History in the Movies, “Inglourious Basterds”

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Illinois; she writes a syndicated column on historical films.

Quentin Tarantino fans will probably love his new World War II film, “Inglourious Basterds.” It’s chock full of the Tarantino trademarks — the genre-bending, black humor, quirky characters and cartoonish violence.

History buffs, however, are in for a shock.

Tarantino cheerfully and breathtakingly rewrites some key facts about that most sacrosanct of wars. The end result is more revenge fantasy than history, as the film’s Jewish characters wreak deadly havoc on their Nazi oppressors, and do so with gusto.

“Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims,” Tarantino complained in a recent interview in The Atlantic. “We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different.”

Whether that “something different” will work for audiences remains to be seen. Here’s a guide to determine where the film bends the historical record, and where it breaks it.

Q. Was there a squad of Jewish-American soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied France to exact revenge on Germans?

A. No. Brad Pitt’s avenging Tennessee hillbilly is a product of Tarantino’s imagination, as is Pitt’s squadron of “Basterds,” (the misspelling is Tarantino’s) a fearsome group of Jewish-American soldiers committed to hunting down Nazis. But journalist Kim Masters recently wrote on “The Daily Beast” Web site that a secret group of largely Jewish commandos did exist, though in the British, not the American military. Her father, Peter Masters, had been one of them.

Called the X-Troop, Masters’s unit was comprised of European-born refugees who had fled the Nazis into England. Their fluency in German helped them stage daring reconnaissance missions into enemy territory, and allowed them to capture and interrogate German soldiers.

But there’s a key difference with the film’s commandos, as Kim Masters notes. Her father’s X-Troop did not take scalps, carve swastikas into Nazi foreheads, or bash in German heads with a baseball bat. That’s pure Tarantino.

Q. The most sinister character in the film is Col. Hans Landa, the SS officer responsible for rounding up Jews in France. Was he a real person?

A. Landa is a fictional character, but men like him certainly operated in France. Chosen for their adherence to “racial purity” and their devotion to Hitler, members of the SS were primarily responsible for implementing the anti-Jewish policies which culminated in the “Final Solution.” Like the fictional Col. Landa, they were cold, efficient and ruthless in hunting down and exterminating Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe.

Q. Diane Kruger plays Bridget von Hammersmark, a German actress who spies for the Allies. Is she a real person?

A. Von Hammersmark is imaginary, though her glamour and beauty evoke the popular German actress, Marlene Dietrich. Dietrich, however, was never a spy. She left Germany for fame in Hollywood in the 1930s, and became an American citizen in 1939. When the war began, Dietrich made clear her hatred of the Nazi regime, and spurned invitations by Nazi officials to return to her homeland. Instead, she raised money for U.S. war bonds, and entertained American troops for the USO.

Q. In the film, a young German soldier named Fredrick Zoller becomes famous after shooting hundreds of American and British troops from a sniper’s tower. Did anyone like him exist?

A. The most celebrated German snipers operated not in France, but on the Russian Front. The closest historical model for Zoller is Matthias Hetzenauer, a young Austrian sniper who was credited with at least 345 kills on the Eastern Front, all before his 21st birthday. Hetzenauer was awarded the Iron Cross, but German Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels never based a film on his exploits, unlike the fictional Zoller.

Q. Speaking of Goebbels, the movie indicates that he aspired to be a German version of famed Hollywood producer David O. Selznick. Any truth to that?

A. There is, actually. As Minister of Propaganda he ruthlessly controlled all of Germany’s media, and became a master propagandist. But Goebbels liked to imagine he was providing simple, entertaining films to Germans, rather than overtly political ones. Goebbels’s diaries showed that two of his favorite films were Selznick’s “Gone with the Wind” and Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Q. Two of the film’s characters use film reels to start a fire. Was it as flammable as the movie suggests?

A. Absolutely. Before the 1950s, motion pictures were reproduced on nitrate film, which is highly combustible, and could ignite under the heat of the projection lamp. Theater fires, then, were not uncommon, and once begun were extremely hard to contain, since nitrate creates its own oxygen as it burns. To make matters worse, as nitrate film ages, it emits a gas which can spontaneously combust. In 1978, the National Archives lost 12 million feet of old newsreel footage when the nitrate film reels auto-ignited deep in the film vaults.

Starting in the early 1950s, film companies switched to using an acetate-based or polyester-based film, which is far safer.

Q. Without revealing any spoilers, is the ending of the film based on facts?

A. None whatsoever. I can’t deny the visceral satisfaction I felt as the film rollicked towards its conclusion, but it was startling to watch Tarantino abandon any fidelity to history there. He essentially rewrites the entire ending of World War II in his closing scenes.

To his credit, though, Tarantino warns us at the start not to take it all too seriously. He opens the film, after all, with those time-honored words, “Once upon a tim …” “Inglourious Basterds” may be set in World War II, but it isn’t history; it’s fantasy. And in Tarantino’s hands, it’s one wild ride.

You can reach Cathy Schultz at cschultz@stfrancis.edu.

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