At the top of Act V of Inglourious Basterds, Shoshanna broods in her red dress and puts on her war paint -- her makeup -- in order to do battle with the Nazis and (as far as she knows) single-handedly win WWII. As she broods, we are treated to a quick flashback to her and Marcel, her boyfriend/projectionist, making a short movie in the projection-booth stairwell and taking it to the chemist to get it developed. Unfortunately, the movie is set in Nazi-occupied France, which means that Shoshanna and Marcel have to pin the chemist to a table and threaten him and his family with an axe just to get a roll of film developed -- CVS's one-hour photo services are, apparently, far in the distant future.
Tarantino makes a serious point with the beat about the film developing. Shoshanna, the most sympathetic character in the movie, is plotting mass murder, with the stakes no less than the end of the Third Reich. This is serious business. She can't get the film developed by just anybody, it contains a message to the Nazis that gives new meaning to the word "inflammatory." So she must threaten the chemist's life, and the lives of his family. She must become a thug, a gangster, using the same tactics as her enemies -- bullying, threats and intimidation -- to achieve her ends. But we don't cringe at Shoshanna's thuggery, we giggle and applaud it. Why? Because Tarantino has made us root for her. We saw her entire family killed at the hands of that Col Landa guy, we can't wait to see her get her revenge. The chemist is a collaborator, who cares about him or his family? He associates with Nazis, he gets what he deserves, or at least that's what the movie would have us believe.
The real subject of Inglourious Basterds is, I think, the way we see ourselves and the world through movies. Movies are lies that tell the truth. There is nothing real about them, and there is even less real about Inglourious Basterds than there is about most movies. Hitler is the Big Kahuna of Inglourious Basterds, but he's a straw man -- the movie's real antagonist is Goebbels, the Third Reich's movie producer. It's his job to produce the movies that will sell the lie of Nazi supremacy, just as it's the job of the Jewish studio heads in Hollywood to sell the lies of Allied supremacy. The title of this chapter of Basterds is "The Revenge of the Giant Face" -- the "giant face" being the close-up on a movie screen. Reality rarely comforts or inspires, but movies do that all the time -- that is, in fact, what they're made to do. When the World Trade Center collapsed, there is not a person in the world who didn't say "My God, it looks just like a movie," and that is, I think, what Basterds is really about. Movies have come to be the way we understand the world, and when something looks "just like a movie," we understand that to mean that it has taken a moment from drab reality and elevated it to the level of spectacle, justice or poetry. Hitler understood the power of movies from the very beginning, he knew that the "giant face" on the screen was more powerful and more seductive, more crucial to selling himself, than any number of impassioned speeches. Which is why Shoshanna's murderous revenge feels just and complete -- she combines the power of the giant face with the impact of real-life explosives, raising the bar, permanently, for cinematic special effects. (Imagine what William Castle would have done with a movie that actually set the theater on fire. And don't think it didn't occur to the producers of The Towering Inferno.)
After this brief overture, the suspense set-piece that will take up most of the rest of the movie jumps right in. For a writer who loves to chat, Tarantino the director really knows how to cut to the chase. Somebody said once that movies are like life with all the boring bits cut out, and Tarantino movies are like movies with all the boring bits cut out.
We're at the premiere for Nation's Pride, at Shoshanna's theater, which she has turned into a giant bomb, a giant oven, to roast the Nazi high command, and their stooges, alive. Hitler came to power using movies as a tool, and Shoshanna is going to remove him from power using movies as a tool in a way Hitler never even imagined possible. In the lobby, Goebbels chats with Emil Jannings, star of The Blue Angel and correctly identified as the greatest actor in Germany. Jannings, the reader will recall, couldn't make it in Hollywood because of his thick German accent, and so went back to Germany and made movies advancing the Nazi cause. This makes him, in terms of the narrative of Basterds, as bad as Landa.
