World War. Maybe Tarantino's bastardized history lesson is more about the way history and war, especially World War II, is portrayed in films.

Collingswood resident Bob Castle is an author, teacher, film critic, and playwright. In town, he is also the founder of the Collingswood Movie Club, which meets monthly in the public library for film showings and discussion.

Castle's writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Film Comment, and The Film Journal. His plays have been performed during the Philadelphia New Play Festival, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival, and at the the Gone in 60 Seconds and "In a New York Minute" festivals.

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