“Back to barbarism” is the theme of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Its misspelled title and cheesy homage to a 1970s grindhouse flick (by Enzo Castellari) all mock the notion of sophistication. Yet, it is truly unsophisticated. A barbaric jamboree, it uses the Jewish Holocaust as a pretext for gore, sadism and fanboy lore. This hipster version of what the Village Voice once called “a feel-good Holocaust movie” (deriding Schindler’s List) intends audiences to get off on killing, mayhem and hatred.
QT deliberately ignores Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s precedent-setting moral examination of Jewish (thus, global) conscience in Munich to capitalize on Jewish revenge. Genocide becomes a justification for QT’s usual comic brutality.
Holocaust deniers should love that Inglourious Basterds purports killing Adolf Hitler because its unreal fantasy not only flouts history but it vitiates the last half-century of post-Holocaust moral contemplation and historical reckoning. Hannah Arendt, Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel’s life’s work is not hip. Hip is watching a Jewish-American (played by Eli Roth) take a baseball bat to a Nazi’s head. “It’s the closest we get to going to the movies,” Brad Pitt approves in a lead role that amounts to a cameo.
Even Alain Resnais’ classic, unnerving concentration camp documentary Night and Fog pales next to the vibrant imaginings of this five-chapter instant-cult film—which offensively begins “Once Upon a Time…in Nazi Occupied France.” QT’s usual, facile time-shifts bring together Nazi officer Landa (Christoph Waltz); Jewish girl Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), who outruns his threats into her adulthood, and a gang of rogue GI’s (including Pitt and Roth) who hunt and scalp Nazis. It climaxes with a flaming showdown that turns a 1940s Parisian movie theater into an inferno.
Only the most gullible film geek will think QT is confirming cinema’s righteous social influence. The film is loaded with insincere postmodern mannerisms—heart-pounding music, an interjected clip from Hitchcock’s Sabotage, bizarrely “colorful” figures—that diminish WWII into various displays of eccentric egotism. QT references the obscure Aldo Ray, Yvette Mimieux, Bernhard Wicki and Emil Jannings. But has he ever appreciated Why We Fight, Let There Be Light, Stage Door Canteen—masterful films that treated WWII as a genuine, complex battle for mankind’s soul survival? There are no characters in Inglourious Basterds, just comic types—Nazi, Jew, WASP, all psychopaths—whose vicious games contribute to that simplistic Hollywood Manicheanism Pauline Kael long-ago ridiculed among film culture’s “Nazi junkies.”
When Landa compares Jews to rats, saying, “You don’t know why; you just don’t like them,” his cardboard villainy disregards the politics of ethnicity and social power—details QT always exploits, yet always glosses. Instead, his insipid fascination with pop culture as an incendiary medium feeds into the masochistic enjoyment of cruelty. QT’s shock tactics—from the use of David Bowie’s 1982 “Cat People” for a theme song to Pitt carving swastiskas into flesh—inhibit catharsis. It’s less meaningful than Indy Jones’ succinct “Nazis! I hate those guys.” Unlike Spielberg, QT takes the complexity out of war, racism, history and heroism. His love of movie trash doesn’t reveal deeper truth; it trivializes.
Look at how QT establishes scenes of personal conflict (in a farmhouse, a bar, a theater lobby) with long, talkative wind-ups. For a knowledgeable film-buff, he concentrates excessively on the overrated pleasures of time-wasting dialogue. (Could he ever accomplish an 80-minute thriller?) The slow-drag Inglourious Basterds finally contrasts Shoshanna’s nitrate specter with Col. Landa’s unmotivated yearning for Nantucket. At its best, it’s merely smart-ass.
Check the scene where Landa confronts Shoshanna years after he’s killed her family. Her loud, personal tension recalls Michael Corleone’s pivotal moment in The Godfather, but she’s not defined beyond her anguish. Her deliberately provocative union with Marcel (Jacky Ido), a Negro ex machina who helps Shoshanna carry out her plan to annihilate all of the Third Reich, is also undefined.
Marcel, who narrates the penultimate chapters, superfluously links this movie to QT’s beloved Blaxploitation genre—and to Spike Lee’s ludicrous WWII film, Miracle at St. Anna, where Nazis were also depicted as red-costumed cartoons. When history is minimized this way, movies are no longer a vanquishing truth, but garbage.
QT manipulates WWII horror into hip pornography—Jewish revenge looks just like the sadism in Eli Roth’s Hostel movie. Our political and moral responses are discombobulated.
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Runtime: 153 min.
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