As Quentin Tarantino’s movies have always been heavily laden with allusions to the history of film, and as his new one, Inglourious Basterds, takes the director’s passion for self-referentiality to new heights, placing cinema itself in the center of the plot and portraying it as mankind’s metaphorical and literal salvation, it is perfectly fair to begin a review of Tarantino’s latest effort by discussing a different film first.
The masterful 1969 film Army of Shadows, directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, follows Philippe, a decent and brave civil engineer, as he becomes one of the leaders of the French resistance to the Nazis. In one of its first scenes, Philippe, portrayed by the Lino Ventura, is arrested by the Vichy police and driven to prison. The paddywagon makes a quick stop along the way, and an officer runs out to a nearby farmhouse and returns with some fresh produce. This moment passes quickly and without commentary, but it nonetheless reveals an entire world: the hungry officer pulling rank, the reluctant farmer forced to part with his precious goods, and Philippe, the man of principle, looking from the side in disgust at the whole tableau. All of the horrors and complexity of Vichy are there, in under a minute, without many words.
Inglourious Basterds begins in the same Vichy countryside, in the same year, 1941. It features the same stock characters—the officer, this time not a French policeman but a Nazi colonel, and the diffident farmer, in whose basement a Jewish family of five is hiding. Unlike Melville, however, Tarantino lets the scene stretch on for many long minutes. It’s a set piece, and it’s there to feature the Nazi officer, Hans Landa, nicknamed the Jew Hunter and played with elegance and joy by the Austrian actor Christoph Waltz.
Take away the shiny boots and crisp uniform, and Landa is every other memorable Tarantino character. His speech is the same torrent of brio that flows with hilarious eloquence only to shift suddenly into a menacing growl. Think Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. Think Michael Madsen in Reservoir Dogs. Think, in other words, of the quintessential film psychopath stripped of all refinement and meaning. More than an obedient servant of a specific ideology, Landa is bad for badness’s sake.
As soon as the lengthy vignette ends, another one begins. This one, too, features a charming, murderous, and vacuous movie trope: it is Brad Pitt’s lieutenant Aldo Raine, a sadistic and callous soldier leading a small gang of American-Jewish soldiers behind enemy lines on a mission to kill as many Nazis as possible. Each of his men, Raine insists, must bring him back the scalps of 100 Nazis, and most of the long sequence that follows focuses on the various methods of obtaining said scalps. We meet Raine’s men, known as the Basterds: there’s Donny Donowitz (Eli Roth), a baseball enthusiast who puts his Louisville Slugger to anatomically innovative use; Hugo Stiglitz (Til Schweiger), who never met a knife he didn’t like; and so on. The Basterds are given no back story, and there’s little that sets them apart from each other save for their favored method of murder. When we see them on screen, they are usually elbow-deep in Teutonic brain matter.
All this bloodletting leads the Basterds to Paris, where a gala screening of a new film is held in a small cinema, with the Nazi top brass, including the Führer himself, all in attendance. As they watch the film-within-a-film—a Riefenstahl-inspired propaganda piece titled A Nation’s Pride—the Germans get the kind of comeuppance that makes all the previous displays of torture and violence seem tame.
Still, with all the gunned-down, burned, and exploded Nazis scattered on the screen, it is the cinema itself that takes center stage. The theater is burnt down using highly flammable film reels. The movies kill Hitler, literally. Tarantino says so himself, in the film’s production notes: “I like that it’s the power of the cinema that fights the Nazis,” he quips. “But not just as a metaphor, as a literal reality.”
The sentence is indicative of both Tarantino’s failure as a filmmaker and Inglourious Basterds‘ failure as a film. It is a failure not only of imagination, but also of morality. The desire to turn film into a literal, blunt instrument of revenge drains it of the terrific power it has as a sharp and precise tool with which to cut through myopia, forgetfulness, ignorance, and denial. When in the hands of intelligent and sensitive directors, the results are shocking, evocative, world-changing. Consider Melville’s Army of Shadows, or Marcel Ophüls’s The Sorrow and the Pity, or Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. All three directors cover the same territorial and historical ground as Inglourious Basterds. But they use film not in order to set ablaze heaping mounds of flesh, but in order to try and understand the malice and complicity that led Europe to its benighted state. They do so because they realize that understanding—an act that requires us to learn and see evil not as a black monolith but as a gray composite of many small and often insufferable nuances—is our best claim to humanity, our last chance at grace.
It’s no coincidence that all three of those filmmakers are Jewish. Theirs is the Jewish way. Rather than burn film, they develop it into art. They are talmudic, offering endless interpretations to the fundamental question of our species, the question of our seemingly endless capacity for evil. Tarantino, however, is not interested in such trifles. He doesn’t see cinema as a way to look at reality, but—ever the child abandoned in front of the television set, ever the video-store geek—as an alternative to reality, a magical and Manichean world where we needn’t worry about the complexities of morality, where violence solves everything, and where the Third Reich is always just a film reel and a lit match away from cartoonish defeat.
Eerily, that is precisely the point that the film’s impressive marketing blitzkrieg tried to promote. The film, its producers reminded us again and again, is a fantasy, a fanciful flight of Jewish revenge. To that end, Tarantino called on Eli Roth—who is not only an actor but also a director of popular and particularly gory horror films—to helm A Nation’s Pride, the fake propaganda film whose premiere the Basterds crash.
“It was perfect that he had the Jewish guy do it,” Roth said in a recent interview, “because I knew that the more authentic [A Nation’s Pride] was, the more ridiculous it would make Hitler and Goebbels look.” But watch that film-within-a-film closely—a rapid-fire collection of bullets and anguish and explosions—and you realize it’s not that different from Inglourious Basterds. Both are empty cinematic spools of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Like A Nation’s Pride, Tarantino’s film is a bit of shallow propaganda, promoting not some totalitarian ideology but a worldview in which cool trumps consequence, nothing is real, and everything is permitted. If there’s any justice in the world, it’s a vision viewers everywhere will vehemently reject.