Inglourious Basterds: A review

Spoiler warning.

There is something highly significant about the 20th century that has been often alluded to, but seldom characterized appropriately.  It saw two world wars, the atom bomb, the cold war, and a variety of counterculture movements.  Most discussions of culture tend to begin with the second item.  I propose a different interpretation.  It begins with recognition of the culture and ideology of statism and war.

Let there be no doubt here that Tarantino has presented a masterpiece.  I do not intend to discuss cinematography, although despite being untrained in the subject I found myself noting the clean, obssessively ordered nature of the film.  Nor will I go to any great lengths to dissect the historical plausibility of the movie.  Instead I will start with the characters and work from there.

This film is not really a WWII film.  The setting is borrowed from history, but everything else runs its own course.  This is good.  In fact, it leads to a treatment of the subject matter that not many other films can claim to approach.  Historical films carry a sort of taint.  Roger Ebert described this by stating that the audience knows what’s going to happen even when the characters don’t.  In truth it is worse.  Destiny makes human beings one-dimensional.  It becomes much more transparent that we are watching a representation.  More importantly, it is a representation of something final.  By representing things in this way, they become a caricature; they obfuscate the situation as it actually was, by diminishing the sense of agency on the part of the characters.  Every moral dilemma gains a lifeless, platonic nature; it no longer really belongs to the people we are watching.  Instead it is hypostasized as an external, definite article.

Despite the tendency of Tarantino to make his characters larger than life, the one thing they are not in this movie is lifeless.  He accomplishes this not just by giving history an “alternate ending”, but also through a variety of subtle and extremely effective lines and conversations throughout the course of the film.  This movie is brilliant enough that even the antagonists are humanized.  In fact I would characterize this as its greatest strength, and the true touch of greatness which makes the film.  I will give every example that comes to mind.

Consider the very beginning of the film, when we are acquainted with Col. Hans Landa.  He engages in a variety of pleasantries of a very plainly fascistic nature, to be sure.  What truly establishes him, however, is when he starts into a discussion of the unofficial title he has been given by the french.  “Why should the hangman be ashamed of his title?” he ponders.  “I do not mind mine.  I have earned it”.  This makes the audience aware that there is someone behind the wheel.  The villain does not exist simply to fulfill the requirement of the plot.  He is an actual man, responsible for his own actions.

Consider as well Pvt Fredrick Zoller, who we are first introduced to when he propositions Shosanna Dreyfus.  Here is a character who declares quite boldly “There is more to me than just the uniform”.  Of course he is correct.  Even if one has no familiarity with philosophy, they ought to recognize the statement as correct.  The film establishes it.  Not of course by having him pursue Shosanna.  Without the uniform this would be trite; with the uniform it is somewhat jarring, to be sure.  Nor should this dissonance be understood to imply his humanity strictly by showing his similarity to other young boys in their attempts to romance women.  What makes it significant is that through the course of his actions, we come to recognize that he needn’t be in the uniform.  The whole of his character would fit just as easily in any other walk of life.  He is a human being and as such has the potential to live differently, to be something other than a Nazi, which for reasons both unknown and tragic he has simply failed to make use of.

This is the great strength of the film.  Most representations of evil are trite and play out with a kind of rigid and linear predictability.  Characters are evil.  In their totality they are subsumed by the requirements of the plot.  Here we have something astounding.  Characters are human, and they do evil.  It is this fundamental revelation of humanity which gives the film its impact.  However given the subject matter, we can analyze even further what sort of impact it is.

There must have been something in the air during the time period.  The pursuit of personal meaning through war and statist ideology is as old as man, but they reached an apex during WWII.  It is of course a ridiculous phenomenon, but then what is bad faith if not dishonest?  Anyways, here we had millions of people in uniform, ready to die for their country, their race, and whatever other psychoses could be sold to them.  Given the subject matter it is impossible to avoid a reduction of the antagonists in the film.  However when Tarantino makes the Nazi’s into the required sort of collective, faceless evil he does it with a level of finess I have never seen before.  Again I will use examples to explain.

Sgt. Wilhelm is celebrating the birth of his son when a shootout in a tavern leaves only him and a hostage alive.

Or more tellingly, there are the antics of Lt. Aldo Raine.  When he leaves survivors from his massacres, he asks them a question.  “What are you going to do with that uniform?”  Invariably they answer as they believe they should.  “I will take it off.  I will burn it.”  At this point Raine expresses disappointment.  If there’s one thing he doesn’t like, he explains, it’s a Nazi that can escape from the burden of what he was as a Nazi.  So Raine brands them, so that they may always be reminded of their pasts.  This sentiment touches at the heart of a lust for catharsis that has gone unsatisfied for over a half century.  At the end of the war, several million murderers, thieves, rapists, accomplices to genocide, took off their uniforms and went home.  For officers there was at least in some measure something that might be called recompense.  Holding every criminal responsible was simply unfeasible, however.

That’s really what Inglourious Basterds is about.  Responsibility.  It might even be called an exploitation film, to the degree it runs with the concept.  Just the same, as it fleshes out the pretenses for this catharsis in a fictionalized, uniquely cinematic capacity, it humanizes both the evil commited and the men who commited it.  It has to, otherwise responsibility would be a non-sequitor and the film would be merely pornographic.

