Quentin Tarantino is bouncing up and down on a couch in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, waving his arms and talking at torpedo speed about “Inglourious Basterds,” the fantastical World War II film he both wrote and directed.
Dressed in black and clutching a plastic wine glass containing the remains of a vin rouge, 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 Sgt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt).
These fighters 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 has Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a French Jew, passing as the non-Jewish owner of a Paris cinema and seeking to avenge the murder of her family by incinerating Hitler, Goebbels and his henchmen in her theater.
Since “Inglourious Basterds” premiered 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 have dismissed the movie as the latest in a recent line of films using Nazis as all-purpose “rent-a-villains,” such as this year’s Norwegian Nazi-zombie thriller “Dead Snow.” Still others have worried over the image of Jews seeking over-the-top revenge against the Reich.
Confronted with these criticisms, Tarantino 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 … And when my characters are Jewish, what I say is correct for them.”
He insists the movie isn’t a Holocaust film, although it opens with Shosanna watching the machine-gunning of her family.
Also, says Tarantino, the film goes against a convention that has defined most Shoah films since the 1980s: 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,” Tarantino says.
“‘The Great Escape’ takes place in a f—— concentration camp, and it’s one of the most entertaining movies you’re ever going to see,” Tarantino says. “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.”
So 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 — rather than American Jews?
Tarantino’s eyes gleam as he answers. “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 explains. “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.”
Tarantino, like Aldo, is part Cherokee, and he grew up in a born-again milieu in Tennessee where revenge fantasies centered more on the Ku Klux Klan than the Nazis. He says the film is not just 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.
Both Roth and Laurent are Jewish. She was born and raised in Paris, and said she “had terrible nightmares about the camps all my childhood.” Her grandfather survived Auschwitz as a teenager after losing his entire family.
“I had a very happy life,” said the 26-year-old, “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.”
She showed her grandfather the script, and he insisted she go after the role, telling her she must kill Hitler, if only in a movie, because that also had been his dream.
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.”
“Inglourious Basterds” opens Friday, Aug. 21 at more than 55 theaters in the greater Bay Area.