When I hear people say, “I don’t know whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess,” I usually think, “That’s because you’re an idiot.” I know it’s mean. That’s why I just think it instead of saying it…so, give me some credit. But this time, I have to admit I don’t know whether it’s a masterpiece or a mess.
I like Quentin Tarantino a lot, even though I don’t think he’s in the same league at all with some of the filmmakers he imitates. This comes down to the fact that Tarantino, unlike Martin Scorsese or David Lynch, usually has nothing to say. However, his movies are more fun than just about anything else you can see in a theater these days. What he does, he does superbly. A new Tarantino film is a big event if only for that reason.
So, what to make of Inglourious Basterds? Is it just supposed to be fun, or is it a more ambitious kind of Tarantino film? How does it succeed or fail at whatever it is that it’s trying to do?
On the level of pure fun, I’m in the camp that calls IB a smashing success. Don’t listen to anyone who says Brad Pitt is out of his depth in this role. He gives his character, Lt. Aldo Raine, a single-minded quality that’s both laughable and strangely lovable. When he tells a German officer that he’s in the “killin’ Nazi bidness,” he’s treating us to his own version of light-hearted understatement. Killing Nazis is much more than a business with him, and more than a passion…it’s closer to a religion.
The German officer Col. Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, is far more well-rounded. He’s fluent in at least four languages and appreciates a fine pastry. At least, he appreciates it right up until he buries his cigarette in it--for all his sophistication, he sees French culture as a status symbol to be taken up, consumed, and discarded. He doesn’t see it as something to be lived in or informed with. This is in contrast to Shosanna/Emanuelle, for whom culture is everything. “I’m French…we respect directors,” she says to the German soldier Frederick Zoller, who is his own nation’s Audie Murphy. This holds true even though she hates Zoller and his army.
Brad Pitt’s Lt. Raine stands in contrast to both the German and French characters. For him, culture is neither sacred nor swanky. It’s something he’s just not aware of at all. His virtue as a practical American is to be concerned only with justice. This is what sets him apart him from the hauteur of the French and the vulgarity of the Germans. He’s the quintessential American, a man in the bidness of doing what’s right—nothing more, nothing less.
So far, so good. The film works well on the same level as those to which it pays homage, that is, as a rousing good vs. evil story. America represents integration and freedom from prejudice, as we see from the example of the Jewish/German/Austrian Basterds. We have the pure-hearted Joes rescuing the cheese-eating surrender monkeys from the Hun pigs…all of which comports well with our own American mythology. But Tarantino complicates matters even at this level. The Americans and British bungle the operation at every turn, and the French aren’t so hapless after all; it’s only because of Emmanuelle’s craftiness (and Landa’s selfishness) that the operation succeeds.
Not only is the effectiveness of the Americans a complicated question, but so is the nobility of their actions. This is the second level at which the film invites analysis. Starting with the first chapter (called “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France,” a reference to the director Sergio Leone of spaghetti Western fame), the story features an ongoing cowboys vs. Indians motif. The traditional American mythology is inverted here, with the cowboys (Nazis) as the bad guys and the Indians (Jews) as the good guys. In the first chapter, Col. Landa is framed in the French family’s doorway like John Wayne in a visual quotation from The Searchers. This is bold, to say the least…but it makes sense. John Wayne’s character in The Searchers is somewhat like Col. Landa. He would happily rid the world of Native Americans, just like Landa is trying to rid the world of Jews. And, in fact, Hitler studied the white settlers’ extermination of the natives, admired it, and based some of his own policies upon it.
The motif continues in the following chapters, with the Basterds resembling Indians in several ways. Aldo, their leader, is referred to as The Apache. Other team members have descriptive names with a Native American ring to them, such as “Bear Jew” and “Little Man.” And, of course, they ambush and scalp their Nazi enemies. By drawing this parallel between occupied France and the American Old West, Tarantino shows the struggle against fascism as part of a larger struggle against intolerance and oppression in general. And he suggests that the USA is on the wrong side of the struggle sometimes. The picture of the righteous American is therefore more ambiguous than it appears on the surface. On the first level, which is the straightforward narrative level, the film is a celebration of American heroism. On the second, intertextual level, it’s a critique of American racism. It should also be noted that the Basterds’ tactics are indeed inglorious. They gladly partake of the same cruelty and dishonor as their enemies.
