Saturday, September 12, 2009

"Inglourious Basterds" (2009, Tarantino)

A lot more than words gets misspelled in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy, which has Adolf Hitler and all of his key cronies killed – in what must count as the most immoral cinematic set-piece since Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934). (It’s no less exciting to watch, too.) The movie is so funny and clever it gives you a moral sugar rush: you relish in the massacre of the Nazis the same way they were just seen relishing in a war propaganda flick – and yet you don’t see how much you end up reminding of them. The camera looks down at the boiling crowd of burning bodies and makes you a cheering accomplice – Tarantino ducks all moral quandaries by conveniently removing the only two characters we cared for from the burning theater. It’s a new level of moral trickery, even more dubious than the sadistic finale of The Dirty Dozen (1967) – here, no one stands any chance of escaping or fighting back.

What Tarantino displays in this film is the same quality we fear so much in its arch-villain, Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the multilingual smoothtalker who shifts allegiances as swiftly as he does accents. He’s nicknamed the Jew Hunter, but he’s not even truly anti-Semitic: he represents not so much evil, but skill itself – skill that may be put to any use and serve any given end: including all the deadliest ones. Ironically, Landa does not serve as an example of what’s wrong with this movie – to the contrary. By removing all human quality from him, and having Landa perform his murderous ballet throughout, the movie becomes almost abstract in its treatment of characters. And that’s Tarantino’s theme: his major contribution to movie art lies in recognizing characters’ right to subvert the story being told about themselves. Note how slowly the plot of Inglourious Basterds develops: each step takes Tarantino 20 minutes to make. Before a plot point is being realized, the characters take all the time in the world to talk, to joke, to swagger through a scene without any respect for its dramatic needs. I find it startling that filmmaker as slow and celebratory as Tarantino enjoys so great a success among the action-flick fans (in that respect, he’s the greatest disciple of Sergio Leone there ever was).

Morally, the movie is unacceptable. Cinematically, it’s brilliant, personal and extremely idiosyncratic filmmaking that I welcome and salute. Just like in real life: some bastards you cannot help but love.


  1. Tarantino removes the only characters we cared about from the theater? Huh? The only character in the film who's remotely sympathetic, who really got to me, is Shosanna. Yeah, Landa and Aldo are interesting characters, but I don't think anyone watching the film "cares" for them.

    I also think there's a level of criticism and ambiguity to the theater scene that prevents it from being "morally unacceptable" -- QT is calling attention to our impulse to cheer, making us question our responses to such onscreen violence, especially since not too long before that scene he had shown Hitler himself cackling maniacally while watching, yes, onscreen violence.

  2. There's a difference between Shosanna and the crowd burning up in the theater: Shosanna dies as an active agent in a duel of sorts, and is not a part of the whirling, squealing crowd trapped down below and looked down upon by the camera, with no attempts at individualization whatsoever (apart from showing the key Nazi figures, of course).

    I agree that there's some ambiguity to the finale, but I'm afraid very few viewers would make the connection between Hitler's cackling and their own. I think for most of the audience Hitler's reaction shots during the screening of THE NATION'S PRIDE serve as yet another evidence of his evil nature, and thus count as yet another reason to blow up the whole place. I think that, had Tarantino really been after moral ambiguity, he should have made us *truly* uncomfortable by allowing us to sympathize with at least one member of the audience, and then showing us him or her dying in flames. Maybe that would have made us stop mid-cheer, so to speak.

  3. I just saw the flick and promptly run to read your entry. Two remarks stand out: “A lot more than words gets misspelled “ - right on. I wish you riffed more on that. (A critic has a license to be ruthless!)

    Also the comparison between Landa’s manipulativeness and coldness and the film itself. If such connection was indeed executed all the way we would be talking major achievement. Yet, somehow I don’t feel it is.

  4. Paweł, here's an interesting take on it: