Thirty-eight minutes into Inglourious Basterds, something very strange happens -- the movie starts over, for the third time.
Yes, we've met Shoshanna Dreyfuss before, but only for a moment, and she was filthy and covered in blood before -- there's no way we could recognize her now, without a title card explaining who she is. And who's this new character, the German soldier, Zoller, chatting up Shoshanna in front of the movie theater she now owns? An hour into the movie, the one that started out as a Nazis-hunting-for-Jews thriller and then turned into an Americans-hunting-for-Nazis thriller, it suddenly becomes, of all things, a wartime romance.
So Shoshanna now owns a movie theater. She's currently running a movie starring Leni Riefenstahl, directed by Arnold Fanck and GW Pabst -- this one. I'm unfamiliar with the movie, so if there is a thematic resonance between this movie and that movie, I don't know what it is.
Zoller's pick-up line to Shoshanna is "I adore your cinema." I think he's referring to the actual movie theater, but he's also looking up at a beautiful French woman in front of a movie marquee -- he could just as easily be referring to French cinema. And there's a kind of sigh-of-relief moment here, as though Tarantino is finally doing what he likes to do best -- talk about movies. (In an earlier scene, Raine mentions that watching Donowitz murder Nazis is "the closest thing we get to going to the movies," so it's kind of sad that he'll never actually get to do both things at once, even though he tries really hard.)
Zoller wants to talk about movies, meaning, Zoller wants to get romantic with Shoshanna (in Tarantino's world, the two things are probably synonymous) but Shoshanna shuts him down. She's learned well from her witnessing of LaPadite's interrogation -- you can't let a Nazi interrogator play nice, they'll only end up killing you and your family. Her guard is up, so she sees Zoller's romantic advance as an interrogation. Since she's a Jew living undercover in occupied Paris, her guardedness is a perfectly sane response.
Shortly thereafter, Shoshanna relaxes in a cafe, reading a book (even my blu-ray isn't sharp enough for me to know what she's reading, although I'm sure there's a thematic resonance there as well, no one just reads "a book" in a Tarantino movie) and Zoller comes in and makes another advance. She turns him down flat, again, and he protests "I'm more than just a uniform." Which is, of course, one of the movie's themes: what do we see when we look at someone? In wartime we see their uniform, but in peacetime, what? Raine carves swastikas on the foreheads of Nazis so that they can never "take off their uniform." And yet, one day he'll presumably take off his uniform, and then what? Will he forever proudly tell of his exploits torturing, killing and mutilating German soldiers? Raine wants Nazis to wear their monstrousness forever, but he's perfectly happy to internalize his own. Zoller wants Shoshanna to see past his uniform, but Shoshanna knows she can't open that door -- she, herself, is wearing a "French civilian" uniform, a disguise that's keeping her alive in Nazi-occupied France.
A German officer approaches Zoller, then an enlisted man. They're big fans of his! This gets Shoshanna's attention. The enlisted man has a French girlfriend, which is exactly what Zoller is looking for. In fact, the French girlfriend turns to Shoshanna to tell her how lucky she is, so we see that it's accepted, and even admirable, for German soldiers to have French girlfriends, and vice versa, at least in the current society. Shoshanna, however, as I've said, has her guard up, as well she should -- in her mind (and ours), French women who coo over German war heroes are traitors to the cause.
For that is what Zoller is -- a war hero. Shoshanna's interest is piqued by Zoller's celebrity, and she takes the bait, asks him why he's so famous. Turns out he's killed hundreds of American soldiers as a sniper in the German army. "I'm the German Sgt York," he says, conflating real life with movies, which, it turns out, is what Inglourious Basterds is really all about. Tarantino's movies have always been about other movies, but Basterds is the first one to make its reflexive quality its own subject. Tarantino, it should surprise no one, sees everything through the history of movies and through the vocabulary of film. His characters have always talked about popular culture, but here, life and movies come crashing together in the most alarming ways possible.
(Sgt York, the movie, is a "true story" about a hillbilly pacifist who ends up becoming a war hero. Is that how Zoller sees himself? Is he, too, a simple kid from the sticks who has stumbled into wartime fame, who just happened to be in the right place at the right time?)
How does Zoller feel about being a war hero? It's hard to gauge from this scene. On the one hand, he seems a little embarrassed by his fame. On the other hand, he seems a little smug that the French girl, who wouldn't give him the time of day before, is impressed with his fame. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? He's a German soldier, which, in this movie, we've been told, by a number of different characters, is automatically "bad." And yet he also seems affable, pleasant and even courtly, if a little pleased with himself.
