Quentin Tarantino is bouncing up and down on a couch in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, waving his arms and talking at torpedo speed about “Inglourious Basterds,” the fantastical World War II film he both wrote and directed, which opens Aug. 21. Dressed in black and clutching a plastic wine glass, the filmmaker who burst into the zeitgeist with the uber-violent “Reservoir Dogs” is eager to talk about his “basterds” — a squad of Nazi-slaying American Jews led by hillbilly Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt). These reservoir dogs-of-war parachute behind enemy lines to wage a blood-splattering campaign against the Nazis, alternately scalping them, crushing their skulls or carving swastikas into their foreheads.
Meanwhile, an intertwining story spotlights Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a French Jew passing as the non-Jewish owner of a Paris cinema, who succeeds in getting revenge for the murder of her family by incinerating Hitler, Goebbels and his henchmen alive in her theater.
Since “Inglourious Basterds” had its premiere in May at the Cannes International Film Festival, a number of reviewers have criticized Tarantino’s brazen rewriting of history, calling it potential fodder for Holocaust revisionists. Others dismissed the movie as the latest in a recent line of films using Nazis as all-purpose villains, such as the Norwegian Nazi-zombie thriller “Dead Snow.” Still others have worried about the image of Jews seeking over-the-top revenge against the Reich. As the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg asserted, engraving swastikas into human flesh doesn’t seem like the “Jewish” thing to do.
Confronted with these criticisms, Tarantino, still bouncing on the couch, brushes them off, saying he wasn’t about to check in with Jews or anyone else for his storyline. “I’m not going to go and kiss ass and curry favor,” he said. “This movie is about my imagination. I’m the one making the decisions as far as writing my characters. It’s my job to be everybody; that’s what I do. And when my characters are Jewish, what I say is correct for them.”
Tarantino insists the movie isn’t a Holocaust film, although it opens with Shosanna watching the machine-gunning of her family, which the director calls “a stand-in for the entire Holocaust.”
But it also goes against a convention that has defined most Shoah films since the 1980s, Tarantino said, focusing almost exclusively on Jews-as-victims. “If you go back to earlier decades, there was no crime against making a World War II picture as a thrilling adventure story,” he said.
“‘The Great Escape’ takes place in a f—-ing concentration camp, and it’s one of the most entertaining movies you’re ever going to see,” he said. “Even Billy Wilder, in ‘Five Graves to Cairo,’ does as much revisionist history as I do, all in the service of a very exciting story. When it’s my turn to throw my hat into a genre, and the genre I’m talking about here is a guys-on-a-mission movie, I want to expand it and go beyond it. But I still want to enjoy the pleasures inherent in that genre.”
So, he is asked, if “Inglourious Basterds” is a guys-on-a-mission World War II movie, in the tradition of, say, “The Dirty Dozen,” why couldn’t the guerrillas have been escaped POWs, or members of the French resistance? Tarantino’s eyes gleamed as he answered with relish: “It was really important for them to be Jewish, and it’s a big deal that they are American Jews.”
Not all of the heroes are Jews, however. Pitt’s character, nicknamed “Aldo the Apache,” is not, and is actually part Cherokee. “He’s been fighting fascism since he got into the war,” Tarantino explained; “Nazis, Kluxers, they’re all the same to him. But he’s a war-history nut, so he knows all about Geronimo’s battle plans and the idea of doing an Apache-style resistance against the Germans. Now he’s using Jewish soldiers for two reasons: One is because he feels that they will turn the mission into a holy war — while Gentiles in the military have the luxury of being soldiers, the basterds are fighting a foe that wants to wipe them off the face of this earth.
“The second reason,” Tarantino said, “is the effect the Jews are going to have in the psychological warfare against the Germans, which is the way the Apaches were able to fight the Mexicans and the Spaniards and the U.S. cavalry for years and years. When you see the boys ambush that German squad, it’s not about the seven guys they kill; it’s about the other guys who are going to see them scalped and ripped apart and degraded and disemboweled. So the Germans are going to know there are killer Jews out there, and it’s the f—-ing American Jews. The basterds are like, ‘Our European relatives could do nothing when the Hun pounded at their door, but we’re the American sons, and we don’t have to endure pain — we can inflict it. We’ve got the right to do that, because we’re f—-ing Americans!’
