Look at this picture and what do you think of? Casablanca. One of Hollywood’s best-loved, most admired movies: a film that was made while World War Two was still playing for real on a battlefield near you; that hinges on the notion that General de Gaulle’s signature could somehow get you free passage to Morocco; and in which everyone — French, German, American or Swedish — speaks in perfect, witty dialogue while French patriots and Nazis compete in a sing-off between the Marseillaise and Die Wacht am Rhein.
And Tarantino is betraying history?
Article after article has attacked Basterds for its cavalier approach to truth — and its thrillingly counter-factual ending — but in the long line of films about the Second World War in Europe, it’s actually the “serious” ones — most recently The Reader and Good — that are the rarity. Most fictional treatments of the war have been no less fantastic, in their own way, than Basterds, whether the Technicolor heroism of The Great Escape or the barmily brilliant Where Eagles Dare, in which Clint Eastwood and a visibly boozy Richard Burton somehow manage to capture an entire Nazi stronghold (The film’s unsurpassable tagline was “They look like Nazis but The Major is British, The Lieutenant is American and The Beautiful Frauleins are Allied Agents!”). Even while it was being fought, the war was also being moulded into different cinematic genres. Straight war films are pretty rare: more often it’s been reinvented as film noir (The Third Man), fantasy (A Matter of Life and Death) and thriller (Valkyrie). Now Tarantino has given us his take on the conflict, cheerfully blending genre, tone and film-making tradition into a film that is uniquely, vividly his own.
Basterds is divided into chapters, the first of which is titled “Once Upon A Time in Nazi-Occupied France“, which is as good a clue as any that this is the Second World War as a Western. We’re in rural France, as a German patrol pulls up outside a little wooden cottage, to interrogate the farmer within. This is our introduction to one of the movie’s three core characters, the seductive, witty Colonel Hans Landa, played by the brilliant Christoph Waltz. Landa’s nickname is The Jew Hunter, and he has taken up the task with relish: he suspects that the farmer is sheltering Jews and, in a scene of excruciating tension, wheedles out the truth. As the sequence reaches its climax, it’s clear that Landa’s act will have repercussions far beyond this isolated farm.
The second chapter is the movie promised by the marketing: a group of American Jewish soldiers, led by the thoroughly Aryan Brad Pitt, rampaging through occupied Europe, scalping every Nazi they can find. This is the Tarantino that audiences have come to expect: funny, sweary and intensely violent. But it’s also a Tarantino that we don’t. The core of the chapter is not the gleeful scalping of a villain, but the quiet dignity and heroism of an officer who refuses to betray another patrol. This ambiguity threads through the picture as it switches genre, from Western to war film to espionage thriller, as seductive, slinky double-agent Diane Kruger helps the Basterds, teamed with SOE (a terrifically stiff upper-lipped Michael Fassbender, channeling George Sanders), to assault the Nazi high command; and into a full-throated hymn of praise to cinema, as Shosanna (Melanie Laurent), a beautiful Frenchwoman, and her lover Marcel plan the ultimate last picture show.
And this is the secret of the film, which is at once more romantic and more troubling than anything that Tarantino has delivered before. Yes, there are endless movie references, incongruous music and black comic jokes. Yes, there are goodies and baddies, and yes the good guys win. But there are, equally, no easy answers. There are good Nazis and bad Americans. The victory comes at a terrible price, both to the lives of its innocent victims and the consciences of its survivors. And those who risk the most, lose the most too: the war may be just, but that’s not the same as fair.
Tarantino has mentioned in interviews that he had been thinking of the story as a ten-hour miniseries, and there’s a sense, throughout the movie, that there are other stories at the margins, waiting to be told. These are full, exciting characters, with lives beyond the screen: you wonder, watching Basterds, how Marcel and Shosanna fell in love; and you want to see Hans Landa’s early life as a detective, before being sucked into the Nazi regime. For all the jokes and cartoon violence, these feel like real people, caught in the snare of history and struggling to wriggle free.
This is a picture that knows and plays with the power of fiction: how much does it take to make us care? And it offers more questions than answers: which emotional buttons is it ethical to push, and at what point have you gone too far? Where do entertainment and exploitation meet? I don’t agree with critics who say that Tarantino doesn’t care, that he’s ethically empty. It’s more, I think, that he’s the multiplex von Trier — a fevered, antic provocateur who wants to make us question our own responses to art. Because Basterds is an uncomfortable film. It’s equally gleeful and mournful, equally aroused and sickened by the violence at its core. And that strikes me as honest. Because isn’t it, to some degree, how all of us who didn’t live it feel about the Second World War? It’s now seventy years since it started, yet our culture is still soaked in its images, both as mainstream entertainment and as the ultimate warning from history. Nazis haunt the Discovery Channel, and books about the war fly off the shelves. Steven Spielberg, the world’s best-known director, is able to make both Indiana Jones and Schindler’s List. If Basterds is morally confusing, a fantasy of revenge that leaves us, nonetheless, a little chilled, it’s because, like all good fiction, it’s absolutely true.