Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

Monday, August 24, 2009

Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

by Tony Dayoub

"We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us, and the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us. Nazis ain't got no humanity! They need to be destroyed." - Lt. Aldo Raine

Happy Monday everyone. Hope you all had a great weekend. Let's get down to some way overdue business, and discuss the big movie this weekend, and perhaps this year, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it at noon on Friday, but held back on discussing it here for two reasons. One was my desire to contemplate the film a little longer than I usually do with other movies because it is complicated enough to merit such pondering. Notice I say complicated, not profound... more on that later. The second reason is because I plan on discussing it in toto, spoilers included. So anyone who hasn't seen it, please skip the rest of this post, go see it (requirement: you must see it in a theater), and come back once you have. Trust me, whether you end up liking the film or not, this is one flick that every movie lover should add to their lexicon.

Basterds is a World War II triptych with three protagonists: Nazi S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) a suave snake who has earned the nickname of "Jew-Hunter" for his ability to ferret out Jews hiding throughout occupied France; Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is a young French Jew who manages to escape Landa's clutches before he massacres her family; and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the commander of a band of Jewish soldiers, nicknamed "the Basterds" by the Germans for the brutal retribution they carry out against them, always leaving scalped Nazi corpses behind. Eventually each protagonist's storyline crosses paths in curious ways, even if they themselves don't always meet, until synchronicity strikes at the end of the film, with Shosanna exacting her revenge on the Nazi elite at a movie premiere in a theater she owns, which also happens to be where the Basterds have decided to wipe out Hitler and his goons.

Much has been made of Tarantino's highly fictitious postmodern Holocaust revisionism for, as some say, irresponsibly playing fast and loose with facts and casting the former victims as vengeance seeking "perpetrators" no better than their Nazi executioners. However, unlike the recent District 9, which tries to trick the viewer into passivity by deceiving him with the faux-documentary look at Apartheid, Tarantino clearly instructs us from the beginning to look at Basterds as an alternate history, a fantasy, by beginning the movie with the words, "Once Upon a Time... in Nazi-occupied France..." He continues to encourage a dissociation from any reality by rooting his story in the history of film versus the history of the world. For instance, most if not all of the soundtrack is made up of musical cues from other films (and anachronistic ones at that). David Bowie's theme from Cat People (1982) is heard as Shosanna "gets into character" before the climactic movie premiere. Italian Western themes are also ubiquitous. And I just about had a heart attack after I heard the "Bath Attack" theme from Sydney J. Furie's B-movie, The Entity (1981), when Shosanna is reunited with Landa midway through the film. Truth be told, I might feel differently about the "exploitation" of the subject if I had any Holocaust survivors in my family. But I don't. And from my perspective, it doesn't look or feel like Tarantino is being disrespectful of the historical facts.

Instead, by inverting the players in his drama, Tarantino is simply presenting this violent parable as a reframing of history to highlight the ease with which genocide occurred, calling into question whether the complicity and collaboration by many Germans can truly be justified by the loyalist fervor that was promoted by the Nazi propaganda machine. In this case, it is the audience that is complicit in the cathartic joy of vengeance, cheering the "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth) when he whacks one Nazi soldier with a baseball bat, delighting at Bridget Von Hammersmark's (Diane Kruger) rage-filled dispatch of a young soldier after a personal insult, and reveling in Shosanna's laughing visage onscreen and aflame as the theater burns with the Nazi High Command locked inside. Tarantino is creating an alternate propaganda here. This last image of the burning theater more than anything recalls the evil of the gas chambers (its setting accusing moviegoers, us, of participating in the same celebration of killing the Nazis did), and any pleasure we take in the film's climactic destruction of the Germans complicates our usually automatic dismissal of any justifications heard in the past by Nazi apologists who say they were swept up by the populist frenzy at the time since we, the viewers, are also guilty of the same.

It just may be that some critics are right in accusing Inglourious Basterds of luridly exploiting a horrid chapter in humanity's history. But at least it does so without hypocrisy.


James Hansen said...

But exploiting it for what? For fun? For bloody "torture porn" like pleasure? For Cinema? Amid all the crazy criticism over this, no one has really illustrated what "purpose" exploiting the war has. Is it both anti-semitic and anti-Nazi? Is it either? You have to have a purpose to exploit something and (for better or worse) this movie doesn't seem to be morally attacking anything or anyone. These questions, as you say, aren't even on the radar of the film (i.e. the movie is a fantasy), so there seems to be little reason to blow them up more than QT blows up that movie theater. I get the "unsaid means unrecognized" but this is a clear inversion of history and you can't invert something if you don't know what the thing you're flipping is. Holocaust denial, Rosenbaum? Sheesh.

I think Koresky has dealt with this better than anyone else thus far in his review on RS. He likes the movie more than me, but I agree with his comments on the useless, off base angry accusations that get thwarted just as quickly as people start asking them.

Here's Koresky's piece:

Chuck W said...

I dunno. I read the film less as exploitation pastiche, and more as a mediation on the ways various interlocking discourses compete and construct a linear and coherent history.

Basterds' historical cracked lens is more than just window-dressing. It's a metahistorical construct, a war movie pastiche that foregrounds its investigation into the ways our "objective history" is constructed by various forces. Just as the characters in the film attempt to rewrite history -- and the film is especially interested in the way cinema works as a mechanism that can narrativize history for a variety of purposes -- the film eschews staid verisimilitude in favor of something more wildly subjective (and intentionally inaccurate).

Yes, the film can be read as propagandistic revenge-porn, but no more so than Nation's Pride, the film-within-a-film featured in the third-act. That entire section can be read as wry commentary on the way we digest these sort of nationalistic historical narratives. Just as the Nazis applaud and cheer throughout the film, so too are we expected to do the same during the various scalping and mutilation scenes.

