1. All y’all will get me one hundred Nazi scalps, taken from the heads of one hundred dead Nazis. Or you will die tryin’.
The “Filthy Thirteen” was the nickname given to the 1st Demolition Section of the Regimental Headquarters Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division, of the United States Army. Some wore mohawks (one of their members, Jake “McNasty” McNiece, was part Choctaw and also encouraged the use of war paint) and, at one point, stopped bathing so they could use their water ration to cook the game they’d poached in England. They were also part of the Normandy invasion and the capture of Carentan, France. Their combat success — and their eccentricities, and lack of consideration for the traditional conventions of the military — caught the attention of military reporters, who embroidered the truth a bit and turned them into a minor group of folk heroes. Years after the war, novelist E. M. Nathanson heard rumors of a unit who refused to bathe and had been set off on a near-suicide mission; he incorporated the half-accurate idea into the novel The Dirty Dozen, making his protagonists criminals who take the mission for the promise of a pardon.
The Dirty Dozen, of course, was made into a very successful movie. More than a decade later, in 1978, Italian director Enzo G. Castellari would make Inglorious Bastards, a rough remake with more violence and less quality control. Quentin Tarantino, who rarely saw a midnight drive-in movie he didn’t want to borrow from, got the raw material for Inglourious Basterds out of…well, probably all of the above. Pitt’s ramshackle group of operatives seem to have more in common with the original Filthy Thirteen than the criminals of the Dirty Dozen, but like any Tarantino film, Basterds mixes dozens of ideas, inspirations and themes into its two and a half hours.
And a lot of Nazi corpses. A lot.
- You wouldn’t believe what I’ve been through.
“Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” was recorded in 1981, not 1944, and while there’s plenty of other anachronistic music in Inglourious Basterds, it shows up in Chapter Five like an annunciation. The song, one of Bowie’s best, feels like something coming, something dangerous and definitive, and as Shoshanna applies her makeup as a warrior puts on armor, the jarring power of the song might be the first clue that things might not be as the viewer first expected; that, this time around, history itself might be one of the rules Tarantino would choose to break.
I watched Basterds years after it was released, but was lucky enough to be unspoiled, and I remember the excitement I felt as the music blared and Shoshanna’s plan became clear. Wait, I thought to myself. Is this really happening? Is there a chance that Shoshanna might win?
- This is the face of Jewish vengeance!
“When Quentin was writing this,” writer/director/actor Eli Roth told SlashFilm, “I almost became like his Jewish technical adviser. He’d call me up and ask hypothetical questions like: ‘Would a Jew give absolution to a Nazi if it meant ending the war?’ And I’d say, ‘Jews don’t give absolution. That’s a Catholic concept. We collect interest. We get mad about stuff from 7,000 years ago.'”
Roth’s Donnie, the “Bear Jew,” angry, maniacal, and swinging a baseball bat with absolute homicidal glee, is one face of “Jewish vengeance,” and certainly one who doesn’t believe in absolution. “He’s fighting for those who can’t fight and those who were in the camps. He really feels like a Jewish warrior, and this bat is his sword,” Roth explained in the same interview.
The other face of course, is Shoshanna’s. We have watched her lose everything, and we know how much of herself she’s had to hide just to survive. (The Bear Jew is American; he almost certainly faced discrimination at home, but he didn’t have to run for his life, the way we see Shoshanna running in the movie’s opening chapter.) The next time we see her, with her name changed to something acceptably Gentile and her hair dyed, she has been playing a role for years. When the chance to fight back against the Nazis comes, she seizes it, putting her enemies in an oven of her own making. By the time the fire starts, she’s already dead, but that’s not what matters. What matters is that the Nazis are stopped. What matters is that they pay. And I don’t think it’s an accident that she tells the men she’s murdering her full Jewish name.
Tarantino is no stranger to revenge stories; not even close. But there’s something special about the way Basterds begins embracing vengeance on a larger scale; Shoshanna and Donny are fighting for their families, their culture, their people. This is bigger. (I haven’t seen Django Unchained yet, but The Hateful Eight certainly digs deeper into the idea of the sins of history.)
- Well, if this is it, old boy, I hope you don’t mind if I go out speaking the King’s.
Identity also comes up a lot in this movie, and what can, and can’t, be successfully hidden. Shoshanna manages to fade into French society, but Archie Hicox is doomed by the way he counts on his fingers, a childhood habit that he hadn’t learned to break. The Basterds’ shaky Italian gives them away. And, of course, the Basterds mark Nazis in a very permanent way.
In the final act of the movie, when Hans Landa has made a deal to save his neck and freedom, Aldo Raine makes sure that there’s a mark he can’t remove as easily as he will his Nazi uniform. (This is another area where Tarantino chooses to better the history books; a disconcerting number of Nazis, especially those considered useful to the Cold War, successfully disappeared into the US.) In a very real way, Landa will never be able to run from his past, to hide anywhere. Like another of cinematic history’s great manipulators, Eve Harrington of All About Eve, he’s been caught by his own cleverness, and can never escape the trap he’s made for himself. It’s not full poetic justice, but it’s something.
- In the pages of history, every once in a while, fate reaches out and extends its hand. What shall the history books read?
Of course, history got the better of Quentin Tarantino, too. In 2009, he didn’t anticipate that “Is it all right to punch Nazis?” would end up a topic of legitimate debate, or that the President would openly welcome anti-Semites in a way not seen in the US since the days of Charles Lindbergh. Much of the moral authority in Basterds relies on the audience agreeing that the Nazis are wholly inhuman, and that their acts create a stain that can’t be washed away. Ten years later, what once felt like a foregone conclusion seems far less certain. This change gives Basterds more urgency, and makes the final battle feel even more precariously fantastical. The first time I watched Inglourious Basterds, I was thrilled by the idea of Shoshanna triumphing over the men who took her family and her name. But when I consider it in 2019, the idea that sticks with me is that even a triumph as complete as Shoshanna’s is just one step in a larger, still unfinished war.
Bonus Track 1: Blueberries
Another thing neither Tarantino nor Roth anticipated was Roth’s brief but infamous run as an Internet sex symbol, including Roth flirting with the denizens of gossip site Oh No They Didn’t and posing suggestively with fruit. No, really.
Roth also directed the fake film-within-the-film, Nation’s Pride. It’s available on YouTube, and has some of the deliberately anachronistic feel of Tarantino’s work, along with Roth’s pitch-black humor.
Bonus Track 2: Slaughter
“Cat People” isn’t the only anachronistic song in Basterds. The soundtrack is a mix of styles and influences: Billy Preston’s “Slaughter” is in there, along with eight tracks by Tarantino’s go-to composer Ennio Morricone (there would be a full Morricone score, but scheduling got in the way). If you haven’t yet listened to “Slaughter” on its own, check it out; it’s from the blaxploitation pic of the same name — about a former Green Beret seeking revenge.