***WARNING: REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. IT MAY BE BEST TO SEE THE MOVIE PRIOR TO READING THE REVIEW***
Long before Inglourious Basterds arrived in theaters last week, my husband dubbed it “Jewsploitation.” The much talked about trailer (linked through the picture below) prompted his assessment that the film would take the revenge concept of seventies grindhouse movies and apply it to World War II with typical Quentin Tarantino panache. Seeing the film over the weekend, my husband’s predictions were confirmed, and while both of us enjoyed the film overall, we couldn’t help but note the film’s various ideological and stylistic flaws upon exiting the theater.
But before launching into my critique, a brief plot summary: the film consists of five interrelated parts that basically revolve around two stories. The first story focuses on Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a Jewish woman who narrowly escaped death by German Colonel Hans Landa (the stunning Christoph Waltz), called “The Jew Hunter” for his assignment to round up the remaining Jews in France. Fleeing to Paris and disguised as the owner of a movie house years later, Shoshanna meets a German war hero/movie star that leads to Joseph Goebbels deciding to use her theater for the premiere of his latest film. These circumstances lead to a chance encounter with Colonel Landa, who does not recognize Shoshanna. Meanwhile, American Leiutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a group of Jewish American soldiers and German descenters called the Basterds in a Nazi scalping mission. His crew learns of the Paris premiere at Shoshanna’s theater and decides to take advantage of the event while Shoshanna plans her own kind of revenge.
In many ways, Inglourious Basterds represents the most conceptually sophisticated film directed by Tarantino, combining multiple genres (spaghetti western, revenge narrative, “man on a mission”) with the war film. As a result, it dispenses with any pretense that the film accurately portrays historical events by conforming to generic conventions rather than actual occurences. It’s a brilliant take on a genre so often caught up in the historical specificity and importance of the project.
Inglourious Basterds’ intertextuality also raises questions about whether older films in the war genre really do conform to reality. Language, for example, plays a key role in the film, with characters speaking German, French, English, and Italian, as opposed to signifying these languages through accented English. Tarantino discussed Inglourious Basterds’ use of language on a recent episode of NPR’s Morning Edition. His point–that the convention of English standing in for all other languages in American war films neglects the important roll that dialect played in the war zone–is aptly demonstrated in several scenes in which language enables or undermines a character’s efforts to pass for the enemy. Hence, Tarantino challenges the conventions of previous war films by deploying realism and fantasy in interesting ways throughout the film.
And speaking of fantasy, I drooled over the metafictive qualities of the film. Film itself plays an important role in the story of Inglourious Basterds with the climactic scenes taking place at the Paris premiere of the German film. As a result, film becomes a weapon of war both literally and figuratively. Though I posted a spoiler warning for this review, I will resist going into further detail about the film’s climax out of the possibility that someone read on in spite of my suggestion. The final scenes are just too pleasurable to watch for the first time for me to ruin them. (For more on the subject, check out Terry Gross’ interview of Quentin Tarantino from yesterday’s Fresh Air).
But while the film certainly contains its pleasures, certain excesses in the writing weigh down what could be a far more entertaining film. Tarantino’s verbose dialog may flesh out the characters and offer up humorous and suspenseful moments, but it also draws out certain scenes to the point of making them drag. The third and fourth sections in particular feel cumbersome in spite of some great acting and plotting. Such mundane banter served Tarantino well in Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, but Tarantino never quite adequately balances action and dialog in Inglourious Basterds (I would make the same assessment about his previous effort, Death Proof). I expect that years down the road, Inglourious Basterds will be admired more than loved.
But the most problematic element for me proved to be ideological more than stylistic. While I understand Tarantino’s film to be a self-aware, cartoonish fantasy, I could not help but find its philosophy of war troubling. In Aldo Raine’s first monologue, he bluntly states “Nazi ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hatin’, mass murderin’ maniac and they need to be dee-stroyed.” While such a statement makes for an unambiguous action adventure, it fails to acknowledge that many Germans tacitly participated in the Holocaust, lacking little if any political investment in Nazism. This complicity does not justify the actions of those who perpetuated Hitler’s agenda actively or passively, but it does raise uncomfortable questions about the potential in any person to allow such injustices to occur. Aldo Raine’s ethic of justifiable cruelty denies such a possibility, buying into a comforting narrative of American exceptionalism and German specificity. In the current political mileau where debates on torturing of detainees still rage, this kind of rhetoric proves especially vexing.
Many will respond to my concerns by saying “it’s all in good fun,” and while it my be true that Inglourious Basterds dispenses with realism, its fantasy of unfettered revenge reveal much about the United States’ collective psyche.