This leads us to the film’s third level, the self-referential level, where IB refers not to other works in similar genres but rather to itself. The significant parallel here is between IB and Nation’s Pride, the German propaganda film whose premiere is the setting for the finale. The similarity between us and the Nazi audience is apparent—we’re cheering the deaths of Germans just as they’re cheering the deaths of Americans. What’s less obvious is the relationship between the two films and the two audiences’ reasons for applauding them. As we’ve seen, IB resembles the extremely sincere war movies we all grew up with. Pitt’s character embodies the simplistic mindset that lets us, as Americans, see ourselves as the heroes in every situation. At the same time, the character is also a parody and the film a critique. The most obvious inference is that “our” movies are propaganda, too, and that we shouldn’t be too quick to judge other cultures when they appear to have blind spots. A nice sentiment, true as far as it goes, and one that many Hollywood filmmakers would be satisfied with.
But Tarantino isn’t satisfied with it. Judgment does come at the end of Inglourious Basterds…and it comes with a vengeance. Emmanuelle literally sets fire to the fantasy world of the Nazis’ propaganda and exposes them to a reality that’s entirely different. In the end, IB doesn’t see all the myths as equivalent. It does believe in a reality that exists behind the myth, and it shows the truth to be more powerful than propaganda.
Or does it? Because the interesting thing about Inglourious Basterds is this. The very moment when the Nazis’ fantasy world is annihilated by reality is the same moment when the film departs from reality altogether and enters a fantasy world of its own. When the theater explodes in flames, killing Hitler and his inner circle, all pretense of truth is abandoned. We’re in a world of pure vengeful catharsis now, a world grounded not in real history but in WWII-era comic books like Captain America…in other words, a world of propaganda. And there’s nothing in this finale that invites us to second-guess our emotions. IB embraces unreality at this point, in the name of fighting fascism, apparently without any qualms.
This is the tried and true philosophy of art as assault, which dates back to Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou. There, the concept of a filmic attack on the audience is expressed with the image of a razor slicing through an eyeball. It’s the essential insight of Marxian critical theory since the Frankfurt School, which sees film as a means of direct revolutionary action. The Marxian project is to subvert film’s role as a transmitter of fascist (i.e., bourgeois/capitalist/patriarchal) ideology. It does this not by refuting the dominant ideology on its own terms; the Frankfurt School recognized that the masses were not directly susceptible to an anti-bourgeois agenda. Instead, it undermines the ideology by undermining the very idea of art as a medium of communication in the usual sense. In this view, film is not a means of communication, but rather a means of manipulation and control. It’s a form of propaganda.
The climax of IB thus moves beyond mere critique of American culture based on general moral principles and into subversion of culture itself based on specifically revolutionary principles. As such, it has much in common with the Nazis’ view of culture as something subordinate to political goals. In this view, it’s questionable whether the film’s portrayal of the Basterds’ atrocities is really a critique. The unironic good vs. evil story and the self-referential subversive agenda merge, frightfully, into the same thing. Instead of cheering the Americans because they’re Americans or because they represent “good” (how naive, that), a more sophisticated audience can cheer them because they represent an enlightened, anti-bourgeois agenda. But in the end, what we’re cheering is a raw assertion of power.
It’s anyone’s guess how aware Tarantino is of these overtones. I may be over-analyzing, but there’s no doubt that academic theorists will relish this aspect of the film. The disturbing thing, to me, is that Inglourious Basterds ultimately minimizes the struggle of real, bourgeois people under a fascist regime and turns it into the story of one power-based ideology competing against another. In a sense, that was what WWII was about—the struggle between communism and fascism. But in the real history of the world we live in, there are “glorious” ideals, one of which is the value of truth as opposed to propaganda. To some extent Americans have represented those ideals, however imperfectly. A film that criticizes our imperfections should always be welcome. A film that crosses the line from criticism to cultural pessimism in the Marxian fashion, perhaps less so.