And here's Landa now, coming down the stairs of the lobby to greet Bridget von Hammersmark, who has just shown up, in a cast, with Raine and his Basterds. Landa, of course, already knows exactly what's going on, knows why von Hammersmark is there, knows who the Basterds are, and has plans for them all. And we know, or think we know, what he knows and what his plans are, but Landa, who is, for the most part, a genius, still has some tricks up his sleeve.
He asks von Hammersmark about the cast on her leg, and she tells him she broke her leg mountain-climbing. Landa busts a gut laughing at this, which is a great joke, since Landa's response, we know, is at the ludicrousness of her excuse. The conversation in the lobby, like the one in the tavern, is an improv, and Landa has just corpsed -- his improv partner has said something so outrageous that he can't keep a straight face any longer.
The Basterds, of course, are supposed to be Italian. Raine apparently has a glancing acquaintance with the language (for some reason, maybe with a name like Aldo he has Italian relatives in rural Tennessee), but he doesn't bother with an accent at all. He looks visibly uncomfortable with even trying. Unlike most of the characters in the movie, Raine doesn't seem comfortable with performance, with pretending to be something he's not. His fellow Basterds, meanwhile, can only "pretend to be Italian," the result being exactly the same as it would be in a Hollywood movie of the time -- Jews playing Italians with ridiculous accents. What they've seen in movies is probably the only thing Pvts Donowitz and Ulmer know about Italians, and Raine doesn't even want to deal with that level of pretense. Which is another reason we kind of like Raine -- he's a Murrican, a know-nothing patriot who's more comfortable bullying his way through a situation than he is pretending to be something he's not.
Landa's impromptu improv ends, Landa escorts von Hammersmark away, Donowitz and Ulmer take their seats, and Raine remains, in his white dinner jacket, looking for all the world like a boy stood up by his date in the lobby of the theater. Meanwhile, Shoshanna goes over her plan with Marcel, who loves Shoshanna's new look. (He compares her to Danielle Darrieux, which has a complicated meaning in the current political landscape -- Darrieux is a French actress criticized for continuing to work in Nazi-occupied Paris -- another performer who, as Landa plans to, "took off her uniform" after the war was over after using the prevailing winds to keep herself afloat.) Shoshanna and Marcel intend to lock themselves inside the theater with their enemies, and Raine and his men have time-bombs strapped to their legs. Do any of them plan to get out of the theater before they blow it up? If not, then they are all suicide bombers. From our point of view, that elevates them above the Nazis they're planning to kill, because it means they will die for their cause. But step back one step further, and they become simple terrorists, no different than the men and women who blow themselves up in marketplaces and buses today.
In Shoshanna's office, Landa interrogates von Hammersmark, or rather, he tortures her, if only psychologically. He knows she's guilty, he knows exactly what her plan is, he merely toys with her, performs another little play, this one based on "Cinderella," until she sighs and gives in, tired of performing. At which point he leaps upon her and strangles her to death.
Why does Landa kill von Hammersmark? We will see, soon enough, that he intends to let Raine go through with Operation Kino, and there's even reason to suspect that he knows that Shoshanna is planning some kind of skullduggery. Why does he pounce upon von Hammersmark? I have two theories: one, he suspects that von Hammersmark, as a double agent, may have divided loyalties this evening, and might screw up Operation Kino for some unknown reason, or else he just can't stand the notion of a woman who pretends to support the Nazis while secretly planning to destroy them. Which, as we will soon see, is kind of ironic. "When you purchase friends like Bridget von Hammersmark, you get what you pay for" is how he explains his actions to Raine, which suggests to me that he was worried that von Hammersmark would get in the way of his own plans to exploit Operation Kino. (Also interesting is that Landa generally is happy to let others do his killing for him, but he makes an exception for von Hammersmark -- perhaps there really was some bad blood between them from a prior romantic relationship, or lack thereof.)
Once von Hammersmark is dispatched, Landa has Raine and another Basterd, Utivitch, arrested and brought around to a nearby tavern, for the last interrogation of the movie. The movie started with a nail-biting interrogation that ended very badly for Shoshanna's family, and Landa's last interrogation ended with him throttling his subject, so our expectations for violence are pretty freaking high by the time this last interrogation scene rolls around. Which makes it all the more surprising when this final interrogation turns out to be substantially more than friendly, which pulls the rug out from under everything we've been led to believe is about to happen.
