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The Intentional Errors of Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino is a maddening director. His cinephilia is more well-documented than his movies themselves, and if you haven’t read about his humble movie store origins, you need only to watch his allusion-packed movies to love him or hate him.  His movie obsession, which comprises most of his movies anyway, does bring a potential problem: what does it mean when he’s wrong? He’s capable of error as a human, and a pretentious one at that. I can’t think of another director who would shoehorn himself into his movies just to espouse a philosophy or benign observation. (Ex: Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in Reservoir Dogs.) But when he’s wrong with a movie reference or technique, it becomes a plot point, especially when he is openly quoted about not being concerned with time period accuracy. Three instances of blatant imperfection that shaped Basterds come to mind, none of which were Aldo Raine’s last line about a masterpiece followed by a smash cut to “Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino”, as pointed out by Cracked’s Daniel O’Brien. That was so brazen, it was almost commendable.

Also, if you don’t think Tarantino wanted us to make something of these mistakes, just look at the wonky spelling in the movie title. It’s more than a slight nudge.

Instance 1: Breaking the Fifth Wall (aka: The Ceiling)

Inglourious Basterds — like Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2, and Pulp Fiction — was far from being steeped in realism. After all, Tarantino wants to make every movie into a hodge-podge in case you forgot he loves Spaghetti Westerns and Sergio Leone. He had quite a bit of leeway with his first four major movies. (I’m excluding Jackie Brown again because that movie was an unmitigated, overblown embarrassment.) When the main characters are bank robbers, female assassins, and suave hitmen, he can employ a Grand Theft Auto sandbox design in which anything goes. Facing the world’s greatest atrocity, however, some element of respect for the facts is demanded, lest the movie incidentally winds up with a Ahmadinejad-esque message of the Holocaust never happening or someone besides the Nazis being to blame.  Sure, he didn’t stick to the historical lens, unless Samuel L. Jackson is a time travelling narrator and badasses like Hugo Stiglitz really did get their own theme songs, but there was nothing stylistically offensive to World War II’s repute/infamy. My confusion is with a two-second clip of the movie where Shoshanna has finished getting ready for the premiere of Stoltz Der Nation and she exits the room with the  window from Return of the Jedi. Instead of cutting to Shoshanna in the foyer or following behind her down the stairs, the camera opts to hover over the door frame. It’s a strange moment, and this is being said about a movie that features chalky, scribbled identifications of the Nazi high command sporadically appearing. If you think it’s weird for actors to break down the fourth wall and come into the audience, this should be downright upsetting. Imagine if during that production, the director came out on to the stage and said, “Hey! See this castle? It’s not real. It’s a well-crafted facade. And these trees? Papier-mache!” An auteur like Tarantino would never expose the illusion of a movie set on accident.

The Possible Meaning: The obvious answer is Tarantino is merely reminding us that none of what he’s showing you is real and that he isn’t a revisionist nut job. The more subtle answer is that this is the exact beginning of Tarantino’s alternate universe as theorized by a Cracked writer and somewhat confirmed by Tarantino. Up until this point, even with the absurd slathered across the film, it’s conceivable that all of the events could have happened. Shoshanna escaped from Landa, a brawny group of Allies mobilized with guerilla tactics, and the various networks of resistance connected the two seamlessly. And what better way to symbolize the birth of an alternate reality than having your main character walk through a door? The viewer has received no indication from Tarantino that the preceding events were fake, but from the impossibility of seeing the top of the door frame and onward, it’s a surreal world. I personally believe that this is when Tarantino’s alternate universe made a marked shift from Realism to Idealism, or even Romanticism. Hans Landa gave a remarkable opening scene and professed an admiration for the survival instincts of the Jewish people. However, as we were still in the world of Realism, he had them killed. Later, he has the opportunity to foil the Basterds’ plot and move Hitler ever closer to that Thousand Year Reich, but he is too overtaken with the possibilities of his own heroism to continue reality as we know it. We see the characters in all of the movies after World War II continue this trend. Now, note that I’m not asserting the style or characters of these movies to be realistic, but rather what they do is true to life. Vince and Jules are unusually comical for hitmen, but they still kill people. Mr. Blonde reveals a peculiar taste in music (K Billy’s Sounds of the 70s), but he’s still a sociopath who has no qualms about dicing an ear. In fact, in most of his movies, Tarantino places “fake” situations in conjunction with a door. The temporary romanticism of professional criminals screaming at each other about loyalty and morality at gunpoint (Mr. White, Joe Cabot, and Nice Guy Eddie Cabot in a three way standoff) is broken by the shouts of cops just outside the door of the garage, just within the realm of reality. Jules and Vince stand iconically by the exit of the diner with pistols tucked into their swim trunks, UCSB t-shirts, and flip-flops after having talked two robbers out of a robbery with just an ice cold stare and a verse from the Bible. (Surrealism at its finest.)  Jules had experienced a divine clarity and his life had become a Romantic pursuit of meaning and wholeness that began and ended with a glowing briefcase. Through those diner doors, they must enter reality once again; lo and behold, in the mixed up chronology of Pulp Fiction, Vince gets shot in the chest and dies, just as one would expect a hitman’s life to end.

UPDATE: Just realized the camera also goes through the floor in the first scene. It could just be another reminder of the movie world the characters are living in. Doesn’t change the theory much.

