Yes that sounds offensive, but it’s supposed to, coming from Quentin Tarantino. Inglourious Basterds has been released on DVD, and readers will recall from my review that it’s a masterpiece of absurdist revisionism in which Jewish American soldiers and a Jewish French woman bring down Hitler in a cinematic hell of lead and fire.
I want to talk about my favorite scene: the identity-guessing card game in the basement tavern, La Louisiane. The menacing Major Hellstrom explains the rules. He has joined a table of “German officers” (in reality a group of Ally spies, the “Basterds”) because one of them speaks with a suspiciously sounding accent. Hellstrom feigns camaraderie and suggests they play a game so he can smoke out what’s really going on. It’s the most suspenseful scene of the film (even more, I think, than the opening scene praised by countless critics), but there’s a lot of Tarantino-stuff going on under the surface. When Hellstrom emphasizes that the names people write on their cards can be “real or fictitious, it doesn’t matter”, it’s a sly commentary on the director’s approach to filmmaking. Inglourious Basterds, like all Tarantino films, is preposterous fiction, but it doesn’t matter. Its talons rake into you, affecting as any historical reality.
Back to the game: Each person at the table writes the name of someone famous on his or her card — again, real or fictitious, like Confucius or Fu Manchu. The cards are then placed face down on the table and moved to the person on the right. Each person picks up the new card without looking at it, licks the back, and sticks it on his or her forehead so that everyone at the table can see the name on it. Everyone then takes turns trying to guess the name stuck on their foreheads by asking up to 10 yes/no questions.
Major Hellstrom goes first, and his name is King Kong. He asks the following questions:
1. Am I German? (No)
2. Am I American? (No… you weren’t born in America)
3. Ah… but I visited America? (Yes)
4. Was the visit fortuitous? (No, not for you)
5. My native land, is it what one would call exotic? (Yes)
6. Hmm, that could mean the jungle or the Orient… Am I from the jungle? (Yes)
7. When I went to America, did I go by boat? (Yes)
8. Did I go against my will? (Yes)
9. On this boat ride, was I in chains? (Yes)
10. When I arrived in America, was I displayed in chains? (Yes)
So: Am I the story of the American Negro? (No!)
Well, then I must be King Kong. (Yes!)
The fact that both answers are equally correct based on the questions posed suggests more inside commentary: fiction being on equal footing with fact. Hellstrom’s first guess is something real, but the “right” answer isn’t, a clever apologia for Tarantino’s directing style. The parallel between Afro-Americans and a mythical beast feared, hunted, and slain — coming from the mouth of a Nazi officer — is also ingenious. And the fact that Hellstrom seems to cheat by guessing twice after using up his ten questions, while no one protests or seems bothered by it, is probably another signature: this is a film director who cheerfully breaks rules in telling his stories, but does it so well that we don’t notice until we stop to think about it.