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.



  1. Ryan says:

    Finally remembered to look up this review.

    Having watched some of the interviews on the blu-ray, I wonder how much of this, if any, has come across to mainstream audiences. If I had to guess at the reasons for the popularity of the film, I’d say for its action and humor. Indeed, I think first scene of the Basterds at work is probably a favorite and enjoyed without guilt, despite the intentions you’ve detailed here.

    What you’ve said makes sense, but no one is talking about it that way. Tarantino told one interviewer a story about seeing it in Israel (I think), where the audience cheered so fiercely at “This is the face of Jewish vengeance” he was a little frightened. My first reaction to that story was, “Well, I suppose they’ve earned that.” It made the movie come off as a Jewish empowerment film (like the end of Death Proof as a female empowerment film) rather than an indictment of violence. And we sympathize with the heroes, don’t we? Even if Aldo is using the same violent methods as the Nazis, Shoshana’s plan seems righteous and justified, we’re rooting for Diane Kruger and her friends, and blowing away Hitler and his evil pals seems like an appropriate thing to enjoy. Carving a swastika into Waltz’s forehead for his devious plan seems appropriately gratifying within the narrative.

    I think I came away from the movie with a similar feeling as when I discovered that Fargo wasn’t actually based on true events. “It’s a movie; why not?” If your assessment is true, Nobody, then Tarantino is having his cake and eating it, because the movie functions on both levels.

  2. Nobody says:

    Tarantino told one interviewer a story about seeing it in Israel (I think), where the audience cheered so fiercely at “This is the face of Jewish vengeance” he was a little frightened.

    I remember that story. I didn’t see that statement until after I wrote my review, but I think it supports my view. So far, it is the only evidence I have that my interpretation was in fact Tarantino’s intention and not just my wishful thinking.

    I see no contradiction in it being both a victim-empowerment film and a critique of victim-empowerment-that-degrades-the-victim by encouraging his perpetuation in the cycle of violence, even though he was brought into it innocently in the first place.

    If your assessment is true, Nobody, then Tarantino is having his cake and eating it, because the movie functions on both levels.

    Absolutely. I think it does work on both levels, as I suggest 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”.

    For this very reason I think the film is far superior to Funny Games, which attempts only to disgust you without ever tempting you to enjoy the violence it (falsely) accuses you of enjoying. Haneke’s film therefore undermines its own critique while Tarantino’s is more successful in exemplifying the very thing it is critiquing.

    Both films have characters look the audience in the eye, but Tarantino — like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream — graciously gives his audience an excuse not to see the point if they don’t want to see it:

    If we shadows have offended,
    Think but this, and all is mended,
    That you have but slumber’d here
    While these visions did appear.
    And this weak and idle theme,
    No more yielding but a dream.

    After all, it’s “just” a movie, and a fantasy version of history at that.

    But for those who have eyes to see themselves in the bloodthirsty faces of the audience of Nation’s Pride, Tarantino offers the same opportunity for self-understanding that the director of the play within A Midsummer Night’s Dream offers by mangling the punctuation of his Prologue:

    All for your delight
    We are not here. That you should here repent you,
    The actors are at hand and by their show
    You shall know all that you are like to know.

    Tarantino seems to know his audience will see only what they want to see. On the surface, the film resembles a crowd pleaser (“Our true intent is all for your delight. We are not here that you should here repent you.”). But the alternative reading of the same text reveals the true purpose of the production (“All for your delight we are not here. That you should here repent you, the actors are at hand.”)

    The casting of Brad Pitt is the Hitchcockian trick to make the audience assume he is the hero and ought to be rooted for. His movie star sympathy is so strong that the audience is even tempted to override its cultural distaste for characters with explosives hidden underneath their clothes! Talk about cognitive dissonance!

  3. jeri says:

    Interesting ideas. I think my interpretation would change if that is actually what Tarantino intends. I think the parallels between the soldier in the bell tower picking off enemies and the two guys in the balcony shooting up the theater audience were what struck me the most regarding this.

    I guess I’ve heard him talk enough to make me doubt that he’s that deep of a filmmaker. I recently watched In the Mood for Love, and his introduction to that film was so self-indulgent and superficial. I definitely struggle over him – I like his movies, love his style, but wonder at his mentality.

  4. Nobody says:

    As a personality I really can’t stand Tarantino, but as the Coens repeatedly demonstrate, directors have a tendency to be intentionally superficial when discussing their own films in public so as not to put off popular audiences.

    In publicity interviews the Coen brothers always pretend they just make their movies without thinking about them very much which is manifestly false. I know Tarantino doesn’t seem capable of restraint when talking about anything, but Brad Pitt’s involvement in the film suggests to me that they do not consider it to be a facile revenge fantasy. I doubt Pitt would sign up for such a project.

  5. Wes says:

    Except here is the kicker for me, Tarantino wrote himself into the story, Tarantino IS Aldo.

    Wait for it, because I can explain.

    Both are from Tennessee. Both mention their pride in having some Native American heritage. Both have trouble with pronouncing foreign terms. Both misspelled “Basterds” in the same way (Tarantino’s handwritten title screen, and Aldo’s hand-carved emblem on his rifle). How he acts and talks, Aldo IS Tarantino.

    Tarantino is putting him in the movie on a particular side of the overall fight, HIS character actually has a stake in the fight.

    For me there is no doubt that the Nazi’s are the bad guys and that the Basterds are the heros.

    There is definitely a mirrored iconography within the movie, but I doubt that it ALL about trying to set up some kind of moral equivalency within the film.

    That would be too primitive, he is messing with audience expectations, and dissecting the power of propaganda by showcasing how ideas can be manipulated within a film, but he’s definitely set what he’s doing apart from what the Nazis were doing.

    His movie features actual humans, it leaves room for doubt, it showcases the dirtier aspects of it while playing with the same kind of imagery that the film within the film deals with, but I think he’s doing that because he’s setting his film apart from simplified propaganda.

    For me I saw the film as being about reclaiming something. Nazis dominate Europe using imagery to influence. The Basterds reclaim those things, both by reclaiming the iconography of what the Nazis did and repurposing it for their own goals.

    As for me though, I think that the violence and the revenge are both good things, and that Tarantino is messing with expectations but not trying to undermine the ideas.

    Also, Eli Roth and the Weinstein’s both saw it as the Ultimate Jewish revenge flick, and I think that Tarantino would have been a little more upfront with his friends about what the film is all about if they were interpreting it wrong.

    As opposed to being “upset” at the response, he seems thrilled with the response by Jews:

    He screams, “ARE YOU READY TO KILL SOME NAZIS!?!”, the only way it could have been more enthusiastic is if he’d been revving a chainsaw while he said it.

    Hardly a man who I think doesn’t want us to find the action of killing Nazis heroic. He has said time and time again that it’s an Adventurous “Men-on-a-mission”-movie, he’s messing with us, but he isn’t undermining us.

  6. Nobody says:

    Thanks for the thorough comment, Wes!

    Aldo’s closing line — “I think this might be my masterpiece” — further supports your theory that Tarantino “is” Lt. Raine.

    In fact, on one of the DVD’s interviews, Tarantino explicitly says he initially intended to play Aldo Raine himself until he thought of Brad Pitt for the role.

    However, the director’s intention to play the character strikes me as irrelevant to whether Aldo is the hero or not.

    If anything, Tarantino seems to enjoy taking the roles of villains (From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror spring to mind).

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