The Best Comic Book Movie of 2009 Was Not an Adaptation
What shall the history books read?
—Col. Hans Landa, "The Jew Hunter"
If you're concerned about spoilers, you probably shouldn't read this post, though if by this time you don't know what happens at the end of Inglourious Basterds, you probably don't particularly care. When I watched Quentin Tarantino's Nazi slaughter-fest for the first time, I can remember feeling a sense of displacement upon seeing members of the Basterds gun down Hitler and Goebbels inside a Jewish-owned Paris cinema during the premier of Stolz der Nation. Here was this movie dealing with subject matter that has become all-too familiar and yet presenting the events in a way in which they did not happen. It felt almost obscene, or sacrilegious—not that I objected, per se; it was more akin to the feeling you get when someone standing next to you says something dreadfully offensive.
In the 21st century, we've come to a point where we practically fetishize the notion of historical accuracy in stories that depict events from the past. The process of writing a novel or screenplay has come more to resemble that of composing a dissertation, for all the research that's required. But this slavish submission to historicity is based on the flawed assumption that fidelity to historical detail somehow brings us closer to events as they occurred, when in fact the very idea of historical accuracy is itself a fiction.
Quentin Tarantino has a clear sense of the ways in which history and fantasy interact in storytelling. With Inglourious Basterds, he has taken the sacred cow of historical subject matter, and told a story that is at once rigorously researched and yet plays fast and loose with the ordering of events as they read in history books. Tarantino understands that historical detail sets a mood and creates a setting in which fictional characters play out fictional scenarios, which may or may not resemble events you may have read about in a history class.
As anyone who's ever read Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay can tell you, comics were used during World War II as a means of exorcising the anguish and aggression that people felt over events on the world stage. They were about fantasy, rather than history. It was an avenue for writers and artists, many of whom were Jews, many of those having been displaced by the rise of the Third Reich, to envision scenarios in which heroic men with semitic features and preternatural abilities could quite literally kick the shit out of Hitler and his goons. I doubt very seriously that a single comic book from this period envisioned Hitler holed up in his Berlin bunker in 1945, eventually shooting himself as the end drew near. That's not a particularly satisfying scenario, either from a narrative or moral perspective.
And I would argue that the collective want of satisfaction that we feel over the manner of Hitler's demise has something to do with the surfeit of movies and books grappling with this material in recent years. However widely these stories have varied in their particulars, the critical events have been treated as somehow sacrosanct, perpetuating the sense of historical injustice. It took a gutsy writer like Tarantino, borrowing some of comics' native editorial brio, to reappropriate the historical record, giving us an end that satisfies our human desire for vengeance in a hail of bullets and righteous Jewish anger and finally allowing us to let go of that particularly unsavory part of the past.
Of course this discussion of the recasting of historical events ignores the equally salient question of period detail in historical narrative. Ironically, this is the sort of issue that tends to set off the pompous fulminations of armchair critics. But there is a difference between those details which demonstrate the fastidiousness of the artist and very little else and those which have a qualitative effect on the story as a whole. While it might be perfectly diverting to discuss the relative accuracy of the depiction of Countess Sophia Tolstoya riding about her family's estate in a landau, rather than a troika in The Last Station, such details are ultimately superfluous.
On the same token, the languages spoken by characters in a movie about World War II are anything but superfluous. When you think about it, it's really remarkable how many 'serious' films dealing with this period—historical movies in general, for that matter—simply convert all of the languages spoken by the various combatants into English; it's downright scandalous. Tarantino's choice to have each of the characters speak the appropriate language or languages reveals a level of verisimilitude and sophistication that is simply absent from more traditionally respectable films.
And that's just it: Inglourious Basterds delivers an impressive measure of sophistication and truth, all smuggled in—to borrow a concept from Brandon—under a thick veneer of pulp-adventure bombast. This subtly beguiling mix of whimsy and sophistication is precisely what drew me to comics in the first place. It is largely unique to the medium precisely because pulling it off requires a level of risk-taking that is untenable to most novelists and filmmakers. Simply put, it's the reason why a movie that was never a comic to begin with turned out to be the best comic book film of 2009.