The tradition of Nazis being villains in movies — and those movies inviting audiences to cheer for those Nazis’ defeat — is one that goes back nearly as long as Nazis themselves. Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) mocked Adolf Hitler before the U.S. had even entered World War II, and Hollywood didn’t wait for the fighting to be over before it started making dozens of movies about the struggle against the Nazis. This included Casablanca — with its corrupt Nazi viceroy, Strasser — and Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be, both released in 1942.
Movies about World War II continued to be produced in the ensuing decades, with mockery of Hitler a continued theme in the work of director Mel Brooks, who mockingly staged a pro-Hitler musical called Springtime For Hitler in 1972’s The Producers, made his own version of To Be Or Not To Be in 1983, and revisited The Producers with a musical play and second movie years after that. Serious World War II movies also had a brief resurgence in the late 1990s, with Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan arriving in 1998, but no film has had a take on the Nazis quite like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which was released in August 21, 2009.
Tarantino’s sixth film, Inglourious Basterds is set in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, and provides the sort of revisionist, fictionalized version of history that would become a trademark in the second half of the director’s career. It even includes something the director would later do again: the phrase “Once Upon a Time…” both as the title of the first chapter, and in the film’s marketing materials, and used as a way to fudge the actual facts of history.
For instance, Adolf Hitler himself does indeed appear in Inglourious Basterds (played by German actor Martin Wuttke), but it’s a small role, and one in which the Fuhrer is treated as a comedic foil, repeatedly screaming “nein! nein! nein!” and seen as the butt of jokes right up until his ultimate, ahistorical demise. Tarantino and Wuttke’s take on Hitler is definitely of a piece with that of Mel Brooks — or even of the series of Internet memes based on the 2004 movie Downfall — that became popular in the years prior to the release of Basterds.
The main Nazi villain in Inglourious Basterds is Hans Landa, the fictitious SS Colonel nicknamed “The Jew Hunter.” Played by Christoph Waltz in an Oscar-winning turn (and as an actor that was likely unfamiliar to most audiences at the time), Landa is a different kind of movie Nazi — one who’s as erudite as he is menacing. He’s also unusually self-aware, commenting on his “Jew hunter” nickname much the same way that a Nazi character in Lubitsch’s To Be Or Not To Be mused on his moniker, “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt.”
At the film’s end, we see Landa betray the Nazi cause, and then get betrayed himself, as the Basterds, rather than killing him, ruin his plans for a peaceful stateside retirement by carving a swastika into his skull. Between that, the death of Hitler, and the entire Nazi command burning in a Paris movie theater, it’s fair to say that Inglourious Basterds dispenses with its Nazi villains in an entirely different way than every other World War II film ever made (though Tarantino, for good measure, would include another scene of a roomful of Nazis getting torched in one of the movie-within-a-movie scenes from 2019’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood).
Inglourious Basterds has multiple plot strands concerning payback as well — with the key ones including Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) seeking revenge against the Nazis who murdered her family, as well as a platoon of Jewish-American soldiers (the Basterds of the title) on the prowl to collect the scalps of Nazis at the behest of their commander (Brad Pitt) — that made it part of a mini-trend for films of its time period (following Steven Spielberg’s Munich and Edward Zwick’s Defiance), dealing with historical Jews taking up arms and getting revenge. (Though Tarantino, unlike the other two directors, resisted the urge to inexplicably cast Daniel Craig as a Jewish character.)
However, that’s an aspect of Inglourious Basterds that’s worthy of re-examination: it doesn’t really interrogate itself in any way about the morality of what the Basterds are doing. Sure, it’s beyond satisfying to see Nazis defeated, especially during the war (and by extension, during the Holocaust), but we see the characters doing certain things — executing prisoners after their capture, carving swastikas into foreheads, scalping heads — that in real life would likely be classified as war crimes. Steven Spielberg’s Munich, which arrived four years earlier, was another story of Jewish revenge, but — contrary to Seth Rogen’s famous monologue in Knocked Up — Munich was almost entirely about the moral questions connected to that revenge, and the effect carrying it out had on the people doing it.
So, how does Inglourious Basterds fare on re-examination? It remains a notably uneven movie. Yes, Waltz’s turn as Lanza is one of the best performances in any Tarantino film, the writer-director’s central metaphor about Nazis living by and eventually dying at the movies is one that ultimately works, and the film’s exploration of the Nazi-era German film industry, one later explored in the 2018 documentary Hitler’s Hollywood, is compelling.
However, the film is at times also excruciatingly slow, with several scenes that seem to slog on forever. The tendency to let scenes drag towards the 20-minute mark was probably Tarantino’s biggest weakness as a filmmaker in the period of his career between Kill Bill Vol. 2 in 2004 and The Hateful Eight in 2015. Going for the slow burn is understandable, but if the dialogue isn’t popping like it did in Tarantino’s early films, the scenes can be a chore to sit through.
Yet, Quentin Tarantino is in love with film history like few other directors, and the more long-ago and obscure, the better. It’s virtually certain that he knows the entire history of World War II movies, and was aware every single trope that he’s extolling and subverting in Inglourious Basterds, as is likely certain with so many of his other films (he even paid subtle homage in Christopher Walken’s famous Pulp Fiction monologue to the 1943 film Air Force, with reference to that film’s main character, “a gunner named Winocki”). With Inglourious Basterds, he used that knowledge to create a film that fits in with the history of the genre, while going off into an entirely different direction.