Watched May 25, 2012
While this is perhaps not the most interesting (nor masterful) of Tarantino’s works, it does have very interesting, if not expected inter-textuality, yet what does seem to receive little attention are the ways in which he makes subtle statements about war.
While at the conclusion of the picture it becomes clear Basterds is just as much about the political strategy of the United States during World War II as it is present day. This is clear through the manner by which the Americans rise to the top in the end of the narrative despite their disadvantages. Tarantino drafts an interesting thematic guide through the way in which characters utilize language in association with deception, and how war is perhaps just a game of such plays of deception.
We are introduced to this in the very start of the picture when Colonel Hans Landa speaks English with Pierre LaPedite to question his affiliation with the possibly hidden Jews in hiding. At first this seems like a joke, as so many films that depict cross-cultural lines shift into English because of an ease for actors, makers or audience. The ending of the scene does reveal a clever revelation, that Landa has spoken in this language so that he might not reveal what he knows to those whom are incapable of it’s translation, those in hiding.
While this revelation is quite an important setup of Landa’s character, it also becomes the reference point of navigation through this thematic application of language and deception. When those whom are clever enough to play the games of war, most war films suggest the successful are such because they are masterful at deception. Film spies like James Bond and Harry Palmer certainly make it their business as spies just as Major Reisman or Indiana Jones do when they successfully portray soldiers when dressed in enemy’s clothing.
Interestingly a tie that binds these characters with those that portray them in these films is the act of portrayal, a form of deception when one is out to convince without revelation or knowledge of such. Strong performances are those that perhaps are what allows us to forget their nature as a celebrity and view them as the person portrayed for the duration of the narrative, which is perhaps one reason why Christoph Waltz is nominated for awards as Landa and Brad Pitt is not for Raine. I believe this also perhaps the reason why so many of the characters are given the names of historical exploitation actors, rather than obviously fictitious names.
When Basterds displays those whom are most adept at deception, the more languages they are capable of speaking. Landa, perhaps the most talented at the games of deception (clearly displayed through the fact that he’s literally made a game of deception and detection) natively speaks German as well French, English and Italian. (This multi-linguistic talent is not only a quality of Landa, but it speaks highly of Waltz, and suggests another reason for his award-winning performance) And while Lt. Archie Hicox speaks “the King’s” English, and German it is clear that his ability of deception is in question when his accent is of discussion. This suggests that Hicox, and perhaps by association Britain, is not well trained within the arena of war’s deception and it is a reason for failure in the game of war.
And while it could be suggested that because Landa pride’s himself on detection through the manner in which he sets up a situation to act as though he did not already have facts he asks for (the hidden Jews, Shosanna Dreyfus in hiding, that the shoe fit the foot of Von Hammersmark, or the entire background and information about those executing operation Kino) what is important here is that Landa must apply performance to his skill level of deception. He “acts” dumb, he “acts” like he doesn’t have all the information so that he may tease out this information, and in this way he’s paralleled with not just a spy, but with an “actor.” His lingual-multiplicity becomes associated with performance and successful game-player of war.
And interesting case that merges performance and the spy is Von Hammersmark, whom is literally a German Film star, and can speak just as many languages as Landa, which further suggests the skills and intelligence of the German people in the film. While Von Hammersmark can compete on most levels with Landa, she is not capable of winning in the games of war, because of the trait she does not possess that all others in the film do: she is not a soldier, no matter the fact that she’s given the position of “spy.” What this contrast further suggests is that to win these games of war, one must be more than a talented performer that can multi-speak, but they must have the mind of a strategist.
What slowly emerges from the study of these associations of language and deception is that those, whom can rise to the top of these ‘games,’ are soldiers with minds and talents of deception and strategy. Landa is the one whom holds all the cards at the moment of the second plot point, and through his revelation it is clear that he is the one that ‘wins’ the war by remaining passive as the head of the German military are about to be eliminated by the American team. The winner of the games of war is a result of all the traits suggested, although there remain the Americans.
In the end it is the Americans that are left winning the war, both in Basterds and in reality. Despite Tarantino rewriting history when it comes to Nazi military elite (a deception crafted by the director himself), he does not deceive in the arena of America’s position of power. So what does this further suggest? When looking through the picture, the lead of the Basterds is everything that Landa is not. Aldo Raine is not a multi linguistic speaker, in fact the Italian that he speaks is butchered and even the title of the picture (also written on Aldo’s gun), that Tarantino has himself, is misspelled because Aldo can’t even execute his own native language effectively. Raine is also a terrible performer, there is no believing his deception as an Italian beyond the butchered linguistics, and he is not necessarily the best strategist (even if he’s a an effective interrogator). And while he is a solder, he is perhaps also a poor one, as he mentions that he’s been “chewed out” before, implying that he is not an effective military man (also further implied as his character is paralleled with Major Reisman from the Dirty Dozen (1967), whom was also a somewhat problematic soldier). What is left that allows American Aldo Raine to ‘reign’ supreme? I believe there are two major points that Tarantino seems to suggest are reasons for Aldo to remain atop (and thus, reasons for America’s position as ‘Number One’ worldly power).
Firstly, the fact that Aldo is one of two characters that does not believe in deception (the other being Shosanna Dreyfus), in fact he whole heartedly believes in only acting according to one’s beliefs; the belief in honoring one’s personal code of ethics and codes of honor is quite often an American interpretation and execution of personal liberties. One only need briefly mention the fact that this is clearly connected to the consistency in Tarantino’s constant references to the Spaghetti Western and the themes they investigate about honor and code, and perhaps the motivation for Basterd’s formalistic aesthetics. As this tale is supposedly being told to an American audience (despite it’s world-wide appeal) this also further perpetuates the film’s sub-genre as a propaganda-exploitation picture, in which the codes of the audience’s belief system is reinforced –in this case American codes of honor are executed and displayed as the winner of the game depicted.
The second reason for American dominance, and game-winning position, is the fact that war changes when American ideology enters. Perhaps if the World War were only on European turf and involved only European countries, it would be according to those long-standing terms of war. Those who were most able to achieve according to those codes of ‘play,’ they would be the winners, in this case it’s language deception, performance and strategy. When the American’s enter the ‘game,’ it changes. Aldo is a simple man, with simple codes, and does not abide by the fact that he must change for anyone. The strength of his comment towards Landa’s future intention to not wear the Nazi uniform is implied as performance, and thus a betrayal of one’s personal code of honor to one’s self. In addition, the fact that Landa defects does nothing to earn Aldo’s respect since Landa has played against his own country (in the same manner that perhaps Von Hammersmark has done) to get the best of his situation –no honor towards where one comes from. Language, in this case, is a skill, but it Basterds it becomes indicative of one whom is deceptive. The more languages spoken by one person, the more this becomes indicative of inconsistent loyalties. Speaking a foreign language becomes portrayal of a foreign idealism, and any such changes in honor and code are unacceptable in the eyes of the American.
In the end, Tarantino implies an interesting conclusion about the reason’s for America’s worldly dominance and success in war (be it hypothetical circumstances like Basterds, or in actuality like history and today), yet the kind of personality that exists as the winner is inarticulate, unintelligent, opportunistic and selfish –just the kind of ‘winner’ that shouldn’t win any other game, especially if in fact this film was not associated with an ideology and took an impartial and objective view. Basterds becomes an interesting articulation of war’s winners as not necessarily ‘good guys,’ not even ‘nice guys,’ just consistently guys whom could appropriately be labeled as ‘bastards’ of a worldly kind –bastards that are of quite a specific kind.