As you can tell, I really liked this film, and think it's Tarantino's best since Jackie Brown.

Chuck W said...

Oh, and Tony -- great review, man!

Ryan McNeil said...

Damn! There's a lot of insight going on here between this post and these comments.

I'm of the belief that there really isn't a message to be heard where this film is concerned. That the violence and brutality were Quentin being Quentin, this time with a war genre as his backdrop instead of blaxploitation, kung fu, or grindhouse.

Could just be me, but I don't know that the former video clerk ever wants to make a comment with his films...he just wants to honour the movies he grew up watching.

Loved it btw - QT's best since PULP FICTION.

Tony Dayoub said...

This movie is definitely rooted in the Nazi exploitation films of the seventies, maybe not going as far as Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, which fetishized much of the Nazi accoutrements and so forth. But it does exploit the Nazis in the same way Cavani's The Night Porter does, sexualizing and humanizing a subculture in a way that makes them easier to identify with than most of the film's detractors would feel comfortable with.

For what purpose James asks rhetorically? To set us up for the horror that takes place at the climax, a climax that as Glenn Kenny says in his blog, " both rousing AND unsettling..."

Much like he used Blaxploitation as a departure point for Jackie Brown, it's genius really, how Tarantino uses the Nazi exploitation films he grew up watching in the seventies as a departure point for a complicated penetration of our own psyches by making the inhuman Nazis and savage Basterds reflections of our own cruel selves.

So don't get me wrong, I don't use the word "exploitation" or "propaganda" to denigrate the film, but simply to put it in context.

I agree with Chuck that this is QT's best film since Jackie Brown.

Tony Dayoub said...

No offense, Mad Hatter, but I think you're dead wrong on QT's lack of depth in regards to this film. I was actually very surprised at your own surface reading of the film when I read it at your site this morning.

It would be impossible for a man of QT's age (or generation) to take on as loaded a subject as the Nazis without considering all the broader implications. So while I agree that his movie does entertain on one level, I think it's a big mistake to overlook all of the other subtext.

Chuck W said...

Oh, I agree, Tony. I never mistook the "exploitation" label as a reductive slam, but merely wanted to discuss the way the film can also be read as a sly investigation into the very nature of "exploitation narratives." I guess you could call it meta-exploitation, for lack of a better term. Like you, I don't think the film is being exploitative for superficial or puerile purposes, nor do I agree with some of the film's toughest critics that IB wallows unironically in celebratory revenge-fantasy amorality. The film exhibits a far more thoughtful and critical approach than many are giving it credit for.

Ryan McNeil said...

Don't know what to tell you Tony. I re-read what I wrote this morning, then re-read the reviews of my favorites sources for such things (pros - not bloggers).

I'm reading a lot of chatter about QT's technique, and achievement in storytelling...nary a mention of "message" or "subtext".

It would seem like many, including myself, don't see this film as one that is really trying to make a statement, other than "What would happen if...?"

I'm truly interested by many of the parallels you've drawn, and honestly feel a tad dim for not drawing some of them myself. But when it comes to a QT movie, whether its based on Nazis or not, I don't think he's ever given much more than a passing thought to the broader implications.

Oh well - we gotta agree to disagree sometime, right?

James Hansen said...

Just coming back here...glad to see these comments!

To clarify my initial comment in light of the exploitation remarks from Chuck and Tony...I was precisely asking that because I agree with Chuck's point about it not being so much an exploitation pastiche for those purposes. I know his base is rooted there, as you highlight very well Tony, but when I think "exploitation" I think of historical exploits rather than for narrative thrill.

Glenn is on the mark...rousing and unsettling...but I think thats a product of sharp writing and filmmaking. Not so much the "dangerous" exploitation charges. I certainly didn't think you meant it as a slam, its clearly where IB is rooted, but I don't think it can be "called" exploitation (in the negative way Rosenbaum is) when it purposefully toys with both sides so broadly. Its a really interesting (and very good) film.

James Hansen said...

That said...I've still got plenty of reservations. :-)

Kevin J. Olson said...


The subtext is definitely there. However, I think right now I am more interested in talking about what's happening on the screen. Which is weird for me...because I am not a Formalist by any means (I adore I feel conflicted here), but right now there is just SO much going on in the blogosphere about the subtexts of the film and the "did he/didn't he" in regards to that subtext that I think a lot of what makes this a film worth discussing is that it's so damn good and brilliantly executed from an aesthetic standpoint.

It also contains one of the most tense scenes I've ever seen in a movie (the tavern scene).

So...I love your thoughts, here. You bring up all of the stuff I have loved engaging in on other quality blogs such as your own, but I think when I'm ready to write about it tomorrow all I want to write about is what happened on screen.

It's only been about 10 hours since I've seen it...and I already want to see it again. I can't shake this movie.

Anyway...sorry...rant over, hehe.

Jake said...

I'm reviving this as I'm just now reading your blog, so forgive me for potentially reopening an argument using comments that I'm sure some of the writers have forgotten. Tarantino, in contrast to the irritating persona known as "QT" who just gabs endlessly about B-movies, actually knows how to read into those movies as well as the so-called "high art" of cinema. I agree with Chuck's reading of the film, that Tarantino is subtly (yeah, I said it) forcing us to consider not only the physical and emotional effects of the drive for vengeance but of our lingering bloodlust concerning the Nazis.

I can't decide whether I think this or The Hurt Locker is the best of the year, but this is certainly Tarantino's best since Jackie Brown, a combination of the mature genre adaptation of that film and the freewheeling, yet also subtextual, rewards of Pulp Fiction.

Tony Dayoub said...

Yes Jake, definitely Tarantino's best since Jackie Brown, and in my opinion, one of the best films of the last ten years.