'Django Unchained,' 'Inglourious Basterds' and Tarantino's Alternate Realities
There's a scene at the end of "Inglourious Basterds," Quentin Tarantino's 2009 gonzo World War II meditation, where (SPOILER ALERT) the good guys win. The Basterds' plot to trap the top Nazi officials in a movie theater, as well as Shosanna's plan to burn the place to the ground, have effectively merged and rendered the SS helpless. As the fire begins to rage and Basterds Omar and Donowitz slice their way toward their prime enemies, a viewer would be forgiven for gleefully soaking in the impending narrative and watching the ragtag team murder their way to victory. And then Adolf Hitler, who's also attending the screening, is riddled with machine-gun bullets by Omar and killed, and the viewer's mind twinges with prior knowledge: "That never really happened."
"Inglourious Basterds" was the first Tarantino film to set its crosshairs on history, and by the time the credits rolled, it had become clear that the director's interpretation of the famous (and infamous) events of 65 years earlier was intentionally inaccurate. Instead of abiding by the touchstones of historical dramas, Tarantino warped the past into his own image, and bestowed the audience with a triumphant revision that carried a great big wink as subtext. "Django Unchained," Tarantino's seventh film, delves even deeper into the history books and offers a new vision of the pre-Civil War South, with Jamie Foxx starring as a freed slave-turned-bounty hunter with a slew of viciously ignorant plantation dwellers on the other end of his gun. With these two films, which can arguably be labeled companion pieces, Tarantino has created a pair of "historical revenge" epics that allow the oppressed to violently dispose of their oppressors, even though such gratification never actually occurred.
But those are minor details -- so what if a Jewish soldier never got to shoot Adolf Hitler a dozen times in the torso, or a slave got to pierce a rotund white man's heart and intone, "I like the way you die, boy," as Foxx does in the "Django" trailer? With these films, Tarantino is arguing that history cannot be rewritten so much as remolded to first play upon the audience's predetermined sympathies, and then dismiss the age-old tales in favor of some ostentatiously fabricated heroics. In both "Basterds" and "Django," the images of the respective periods are painstakingly arranged, perhaps so well that the work goes unnoticed; from the 1940s German cinema to the sun-kissed Mississippi plantations, Tarantino's masterful production design steeps the viewer in the history that he's about to blow up. But when the trap door finally swings open and the audience is splattered with an improbable series of events, it's hard not to get swept up in the positive mayhem, especially since Tarantino has constructed a lifelike stage for his heroes to succeed upon. If it looks real and sounds real, then these acts of vengeance -- Jews killing Nazis, bounty hunter slaves killing slave masters -- could have been real, right? The mind knows that the answer is no, but Tarantino wants to appeal to our hearts.
Of course, there is a stark difference between "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained," with the latter constructed more like a lost piece of mythology than a twisted Ken Burns documentary. Early in the film, Christoph Waltz's character recounts a German fable in which a man climbs a mountain and walks through hellfire in order to save his own damsel in distress; his pistol-packing protege, Django, then embarks on a quest to replicate that fable by trying to find his wife, who has been separated from him by the slave trade. Unlike "Inglourious Basterds," which showcased the untrue demise of Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and basically the entire Third Reich during its climax, Django is railing against fictional white men and women that represent the cruelty of the unemancipated South, and not, say, an actor playing Jefferson Davis. In this way, the storytelling can stretch out more comfortably -- we root for Django to exact revenge upon the violently racist obstacles between his wife and himself, and whenever he is successful, we don't feel guilty knowing that that's not how it really happened 200 years ago. Tarantino's two newest films are works of highly improbable historical fiction, but "Django Unchained" prevents its fantastical action from including 19th century characters that its audience will recognize (and if you want that, you can walk a few paces across the multiplex and see "Lincoln").
There are other factors that tether "Inglourious Basterds" and "Django Unchained" together, other than the Tarantino signatures of whip-smart dialogue, tremendously showy performances and a lot of blood. For one, both films are very, very funny in parts. Despite the brutality of the subject matter, there are knowing jibes and slick one-liners that reference the absurdity of war and slavery. And while "Inglourious Basterds" included one of Brad Pitt's loosest performances as Basterds leader Aldo Raine and a supporting spot by Mike Myers as a British general, "Django Unchained" has Jonah Hill and Don Johnson swapping lines in one of Tarantino's most deliberate showcases of slapstick to date.
Both films also allow Tarantino to experiment with extended, agonizingly tense sequences: in "Basterds," the tavern scene in which undercover actress Bridget von Hammersmark must rendezvous with the Allies without giving away her true motives is a bravura display of quiet dialogue that ultimately leads to a firefight. The details of "Django's" own act of pure nervousness won't be spoiled here, but Tarantino stretches the feeling of that tavern scene across an amazing amount of footage in his latest effort. The director has been causing stomach knots for years -- remember Vincent and Jules' house call early in "Pulp Fiction"? -- but never over quite this long of a running time.
As his career enters its third decade, Tarantino has decided to look back with his last two films and graft his style on some of the ugliest pieces of world history. Whether or not he continues down this path remains to be seen -- perhaps his next film will feature Thomas Jefferson slashing the throats of a few Redcoats? -- but after shaking up history like a snowglobe with "Inglourious Basterds" and now "Django Unchained," it will be interesting to see what subject he tackles and transforms next.