The film ends with Raine and Landa.  Being the cunningly devious man that he is, Landa played the opportunist and made a deal to end the war in exchange for some property and the complete forgiveness of his sins.  He even goes so far as to include military commendations in his list of demands; he wants to escape the taint of his actions as a Nazi.  Raine cannot allow this, so he presents the same speech he has to all previous Nazi survivors.  Then he brands the man.  The last words of the movie are “I think this is your best work yet”.  Touche.

Some critics have complained that the ending feels incomplete.  Of course it does.  This goes hand in hand with being responsible for yourself.  No matter what you make of your life, merely having the ability to make it means facing the void.  We are all responsible for the past, just as we are responsible for our present and future.  Sometimes because appearences are deceptive, we forget that it’s all part of the same thing.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on September 2, 2009.

9 Responses to “Inglourious Basterds: A review”

  1. Great analysis of the film, thanks! I went to see it last week and don’t entirely know what to make of it. There was so much good stuff going on, but it felt a little disjointed to me. I suspect that it is one of those films that requires multiple viewings.

    My own, less eloquent, thoughts on the film are here: http://poursomegravyonme.co.uk/2009/09/02/inglourious-basterds-crayzy-muuvie/

  2. MORE SPOILERS

    I have to completely disagree. I believe that the film makes some attempts at depth, but ends up being the compliment to the Nazi propaganda film it is mocking. It’s just a bunch of people killing Nazis and pretending at their humanity as when compassion is finally shown to the recently shot Pvt Fredrick Zoller it is met with a hidden gun. This movie was nothing but pure hatred and vengeance, attempting at realistic themes without the guts to hold itself to realistic action, violence or even historical accuracies. I was offended by it, though my half Jewish fiance loved it because, “They were killing Nazis.”

  3. To be clear, I’m offended by all revisionist history, and generally find Tarantino’s work vapid examples of cinematography masterbation. I’m not a Nazi sympathizer or anything like that.

  4. I can understand that interpretation of the scene you’ve described, but I don’t feel that’s the appropriate context. She had two distinct opportunities. One was to try and reason with him. The other was to ensure that he was dead. She waffled because she recognized his humanity, but in doing so she forgot that evil is fundamentally a human choice. I believe you’re establishing a false dichotomy between humanity and immorality, when in reality the second is a member of the first.

    You’re right when you say the movie is about vengeance. By avoiding realism it becomes about vengeance in the abstract rather than strictly WWII, however it borrows the iconography of WWII films in order to use the pre-existing sentiment of the audience. Understandably this can come across as a fairly cheap tactic. In the course of being about vengeance though, it is forced to establish the villains as being responsible for their actions in order to make their comeuppance meaningful.

    I don’t of course condone torture or brutality, or feel that vengeance is a particularly healthy motivation. I do believe the film is of artistic significance and presents uniquely human characters.

  5. Do you remember at the very end of the scene, right before he shoots her a final time? He takes a while to do so, doesn’t he? Now this could be interpreted a few ways. He could be struggling against his body, with the decision already made. Or, he could be struggling with the decision itself. I prefer to think the second.

  6. Oh I’m not disagreeing that the characters are beautifully deep and realistic. I also love the dialogue. It’s not bad in any sense of story telling technique. The problems I have almost entirely arise from the moment the cigarette falls onto the films. There at the climax, all the work to overcome the mindlessly graphic yet simultaneously unrealistic violence of Tarantino. The film had just finished mocking Hitler for his fascination with a propaganda film that was just killing allied troop after allied troop. Then it becomes that thing that it was just mocking (And not ironically either. If it had been ironically doing so then it would not have characturized Hitler as being so infantile.)

    The last 20 minutes could have been changed and it would have been good historical fiction, but somebody wanted to kill Hitler, and Tarantino had neither the class nor the skill to do it in such a way that did not make the film much less than it could have otherwise been.

  7. I see your point. I also felt many of the scenes you describe felt out of place, although I hadn’t thought of them in quite those terms. However, the final scene felt appropriate to me. To a degree, the ending scenes are what make the conclusion seem as if it is not final. The protagonists get their revenge and yet nothing of what we’ve been shown up to that point is really resolved. The principle villain lives (not Hitler, but Landa), in spite of all his actions, and all but two of the protagonists are dead.

    Hitler was a prop, in much the same sense as the historical setting was. The real drama in the film is elsewhere. And why shouldn’t the protagonists be similar to the villains, after all? One of the principle undercurrents of the film is rage. I think you’re treating this too much like a morality play. Really the only moral premise the movie advances is accountability, and while it does so in an over the top, exceedingly cruel fashion, I just don’t feel this harms the film to the extent that you do.

  8. Well I personally see the primary roles of art to be documentation (conveying history) and didactics (conveying morals and knowledge) So a historically inaccurate film with dubious morality isn’t going to appeal to me. It’s not so much a matter of quality, it’s just that for me it represents a school of art that I find disdainful to begin with. So don’t take my opinions to heart or anything, they’re very much stepped in my own personal value system.

  9. That seems reasonable. I also remember now that I need to read The Fountainhead.

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