Inglourious Basterds

Movies Reviews Quentin Tarantino
Inglourious Basterds

Release Date: Aug. 21

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mélanie Laurent, Christoph Waltz, Diane Kruger

Cinematographer: Robert Richardson

Studio/Run Time: The Weinstein Company, 153 mins.

The Glourious Fantasy of Quentin Tarantino

Quentin Tarantino’s dual loves of vengeance and cinema have never had a purer expression than the face of a Jewish cinematheque owner projected Oz-like onto the smoke of Nazis aflame. The story goes like this: In the middle of the war, propagandist Joseph Goebbels plans to screen his latest pro-Nazi film for the party’s elite at a small Parisian theatre that is, unbeknownst to Goebbels, run by Shosanna Dreyfus who lost her family to the SS. She plans to welcome the brass into her establishment and then set the place on fire, but only after revealing to the crowd, via cinema, the identity of the woman who did them in.

It’s hard to say whether Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s best film, but it’s certainly his soberest, and given the hideous trailer and the implication that he was going to make a farce out of genocide, that’s far better than I’d feared. The opening scene at a Parisian farmhouse would not be out of place in any serious drama about World War II, until several minutes into the tense conversation when SS officer Hans Landa pulls something out of his pocket. Landa is a talking villain, the type that goes on and on with faux civility, but as played by Christoph Waltz and written by Tarantino, he’s a riveting force, evil incarnate with a gentleman’s face, a powder keg with an exceptionally long fuse.

Strutting in another part of Europe is Brad Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine, whose twang and hamminess feel like they were plucked from a Coen Brothers movie. All the storylines eventually intersect in the theatre, but Raine never really shares the frame with Shosanna, which is just as well. He’s the jokester of the film, and she’s the aggrieved heart. He’s the American who makes a sport out of killing—scalping—the bad guys, but she’s the one with the right to an elegant moral victory. He’s the one who conspires with a German actress and makes her a part of his own scheme to kill the high command, and he’s also the one who casts himself in the plot as an unconvincing Eye-talian. In essence, Aldo and Shosanna are two sides of a certain filmmaker, the artist and the tactician, the poet and the showman. Splitting the two may be Tarantino’s most introspective flourish to date.

To an almost touching degree, Inglourious Basterds recognizes that the vengeance driving so many films—and certainly Tarantino’s own—is a cinematic impulse, a fantasy of light and sound, a bonfire of highly combustible nitrate film stock, cleanly separated from common sense and actual history. For once, Tarantino doesn’t allude left and right to other movies, but instead makes celluloid itself a literal part of the story. Put another way, he draws his story into the celluloid.

A few critics have taken Tarantino to task for changing history to make Jews the aggressors, and some have even likened this inversion to Holocaust denial. A couple of years ago, filmmaker Harun Farocki assembled footage that was shot in the 1940s by Germans in the Westerbork holding camp, a way station in the Netherlands for prisoners en route to Auschwitz. The footage shows Jews laboring in factories and fields, sometimes smiling and sometimes taking a break from farm work by lying in heaps on the ground. Clearly, they don’t know where they’re headed. The power of Farocki’s silent film, which he calls Respite, lies in our having seen the pictures that he omits, the afterimage of corpses lying in heaps, just like this, spit from an evil Nazi machine. While Tarantino isn’t nearly so contemplative, he similarly expects us to draw the parallels to unseen events. When he gathers the Nazi high command inside a theatre rigged to burn, he doesn’t need to show footage of similar, Nazi-orchestrated atrocities to bring them to mind. Far from Holocaust denial, the image is Holocaust-dependent, the earlier image perversely acting as the springboard for a fantasy. The film readily accepts that the domain of cinema is to make its own reality by recasting the images in our heads and reflecting something about our basest wishes in the process.

Basterds also celebrates, in Tarantino’s low-rent, pulpy way, the well-known cases of resistance, like the Warsaw uprising and the escape from Sobibor concentration camp, both orchestrated by Jews. Spielberg—the man who melted Nazi faces by showing them the Ark of the Covenant—explored similar notions of retribution in Munich. His film takes place decades after World War II and focuses on a different enemy, but the Israeli anger on display clearly draws energy from prior persecution.

If there’s a moral difference between the approaches of these two filmmakers, besides Spielberg’s license to draw on his own heritage, it’s that Munich goes on to question the validity of tit-for-tat justice. Tarantino never takes that step. Death Proof ends with the final blows of vengeance in freeze frame. Zed disappears from Pulp Fiction with the flippant line, “Zed’s dead, baby. Zed’s dead.” And a character at the end of Inglourious Basterds looks upon his violent handiwork and says, “This just might be my masterpiece,” a line followed quickly and audaciously by the big-screen text: “Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino.” But choosing such moments to end his various romps is partly what keeps his films from being masterpieces. He’s enormously talented, almost unceasingly creative, but weirdly divorced from the questions we face daily and the implications of his characters’ codes. In the words of the six-fingered man: He’s got an overdeveloped sense of vengeance, and it’s going to get him into trouble one day.

Nevertheless, he manages to ignite the screen time and again.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin