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.