The superstar director talks about his latest release Inglorious Basterds and why we should all watch it
In fairness, Quentin Tarantino was never going to make a straightforward war flick. Guts and glory are not his style. Well, maybe guts. There are certainly plenty of those on show in his latest; a darkly comic, gory ‘spaghetti Western’ set in Nazi-occupied France. But Saving Private Ryan this is not – Scalping Private Ryan would be more accurate.
Inglourious Basterds is QT’s long-rumoured ‘men on a mission’ movie; the kind churned out by the (dirty) dozen in the ’50s and ’60s – but spattered with blood and the kind of banter that only the film-obsessed Tarantino can produce. This is his opus, 10 years in the making: the brutal story of a group of soldiers, led by Brad Pitt’s Lt Aldo Raine, tasked with striking fear into the Third Reich.
It is also deemed something of a gamble for the 46-year-old director: it is his first war movie, his first film shot in Europe and his first attempt to grapple with historical reality, however loosely. But the finished product may surprise many: it’s long, chaotic, comical and violent, and far more interested in dialogue than action. Time Out gives the motor-mouthed director a chance to explain…
Inglourious Basterds was originally going to be a straightforward war movie. What happened? What makes me sit down to start writing is a genre that I’m interested in tackling. But once I start, I explode the borders of that genre. So, even though it is a movie about guys on a mission, it’s a lot more. But that’s my process.
Why didn’t you include battle scenes? I never had any intention of doing a battle scene or including a single tank. That s**t bores me. Cannons and climbing rocks and dynamite, that bores me. I would be bored to tears shooting that. I’m much more interested in the humanity, the suspense. A critic at the time of Pulp Fiction said: ‘Quentin Tarantino will never be a master of suspense, because he’s too fond of minutiae.’ I thought that was a fair comment then. On this movie I wanted to engage with suspense – but on my terms.
Do you trust dialogue over images to make a scene suspenseful? It’s not only dialogue; it’s also mood, situation and mise-en-scène [the setting]. But I have no problem relying on dialogue. It’s one of the reasons I can direct my material better than anyone else, because I have a confidence in my material that no-one else would.
But weren’t you concerned about humour puncturing the suspense? That’s what I do. I’m never afraid of a joke or a humorous moment. I don’t think it ever derails the train, it just makes the train ride a little more fun.
Were you making a point about how cinema usually treats World War II? A point could be made… though that’s not necessarily what I was trying to get across to everyone in the multiplex. On the one hand I’m making a revisionist history of the war, but I’m also dealing with characters who deal with revisionist histories of the war. I’m also looking at the tragedy of genocide. I’m dealing with the Jewish genocide in Europe, but my Jews are going native and taking the roles of American Indians – another genocide. Then there’s a King Kong metaphor about the slave trade – that’s another genocide. And Germany wasn’t always the bad guy…
The film’s opening line is: ‘Once upon a time in occupied France’. Are you suggesting that all movies are fairytales, no matter how serious the subject? I think it’s the same for all novels, all literature, all history books. History was written by whoever was around to write it. Winston Churchill was asked if he thought history would be kind to him, and he said: ‘I know it will be, I intend to write it.’ That point is made throughout the movie. We have a character who does something phenomenal that helps bring down the Third Reich, but everyone who knows what that character did dies. He’s lost to history. That character stands for all the real life characters who did tremendous feats, but nobody was there to jot it down.
Which movies inspired the writing? I ended up looking at a different type of war film: the propaganda movies made in the ’40s, created mostly by foreign directors living in Hollywood because the Nazis had occupied their home countries. Those films are entertaining, they’re thrilling adventure stories, and there’s a lot of humour in them. And this goes against all the ponderous, anti-war, violin-music diatribes that we’ve seen in war movies since the ’80s. There’s just been a one-note concentration on victimisation.
Three propaganda films that inspired Tarantino’s wartime bloodbath.
Manhunt (1941) Dir Fritz Lang The opening scene (an English hunter moves through the Bavarian forest and lines up Hitler in his gun sights) is legendary in film history and arguably set the tone for Tarantino’s infinitely more brutal Nazi slasher pic.
This Land Is Mine (1943) Dir Jean Renoir A cowardly teacher in a small French village is drawn into the resistance. This is another that falls into the ‘ordinary men doing extraordinary things’ category. However, we can’t imagine actor Charles Laughton scalping anyone. Maybe offering them tea without any milk…
Hitler’s Madman (1943) Dir Douglas Sirk The story of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, a Nazi SS commander known as the Hangman, by Czech partisans and the reprisals inflicted by the Nazis on the Czechs. It was a story retold by Douglas Sirk in Hangmen Also Die (1943), which Tarantino also cites as an influence. Both set a darker tone than the usual propaganda flick. Inglorious Basterds is out September 17.