Instance 2: The Premature Wilhelm Scream

The addition of this scream to Stolz Der Nation was what alerted me to something larger at play, and even caused the examination of the door frame in the first place. Perhaps I overlooked the door frame by figuring that Tarantino wanted to be “cool” and “innovative, man”. But this sound bite appearing in a Nazi propaganda film is inarguably purposeful. What’s the problem with the Wilhelm Scream in Stolz Der Nation? Well, for starters, the scream did not first appear in a film until 1951, at least five years after the end of World War II. Despite the rewiring of historical events, we are still told that the movie is being premiered in 1944; that’s a fact straight from Tarantino. I initially pictured Tarantino as a chef who was trying to cram so many cinematic allusions into the stew that he forgot one of them hadn’t been invented yet. But then I saw the quote about his disregard for time period accuracy to the extent of putting rap music in if he wanted to, and I was forced to reconsider.

The Possible Meaning: The rations are over. Even though Hollywood was producing its golden age in the 30s and 40s, many movies, excluding Gone With the Wind, didn’t see the full extent of their deserved financial success because when you’re cutting back on frivolity, movies are at the top of the list. Through the Tarantino end of World War II, America never had to experience Pearl Harbor, D-Day, or Hiroshima/Nagasaki,  and V-J Day would have likely arrived a lot sooner. By avoiding millions of dollars in wartime manufacturing and more bloodshed, America could more quickly arrive at the booming leisure economy of the 1950s, which is when the Wilhelm Scream actually happened. There’s almost no chance that Tarantino had this in mind when he included the scream, but if he did, it was genius.

Instance 3: Ignoring Hugo Stiglitz

Mace Windu was hired for the movie just to narrate the story of Hugo Stiglitz,  a man who gained notoriety by killing 13 Gestapo officers in vicious fashion before being sent to prison. (Samuel L. probably also needed the credit to break whatever the record is for most roles in movie history.) This characterization is seemingly ignored, however, when the officer who sits down next to Stiglitz gives his own spiel about how he knows everyone German there is to know in France, and promptly refers to Stiglitz as Colonel Frankfurt. And Hugo wasn’t a rumor proved true like The Bear Jew; his face was plastered in the papers.

The Possible Meaning(s): I love trying to deduce the purpose of Stiglitz being unrecognizable; the possibilities keep snowballing until you approach Inception territory where the logic is circular, but somehow the circle keeps leading you to different outcomes. The first possibility is that the Nazis never heard about Stiglitz being sprung from jail. It’s conceivable since the Basterds wanted his identity to be low-profile. Clean up the bodies at the jail and he gets lost within the vastness of the Nazi empire with everyone assuming he’s somewhere else. But if the Basterds were designed to be soldiers disguised as civilians, why would they prance a well-known villain around Nazi-occupied France? It’s like Sam Fisher sneaking around in the shadows and dropping flares behind him. I think it all ties back to what Aldo opened with: “We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are… And the German will be sickened by us, and the German will talk about us, and the German will fear us. And when the German closes their eyes at night and they’re tortured by their subconscious for the evil they have done, it will be with thoughts of us they are tortured with.” The Basterds relied on psychological warfare, and having The Bear Jew plus Hugo Stiglitz was like having Ruth and Gehrig. But then that makes the reactions of the Nazis in Nadine doubly untrue, if the Basterds were effective. Bridgette Von Hammersmark said that the soldiers being in the basement could only be a tragic coincidence or a trap set by her, and she’s cleared on the grounds of coincidence. Under movie logic, I would say she isn’t cleared, since Stiglitz walking into a bar and being referred to by the wrong name could only happen in a setting where the Germans didn’t know him (impossible) or pretended not to know him so as to trap the Basterds in the basement (plausible). People will want to defend Hammersmark because she was choked to death by Landa and Operation Kino was “her brainchild”, but if the defecting of The Jew Hunter taught the audience anything, it’s that any operative can be turned. Not only was von Hammersmark a known German defector (always suspect), but her most prominent skill was acting aka lying. Sorry, honey, but while others were assuaged by the blond locks, I question your true agency.

The alternative is that it wasn’t a set-up and, despite his self-promotion, Major Hellstrom sucked at his job. This scenario would be an extension of the Nazi worldview that they’re unconquerable, omniscient, and impervious to bullshit. When I think of Hellstrom in this light, I think of the famous picture with a crowd full of Nazi soldiers listening to Hitler’s propaganda… only 2/3rds of those soldiers are just helmets sitting atop rifles. Stiglitz becomes a similar metaphor in this sense: Hellstrom can look a fraud right in the face, tell him he’s an expert at detecting frauds, and then be surprised when the fraud stabs him in the skull. Stiglitz was an interesting way for Tarantino to set up the message of overconfidence that ultimately did in the Nazis in Russia. He could also be a message for the inevitable breakdown in any chain of command: if a problem is delegated too many times, it is forgotten completely. “What was that murderous traitor’s name… Frankfurt? How we dealt with him! Ha ha!” It’s that lack of attention to detail that caused Hellstrom, representing the entire Nazi regime in 1944, to have a gun unknowingly pointed at his nuts from the moment he sat down.

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About the Author

Chris O'Toole (Colorado State '12, Chapman '15) recently finished a Screenwriting MFA. He has written for Livestrong, CBS, and other publications. Love, hate, and job offers can be sent to: otool102@mail.chapman.edu