"If I were sitting where you're sitting, would you show me mercy?" begins Landa, to Raine. He's saying that they are different, that Raine is a savage while he, Landa, is a rational, reasonable man. Justice might suggest that Landa would kill Raine, then scalp him, and carve a Star of David on Utivitch's forehead, but that would lower Landa to Raine's level.
On the other hand, Landa is very excited to meet Raine. Finally, here's someone whom he feels understands him, someone he can talk to. Or so he thinks. He gets offended when Raine asks him how he knows his name. "We seem not to be operating on the level of mutual respect I assumed," he sniffs, hurt. He perhaps thought that Raine would have recognized his brilliance by this point.
Landa, it turns out, is not a monster, or at least not a monster in the way we've been led to expect. He is an opportunist. When it is convenient for him to work for Nazis, he works for Nazis. When it becomes convenient for him to betray Nazis, he betrays Nazis. If working for the Nazis means murdering Jews, he does it, if betraying them means murdering them, he'll do that too. Which leads me back to von Hammersmark: Landa apparently feels strongly enough about her to strangle her to death, so she must have been some sort of threat to Landa's master plan of self-preservation, which is the the only cause he has.
So Landa, surprise of surprises, offers to help Raine in his cause, because it will help him in his cause. Now, a few minutes ago we liked the suicide bombers because they were willing to die for their cause, and now here is Landa, taking their strength and daring and selflessness and turning it into self-serving aggrandizement. Landa wants equal share in glory not for doing something, but for not doing something. He's famous for being ruthless in his prosecution of Nazism, which reputation he now intends to use to upend everything he's previously stood for. In exchange for "not doing his job," Landa wants to receive all the credit that, heretofore, would have gone only to Raine and his crew.
Is Landa a good guy? In the tavern "detective scene," Landa never even glances at Hicox, but he lingers over Stiglitz and drips a disparaging remark upon his body. Does Landa disapprove of Stiglitz because he thought so small? Stiglitz killed a handful of Nazi officers, was Landa planning, from the beginning, to destroy the entire Third Reich? I don't think so -- I think he's a straight-up amoral opportunist, going whichever way the wind is blowing.
As a side note, I now think I know what Hicox is doing in the movie: he's Marion Crane. In Psycho, Hitchcock spends an entire act following around Marion Crane, telling her story, getting us involved in her plight. Then he yanks the rug out from under her, and it turns out the narrative was never about her in the first place. Tarantino, over an hour into Basterds, introduces Hicox to us, gives him all the time and grace he needs to make us care about him, then finishes him off without even a close-up, all for the purpose of throwing us off-balance heading into Act V. Hicox, who really did seem to know what he was doing, and was the ideal man to find his way into the theater, is yanked from the narrative and replaced by Raine, who is in no way qualified for the job. Why is Hicox's death important? Because we know that Operation Kino cannot possibly succeed. We know that Hitler, Goebbels, Bormann and Goering did not die in a Paris movie theater in 1944. Hicox's death raises the level of suspense to ridiculous levels -- we knew that Hicox could not succeed, but now we know for sure that Raine cannot succeed.
While Landa and Raine have their surprisingly disarming (sorry) conversation in the tavern, Nation's Pride unspools in the theater, Shoshanna waits, pensive, and Zoller grows restive. The movie, from what we can see, consists solely of a massive shoot-out, one man killing hundreds of Italians and Americans. (Odd that Goebbels was able to find American actors to play the Americans.) The crowd loves it! Hitler guffaws at every cool death and tells Goebbels it's his greatest work, which causes Goebbels, the old softy, to tear up. The crowd loves violence in movie theaters, and Hitler loves it most of all. When Zoller, playing himself, carves the swastika on the floor of his bird's nest, the audience goes wild, a moment that will be revisited before the movie is over.