On top of everything, he's now a movie star! The Germans, it seems, have taken the "Sgt York" angle literally, and made a movie about Zoller's exploits, called Nation's Pride. "This will be Goebbels's masterpiece" he says, adding, that they want him to be the "German Van Johnson." It's worth noting that Goebbels, for those unaware, was Hitler's chief of propaganda, but also the head of German film production, a kind of cross between Karl Rove and Louis B. Mayer. It's hard to imagine, these days, a studio chief also being a high-ranking government official, but them's were the times, and Tarantino could hardly make a WWII movie about the interstice of life and movies without including him. Van Johnson, on the other hand, was an actor who was injured in a car crash and thus never served in WWII, but instead went on to play soldiers in wartime dramas -- a war hero on the screen, but not at all in real life.
Soon after her chat with Zoller in the cafe, Shoshanna is cleaning her marquee (she's now showing a French film, one by Henri-Georges Clouzot) when an SS officer comes to take her away. Her worst nightmare come to life! And the guy is a real thug too, telling her to "get her ass inside the car."
We now shift to a restaurant somewhere in Paris, where Goebbels himself holds court with Zoller. As we come into the scene, he's spouting off about American athletes, "the offspring of slaves." I'm not sure what his point is -- is he saying, in his way, that slavery has been good for American Negroes, because they're all good at athletics now? (The reader will recall that Jesse Owens's victory at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was a major embarrassment for Hitler, and thus Goebbels.) Or is he saying that Americans are weak and degenerate, because they let their slaves go and now their slaves' descendants are champion athletes? (One thing is clear -- he is fearful and suspicious of black people.)
And now here comes Shoshanna and her SS thug. It turns out, this is a friendly meeting about Goebbels booking Shoshanna's theater for a VIP screening of Zoller's movie Nation's Pride. That is, Zoller, in his pursuit of Shoshanna, who he's got his eye on romantically, has had her rounded up by a Nazi goon in order to get a leg over, which gives you some idea of Zoller's sense of delicacy and sensitivity.
Goebbels, we find, also has a French girlfriend, interpreter Francesca. We get a brief glimpse of Goebbels having violet sex with Francesca, and it's unclear whether Tarantino is showing us what really goes on behind closed doors in Nazi-occupied Paris, or whether the scene is merely Shoshanna's fervid imagination. In either case, it lays (sorry) the metaphor for Nazi-occupied France perfectly bare, and the picture isn't pretty.
Goebbels, and Zoller chat about Shoshanna's theater. Zoller is popular enough, and thinks highly enough of himself, to lecture Goebbels about publicity, which is really kind of extraordinary when you think of it, since Goebbels has done an excellent job, so far, with the whole publicity racket. Nevertheless, instead of blowing up at Zoller for second-guessing him, he sees something of himself in Zoller, a kind of protege, a kind of son.
And now look who's here! Out of nowhere, completely unexpected, Col Landa swans into the room to interrogate Shoshanna about her theater. Landa has, apparently, been reassigned since 1941 -- he is now operating some kind of security detail for Goebbels. As the blood pounds in Shoshanna's head, Landa chats and charms, smokes and eats strudel. He's perfectly at ease, but Shoshanna has witnessed this scene, exactly, before, and the last time it ended with all her family being killed. "Your reputation precedes you," she says, which is, of course, another theme of the movie -- people creating public personae for themselves in order to get across one idea or another, regardless of whether or not that's "who they are."
Landa orders a glass of milk, which indicates that he knows who Shoshanna is, and that he wants her to know that she knows who she is. Or, it indicates that he enjoys a nice glass of milk, and has for years. In his interrogation of LaPadite, Landa was pretending to be harmless in order to corner his mark -- is he pretending to be harmless now, or is he actually harmless?
He knows a lot about Shoshanna and her theater -- a lot. He knows that she has a black projectionist, and asks that he not be the one to show the film while Goebbels is there. We sense that Landa is non-committal in his persecution of Jews, does he feel similarly about blacks, or is he actually a racist? How can we trust anything Landa says, whether positive or negative? Everything he says is calculated for effect.
As his interrogation comes to a close, Landa mentions that there was "one more thing" he wanted to ask her, but now he can't remember. I see three possibilities here: one, there was one more thing he wanted to ask her and now he can't remember; two, there was one more thing he wanted to ask her but then he thinks better of it; three, he wants Shoshanna to know that he knows who she is, he's got her dead to rights, and for reasons we don't know right now he's letting her off the hook.
Goebbels and his entourage come to see Shoshanna's theater, which apparently passes muster. However, while chatting about movies, someone mentions Lilian Harvey and Lucky Kids, which causes Goebbels to lose his shit. Harvey, for those interested, was a British-born German star, who chafed under working with Goebbels and fled to Los Angeles, helping others to escape Nazi persecution. Lucky Kids is, apparently, a German remake of It Happened One Night.
After the Germans leave, Shoshanna unveils her master plan to Mercel, her black projectionist so feared by Goebbels -- she's going to host the premiere of Zoller's movie, then kill all the Nazis in her theater using nitrate prints -- actual movies -- as her weapon. That is, she's going to change history with the power of film, which, we will see, is also the intentions of Inglourious Basterds.