Razed Expectations: Inglourious Basterds Review

More than any of his work since Pulp Fiction, QT’s Inglourious Basterds is a magic-eye illusion — an honest-to-God film wrapped in a helluva movie.  So as not to ruin it (it’s a schooner), know now that this review contains SPOILERS throughout; read it AFTER the movie.

In the first place, Basterds is a blast, a popcorn-inhaling, hyperreal revenge flick, a multi-genre pastiche that ‘torture porn’ director Eli Roth called “Jewish porn”, in which the Nazis get a pharmacology lab’s worth of their own medicine.  Some critics see this movie and take issue with it. They feel it trivializes the Holocaust and/or offends moral reason with images of the Holocaust’s victims committing atrocities including mutilation and incineration.

These critics stare at the magic eye illusion and see Basterds as another in a long line of unserious, feel-good American action movies with troubling implications for The Youth of America. More Alfred Hitchcock than Michael Bay, perhaps. An exceptionally well-made and particularly audacious exercise, perhaps. But in the end just an exercise, tasteless exploitation.  They find no deeper thematic meaning — the 3-D layers do not pop out at them — and so the film’s most sensational imagery feels cheap and irresponsible.

But this jagged 2-D collage of a popcorn flick is distinctly, literally European in conception and execution. Structurally, it is five extended episodes, shot in Europe, in which an ensemble of authentic, engaging Europeans become trapped in treacherous dialogues, in constantly shifting languages, on themes of identity and communication. Occasionally, this reflective milieu is interrupted by a parading band of absurd American soldiers. In the end, nearly every character is dead in tragic circumstances, and the plot of both history and the movie is lost in a cathartic, horrifying binge of mindless Hollywood violence. This Frankenstein’s monster of spare cinematic parts has become self-aware. It’s alive!

In Pulp Fiction, Jules’ final monologue is the thematic rug that ties the movie’s room together, revealing a thematic cohesion and redemptive spirit that mark it as something more than “just” an endlessly clever and overwhelmingly entertaining crime picture.  The key to the magic-eye picture in Inglourious Basterds is also found in the final chapter, but not explicated verbally as in the director’s previous magnum opus.  Rather, the film dances merrily beyond “flashy WWII exploitation” with a two-step of clever juxtapositions.

1) Many critics have commented on the film’s final line, in which Lt. Aldo Raine, leader of the American characters, takes in his latest work of Nazi mutilation and declares “this just might be my masterpiece.” But I haven’t seen anybody point out that this not just Tarantino having fun: it directly echoes Hitler’s final line in the film, in which he takes in Goebbels’ latest work of cinematic propaganda and suggests it may be his best film yet.

2) Immediately before the massacre in the cinema, leading up to Hitler’s last words to Goebbels, we repeatedly see shots of the audience in the theater, cheering a parade of images of Allies being slaughtered (footage shot by Eli Roth). This directly foreshadows and satirizes the eruption of violent audience wish-fulfillment the audience watching the film is about to experience, and I haven’t yet found a critic to point out that this whole scenario is directly lifted from Joe Dante’s Gremlins, in which the villainous creatures go to the movies and watch Snow White in a grotesque reflection of the Gremlins theatrical audience. With the exception of the film’s primary antagonist, Spike (or, in IB, Hans Landa), all the villains burn to death in the exploding cinema, symbolically consumed by their own consumerism (or, in IB, their nationalistic fervor).

And so both the climax and the final line of Inglourious Basterds are foreshadowed by and juxtaposed with the German reaction to Nation’s Pride, the Nazi propaganda film within the Jewish vengeance film.  In celebrating film’s alchemy-like transformative powers, Tarantino also acknowledges its ephemeral and reductive nature.

Once the revenge element is understood as one thematic concern and not the film’s defining paradigm, it is easy enough to see that the senselessness of war and violence is conveyed quite thoroughly in every chapter of the movie. And while the Nazis provide classic villains as a group, many individual Germans are given humanizing characteristics. And to express the hollowness of victory in vengeance, the moral perversity of this reductio ad absurdum in which we celebrate Jews incinerating Germans, nearly every character has their illusory dreams crushed with bitter irony, deserved or not.

To wit:  Archie Hicox, upright soldier and film critic, dead because passing for German is harder than it looks in the movies.  The glamorous Bridget Von Hammersmark, death sentence by Cinderella fairy tale. Hans Landa, amoral genius detective, on the verge of his greatest triumph and about to transform identities, branded forever with evidence of his old identity and his complicity with evil.

Au revoir, Shosanna

Au revoir, Shosanna

Finally, Shosanna Dreyfus, trapped in a false identity, sacrifices her life, transcends herself through cinema to become the ghostly spirit of Jewish vengeance, last seen in the film’s most haunting and meaningful image, as a phantasmagoria of light and laughter, slowly losing definition, projected against smoke from a terrible cleansing fire.

There is a Jean-Luc Godard quote that is, I think, relevant to this film beyond the general fact that Tarantino is largely influenced by the French auteur.

“The cinema is not an art which films life: the cinema is something between art and life. Unlike painting and literature, the cinema both gives to life and takes from it, and I try to render this concept in my films. Literature and painting both exist as art from the very start; the cinema doesn’t.”

Tarantino earns his self-congratulatory final line, because Inglourious Basterds does in fact render this concept. Its detractors may dislike those things which it takes from life, but in its overabundance of character, incident, image, word, mood, and theme, it is easily one of the most generous films I have seen in years.

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