Nor is Tarantino Jewish. Like Aldo, he is part Cherokee, and he grew up in a born-again milieu in Tennessee where people imagined revenge against the Ku Klux Klan, not the Nazis. He said the film is not a Jewish revenge fantasy, though he admits that “Whether you’re Jewish or just tired of seeing the ‘Holocaust victim’ portrayal in cinema, there is a knee-jerk, fun, fantasy revenge aspect to the movie, all right? But that’s not all there is. I muddied it up.”
As an example, he points to a scene where Sgt. Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), nicknamed The Bear Jew, bludgeons a Nazi officer to death with his baseball bat. Tarantino said he pointedly gave the German the “last cool line” in the sequence. “Under any criteria of war, that German sergeant is a brave motherf—-er. He doesn’t give up his soldiers; he knows he’s going to die, and he takes it. And when Eli comes out and touches his Iron Cross and says, ‘So you get this for killing Jews?’ he answers that he has received it for ‘bravery’ — and then he proves it.”
Tarantino said it might have been simpler to make him “a cringing coward,” because “it would’ve been even more fun to watch him get it. But things don’t go quite that easy. Whether I was writing Jewish or German characters, I kept trying to have a very expansive viewpoint and to look at things from as many different sides as possible.”
About two years ago, while writing “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino asked Roth whether Jews believe in the concept of absolution. “The idea of mercy or forgiveness, not in the religious sense, but in a human sense — that’s where my humanity tends to go,” Tarantino said. “When whites held blacks in slavery, they both were in bondage, and both needed to be freed from the system, so that’s where I was coming from in a way.” But, he said, Roth told him “Absolution is a Catholic concept. F—- that. There is no sorry, no forgiveness possible.”
A good friend of Tarantino, Roth (see story on Page 12) is best known as the director of the ultra-violent torture-porn films “Hostel” and “Cabin Fever.”
“I told Quentin I didn’t care if his Nazis were going to be like ‘real’ human beings, I would still kill every last one of them,” Roth said in a separate interview. He invited Tarantino to a seder, to show him how Jews view their historical persecutors. So, in 2007, Tarantino sat at Roth’s Passover table and listened to a discussion of how the Exodus relates to the Holocaust and other world events.
“It was a moving experience for Quentin to see how we think, what we say and how we were discussing things.”
Actress Laurent, born and raised in Paris, is just as passionate about her role. “When I read the script I thought, ‘My God, I am so like Shosanna in a certain way,’” she said, in a quiet, intense voice, pausing only to exhale her cigarette. Laurent, 26, is Jewish; her grandfather survived Auschwitz as a teenager, after losing his entire family. “I had terrible nightmares about the camps all my childhood,” she said. “I had a very happy life, but I would think that if I had been born 60 years ago, I would have been killed in a gas room. Since I [was] 4, it was my dream to kill Hitler, so I completely understand Shosanna’s desire for revenge.”
After Laurent’s brother translated the script for both herself and her grandfather — at the time she did not speak much English — grandpère insisted she go after the role, telling her she must kill Hitler, if only in a movie, because that also had been his dream. He told her of a knife he carved out of wood in the camps, planning to stab a Nazi had he been selected for the gas chambers.
Laurent’s grandfather was at her side on the set in Berlin as she filmed her most challenging scene, in which her face appears giant onscreen at her cinema, laughing maniacally as she tells her Nazi audience that she is the face of Jewish vengeance that is going to burn them alive.
Laurent said she doesn’t understand why people object to a fictionalized killing of Hitler.
“I think it’s just a dream, and one can say nothing against a dream,” she said. “So if people say you can’t do that — of course you can, it’s a movie.
“What I especially love about Quentin’s movie is that [while] in the Nazi regime, like typical dictatorships, Hitler first kills the artists, the poets, the moviemakers, in ‘Inglourious Basterds,’ it’s like, ‘You want to kill movies — no, the movies are going to kill you.’”
“Inglourious Basterds” opens Aug. 21.