Zoller is the only one in the audience who's not enjoying himself. For some reason, it didn't bother him to kill the men in real life, and it didn't bother him to shoot the movie depicting his real-life exploits. He would have had plenty of time during shooting (sorry) to contemplate the morality of what he was doing, but apparently it never crossed his mind. After he shot the movie, he could have easily pulled a Garbo, retreated from the spotlight and let the movie speak for itself, but he didn't do that either -- he soaked up the spotlight, threw the weight of his celebrity around and used his international fame and influence to seduce a pretty French theater owner. He had plenty of opportunities to renounce his acts of violence, but he didn't. He is quite pleased with himself, right up until the moment when he sees his acts depicted in a movie, with a house full of Nazis, including Hitler himself, cheering him on with every cool death.
Two possibilities suggest themselves: either Zoller isn't a very deep man, or else there is something about the experience of seeing his acts depicted on film, not just on film but in a movie, complete with scoring and editing and close-ups and all the things that make a movie a movie, that he finds discomforting. Is he upset because his real-life exploits have been turned into cheap entertainment, or does the act of finally seeing truth turned into a movie, the lie that tells the truth, finally show him what he has done? That is, did he see his record kill as a great moment while he was living it, but now, through the eye of the filmmaker, does he now see it as a grotesque display of mass murder?
Whichever it is, his moment of self-reflection doesn't last long. He goes up to the projection booth to woo Shoshanna for the last time, and is rejected for the last time. He plays humble and sweet, but she doesn't buy it, and Zoller has finally had enough. Outraged, he pulls rank on her -- after all I've done for you, this is how you treat me? The violence that was always threatened but never spoken before is now plainly spoken: give me what I want or I will kill you. In the end, Zoller has no humility, and, most likely, no self-reflection -- he has only self-pride and ego, backed up by violence. Zoller turns dramatically from suitor to rapist, and Shoshanna turns the tables on him, switching abruptly from virtuous damsel to seductress and then quickly to murderer. She shoots Zoller in the back and he, in turn, shoots Shoshanna in the front, and their one-sided wartime romance ends.
Back in the tavern, Landa gets on the radio to Raine's commander, an unnamed general. He takes the opportunity to do something rather unique: he re-writes history before the history in question has actually occurred. He inserts himself into Operation Kino, saying he's been there all along, and he says that his atrocities were all part of a "cover story" to establish his Nazi credentials. The detective who pretended to be a Nazi is now pretending to be an Allied double-agent, all the while serving only his agenda to preserve himself.
In the theater, Nation's Pride reaches a fever pitch of killing. One shot even offers a "Wilhelm Scream," which makes Hitler chuckle, since Hitler, as history has recorded, always enjoys a good Wilhelm reference. (This moment turns Basterds, momentarily, into a science-fiction movie, since the Wilhelm Scream was not recorded until 1951: Nation's Pride is a movie from the future!) On screen, Movie Zoller addresses the camera, in English, and then is interrupted by Movie Shoshanna, also speaking English. I'm guessing that Zoller's English soliloquy is intended to be addressed to English-speaking audiences, but what about Shoshanna's? How sad for the Germans at the premiere, never understanding exactly what Shoshanna is saying to them as she blows up the theater.
Which, of course, is what happens. We been led to believe that we've been watching a thriller along the lines of The Eagle Has Landed, where English spies try to assassinate Hitler, and fail, because of course they have to fail. But Operation Kino succeeds, and, incredibly, Shoshanna's plan also succeeds. Both plots to kill Hitler succeed! We knew they had to fail, but in the end, both succeed! Which, of course, is meant to be mind-blowing, and boy is it ever.
But who actually succeeds? Raine is in the tavern with Utivitch, von Hammersmark is dead in Shoshanna's office. They don't succeed in killing Hitler, Shoshanna does, along with Donowitz and Ulmer, and Marcel behind the screen (with his own movie, a movie that, to put it lightly, is a real bomb). So, in the end, the British don't kill Hitler, the German double-agent doesn't kill Hitler, and all-American "Aldo the Apache" doesn't kill Hitler. Three Jews and a black Frenchman kill Hitler, and they do so through the power and spectacle of film. Which, ultimately, is the message, if there is one, of Inglourious Basterds: life is all very good, but movies are where it's really at. Movies constantly alter our perception of reality: they chop up time, draw time out, deploy tricks of camera angles, editing and scoring to change performances and manipulate our emotions, they are demonstrably not real, and yet, through their cheap power and seduction, they trump reality at every turn. There's no such thing as a "true life story," the very act of turning reality into a story means that it's no longer "true life." Basterds takes the idea to its ultimate conclusion: while the Nazis were slaughtering Jews, it implies, Jews were making movies, telling lies that told the truth (Barton Fink comes to this same conclusion). Who won the war? Tarantino implies that the Jews won the war against the Nazis, because they got to keep on making movies.
As to the morality of Shoshanna's and the Basterds' revenge, what can I say? Shoshanna locks her victims inside a building and sets it on fire, while Donowiz and Ulmer shoot machine guns indiscriminately into an unarmed crowd, slaughtering civilians and women who are only trying to flee a burning theater, before blowing themselves up with a suicide bomb. "This is the face of Jewish vengeance" says Movie Shoshanna, her face projected on a cloud of smoke, and the moment sits uncomfortably in the mind. On the one hand, movies kind of are the face of Jewish vengeance; on the other hand, she's laughing at the helpless deaths of hundreds of people. Speaking as a non-Jew (and a non-Nazi), I find this moment both incredibly thrilling and deeply troubling, and I think it was intended to feel so: we really hate those fucking Nazis, we want to see them dead, and Tarantino has done nothing to make us want to "root for them." He gives us a glory shot of Hitler's corpse being riddled with bullets, and Donowitz's crazed expression as he shoots, and we feel the visceral thrill that violence in movies promises -- Yeah! Kill Hitler! Yeah! -- followed quickly by "Wait a minute, what the hell am I cheering?" On the one hand, it's okay to cheer because, after all, "it's only a movie." On the other hand, Donowitz, Ulmer and Shoshanna are incredibly brutal mass murderers, killing hundreds in cold blood -- how does that make them better than the Nazis they slaughter?
Which brings us back to von Hammersmark's quote about nationality: at this moment in the movie, I have the feeling Tarantino is turning the tables on the audience, saying "Is this what you want to see? Feels good, doesn't it? Well, guess what, you are the Nazis!" Because Raine, and Shoshanna, and the Basterds, they're all terrorists, just as the 9/11 hijackers were terrorists, willing to die for a cause they believed in, to level the karma of a nation they hated -- only the venue and perspective has changed.
Tarantino then cuts abruptly from the exploding theater to the woods the following morning. Landa escorts Raine and Utivitch to the Allied border, fondling Raine's knife all the way. Landa has Raine's penis object, but soon will surrender his own to Raine. Once they cross the Allied lines, Raine cuffs Landa ("I'm a slave to appearances," he says, in what is almost the capping irony of the movie) and shoots Landa's radio operator, then orders Utivitch to scalp the dead man.
Because Raine isn't pretending: he hates Nazis, he's said so all along, and he wants them to pay for their crimes. Nazism is only a symbol, a symbol covering everyone from Hitler to Pvt Butz, but Raine doesn't care: they're all the same to him, there are no good ones, and they all must pay for wearing that symbol. That's pretty abhorrent, but Landa is worse: he stands for nothing. The swastika means nothing to him, but then, nothing means anything to him except his own self-preservation. Maybe he never considered himself a Nazi, but he pretended to be one, he appeared to be one, and that's all that matters to Raine. Appearances mean nothing to Raine, what counts is actions, and the fact is that Landa acted as a Nazi. As Kurt Vonnegut said in Mother Night, his own story on the subject of Nazism, "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be."
So Raine carves the swastika on Landa's forehead, and in both theaters where I saw the movie, the audience cheered, exactly as the audience in Shoshanna's theater cheered at Zoller carving the swastika on the floor of his bird's-nest. Tarantino makes the audience complicit in his movie's violence and seduction.