Great Moments in Cinema: Inglourious Basterds
Since the beginning of cinema, there have been movies about movies. From Sherlock Jr. to Singin’ in the Rain to The Three Amigos, filmmakers have long been obsessed with looking inward at their own profession, and exploring the power of the medium. Indeed, countless miles of celluloid have been expended in the effort to examine the myriad ways in which cinema can affect the viewer. In the modern era, no other director covers this ground better than Quentin Tarantino. Every one of his films is steeped in cinema history. From the days of the silent films to the Grindhouse era and all the way up to the guilty pleasures of today, each frame of Tarantino’s movies is practically gushing with his obsessions. However, it wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds (2009) that his obsession with movies became the central theme of one of his own films, and he offered up a sprawling epic that is all about the power of cinema and how it can change not only individual viewers, but also history and the world as well.
Advertised as a standard “men on a mission” film, the first trailers for Inglourious Basterds made it seem like it was going to be little more than Quentin Tarantino doing yet another riff on The Dirty Dozen. But the film that arrived in theaters in August of 2009 was so much more than that, and anyone looking for a straight up Hollywood action film starring one of the world’s most bankable stars was no doubt left shaking their heads in confusion. The film is anything but disappointing, however, and Tarantino set his sights much higher than simply aping another of his favorite films. He wanted to tell the audience that cinema can have a powerful effect on us, and it is a far cry from the passive medium that so many people want to write it off as. With this film, Tarantino is announcing that movies are more than just a way to pass the time; they are powerful tools that can used to rewrite history, or simply shape reality to conform to our own whims and desires.
The scene that hammers this notion home comes late in the film, during the chapter titled “Revenge of the Giant Face.” All the key players have assembled at the movie theater owned by Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) for the premiere of Nation’s Pride, a new Nazi propaganda film directed by Joseph Goebbels (Sylvester Groth) and starring a young German sniper named Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl). Zoller has developed a bit of a crush on young Shosanna, and is unaware that she is actually a French Jew living under an assumed name. Earlier in the film, Shosanna’s entire family was slaughtered by the ruthless and deceptively cunning Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), better known by his nickname of “The Jew Hunter.” Col. Landa is attending the premiere as well, seemingly in an attempt to foil a plot to blow up the theater. The men behind this plot are a squad of Jewish-American soldiers known across Europe as “The Basterds,” and they are led by First Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a dashing good-ol’ boy who loves nothing more than killing Nazis and collecting their scalps.
Shosanna is completely unaware of Lt. Raine and his mission, however, but she has her own plan for getting vengeance on the people who murdered her family. Shosanna learns that Adolf Hitler himself will be attending the premiere, and she hatches her own plot to ignite her massive collection of nitrate film and burn down the entire theater, thus killing the Führer and most of the SS who will be trapped inside. Of course, Shosanna will most likely burn with them, but it’s a price she is more than willing to pay in the name of vengeance.
With the aid of Marcel (Jacky Ido), her projectionist and lover, Shosanna films herself delivering a chilling monologue directly into the camera, and then splices it into the climax of Nation’s Pride. Then she dumps the highly explosive nitrate film into a huge pile behind the screen, spools up the propaganda minister’s latest “masterpiece,” and waits for her unsuspecting audience to arrive.
As the Nazis hoot and holler at the film, cheering on Fredrick Zoller as he mows down wave after wave of American troops, Shosanna sits up in the projection booth and nervously anticipates the moment she has been waiting for all these years, the moment when her family will finally be avenged. Suddenly her face is filling the screen, and she is gazing down at the confused Nazis as she tells them that they are now looking at the face of Jewish Vengeance. Shosanna gives Marcel the signal, and he offers her a sad smile as he mutters “Oui, Shosanna” before flicking his lit cigarette into the pile of nitrate. The film ignites instantly, and within moments the entire theater is engulfed in flames. As the Nazis race to the doors, only to find them locked, Shosanna’s giant laughing face is projected against the smoke as it curls toward the ceiling, and the whole scene resembles nothing less than Hell.
Shosanna’s plan hinges entirely on film and, by extension, the power of cinema. She uses it not only to announce her revenge, but to bring it about as well. It is not Shosanna that informs the Nazis that they are about to die at the hands of a Jew, but an image of her, a representation projected on the silver screen at 24 frames per second. Like the best horror films, Shosanna is using the power of cinema to instill fear into the hearts of the audience, only this time the fear is real, and the audience is not safe once the credits roll. This film is actually lethal. Indeed, film is literally lethal in this instance, as it is the rapidly burning, highly explosive nitrate film stock that sets the theater ablaze, and allows Shosanna to finally get her revenge.
Furthermore, Tarantino takes a number of liberties with history during the climax of Inglourious Basterds, as a number of characters based on actual historical figures meet fates that are much different than those of their real world counterparts. It is as though Tarantino is trying to tell us that film is much more than just entertainment; cinema has the power to change history, and alter events according to the vision of the screenwriter, the director, and (most importantly) the editor. Film can play fast and loose with reality, and sometimes it can even supersede reality, if the increasing number of people who get their history lessons solely from Hollywood is any indication. That is a powerful thing, and is just another facet of movie magic.
As more and more people are weaned on movies, there will be more and more people who come under the spell cast by cinema. Those lucky enough to become filmmakers themselves will no doubt continue to weave their memories of film into their own movies, in some subtle and not so subtle ways. While some will look back on Inglourious Basterds and simply see an entertaining flick, others will study it a little more closely and realize that they are gazing upon a veritable tutorial on how to make a movie that is nothing less than a love letter to film and the power of cinema.