Abbas Kiarostami, the minimalist Iranian filmmaker, says about Quentin Tarantino, his expansive opposite, that the skill of the American is his ability to turn violence into a joke. This is true about almost everything Tarantino does. In Pulp Fiction, he turns racism into a joke as well, appearing in a cameo to talk about ‘storing dead niggers’.
But this kind of humour can also turn vulgar and crude, and there is evidence of this in a number of his films, including the latest, Inglourious Basterds. His inspiration has often been Hollywood ‘B’ movies, which he uses as a take-off point to examine the nature of cinematic violence and its impact on our cultural evolution in the last century. But at some point, he turns his study into an obsession.
Inglourious Basterds, with a few spelling changes, bears conscious similarity to the 1978 war film, The Inglorious Bastards. This 2009 film is about the German occupation of France in World War II and the man known as the ‘The Jew Hunter’, Colonel Hans Landa. Apparently, shortly before the Normandy landings, a group of Jewish American soldiers led by Lieutenant Also Raine (Brad Pitt) parachute into France; they are to be as cruel as possible to German soldiers and instill the fear of God in members of the Third Reich. This they do with great relish, but Tarantino, ever the film archivist, is more interested in German film history.
The big plot to kill Goebbels and other high-ranking leaders, including the Führer himself, is to take place at a film premiere in a small art cinema theatre in Paris, owned by a Jewish survivor. The German film movement of the 1920s and 1930s, largely expressionist, with filmmakers like GW Pabst, Fritz Lang, FW Murnau and many others, is extensively referred to. The consequent Jewish impact on American cinema by those German and Austrian Jewish directors who fled to Hollywood after the rise of the Third Reich has Tarantino typically make a few snide asides on Jewish movie moghuls and the clout they carried in the US.
With the Third Reich, Joseph Goebbels took over the UFA film studios and the entire German film industry, creating filmmakers like Leni Riefensthal, also referred to in Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino narrates his film in chapters and such is his passion for cinema, he shows you the entire climax of his film from both sides of the screen in the movie theatre. On one side is Hitler and on the other is the highly flammable nitrate film used for the assassination plot. This plot device ensures that the whole planet now knows that Quentin is a major film buff, owns one of the biggest collection of films and started off as a not-so-humble video store clerk. In short, in films like Inglourious Basterds, we see that Tarantino will go to great lengths, even to the extent of trivialising Jewish suffering in German-occupied lands, to make sure of his own cult status in American cinema.
Which is not to say that the movie is dull. It is a well-crafted film, absorbing for the personalities it creates, particularly the character of Hans Landa, played with menace by Christoph Waltz. The action is full of the usual blood and gore that is bread and butter for this director. The jam is his sense of humour, a very democratic sense of humour, in that you can take it or leave it in the can, or in the john if you will.