Tarantino’s latest film is forcing me to reconsider everything I thought I knew about him.
Until now I had considered Tarantino incapable at disguising his authorial voice in the dialogue of supposed characters, but nonetheless a talented visual stylist even if his fluency with film history and visual quotations of his predecessors were unaccompanied by anything substantive to say about them. Seemingly without warning, he has now revealed himself as a thoughtful commentator on cinema as well.
The fact that he accomplishes this in the form of a story that is engaging in its own right and expertly told as a narrative, rather than as a Godardian essay or a blunt Hanekean wrist-slapping, makes it all the more superior. The fact that he goes further than either in his criticism of American cinema makes it all the more provocative.
Inglourious Basterds might be the most philosophically complex mainstream film of 2009. It is the best visceral depiction of mimetic violence and the unanimous condemnation of the scapegoat that unifies culture since, well, The Dark Knight.
While Nolan lets his audience in on the fact that the final scapegoat is innocent, risking a condescending attitude towards Gotham City, Tarantino uses the most famous innocent scapegoat of the twentieth century, European Jews, to question the validity of the most common scapegoat of American cinema, the German soldier. (It was, after all, the SS and not the regular German army that ran the concentration camps and were in charge of filling them.) The fact that our culture’s automatic vilification of German soldiers tempts the audience to rejoice in the torture of them in this very film, even as that vicarious participation is being condemned, makes the point disturbingly relevant.
The directness of the final indictment of the audience — a point of view shot that puts the audience in the position of having a swastika branded on its collective forehead — is slightly disguised by the fact that the same shot had already been used earlier in the film. But the meaning of that final shot is no less convicting, and Aldo Raine rightfully declares the film a “masterpiece.”
[The mechanics of the film’s critique of glorified violence are discussed more specifically below, under the spoiler warning.]
I never thought I would ever like a Tarantino movie comprised mostly of conversations, with very little action, much less that it could be construed as good in any way, but I love being surprised and am happy to admit my astonishment.
The trick of making so many long conversations successful seems to have been accomplished by translating most of the script into foreign languages, so that Tarantino’s strong voice could not become a distraction, and so that the suspense could be based primarily on the actors’ facial reactions rather than on the words themselves. The scene at the restaurant stands out for me as the most frightening, because it conveys Shosanna’s experience so well.
Inglourious Basterds also proves that if Tarantino hires real actors instead of amateurs like Zoe Bell, his indifference to acting can be neutralized. As the Nazi villain (in this film the qualification is necessary), Christoph Waltz brings the prowess of Geoffrey Rush to a character whose occasionally cartoonish flourishes never diminish his menace.
Waltz’s facility with at least four languages in the film is one of the few contrasts between him and his American counterpart, played by Brad Pitt, whose character slightly exaggerates the actor’s own uncomfortability with accents. However, the comparisons between the two characters are manifold, as exhibited by the juxtaposition of their respective introductions in the first two “chapters” of the film.
The possibility for any amusement or vicarious pleasure that might be found in the introduction of the vengeful Jewish-American guerrilla ambush squad in Chapter Two is obviated by Chapter One, which introduces the Jew Hunter and his methods. After correctly despising the Nazi and his tactics, it is horrifying to see Brad Pitt & Co. mirror him at every step: dehumanization of their targets, threatening captives to betray their own, killing unarmed men, etc.
The film’s explicit critique of such violence in films begins with Brad Pitt’s statement that seeing Eli Roth bash in someone’s brains with a baseball bat is the closest they get to going to the movies.
This critique escalates in the finale, when a screening of a Nazi propaganda film about a German sniper who kills three hundred Americans from a bell tower — a bloodbath that is eaten up by a slavering audience including Hitler — is followed by the three hundred audience members being riddled with the machine gun fire of Eli Roth from a box seat high above them. Their superior position over their helpless victims who are locked indoors reflects not just the German sniper in the film but also the stormtroopers at the end of Chapter One, who also use machine guns to slaughter those trapped below them.
The film’s poetic justice does not spare even those whose desire for revenge would be justified by the standards of conventional movie morality. The implication of the final conflagration — what if the catharsis of film was ethical in its purgative effect? — is a harrowing condemnation of the film Inglorious Bastards might have been if it were a traditional WWII film that followed the exploits of Lt. Aldo Raine as a heroic figure. But this is decidedly not such a film.