This weekend saw the release of the latest addition to Quentin Tarantino's corpus: Inglourious Basterds.
Much can be foregone in the review if you're familiar with Tarantino's work: Reservoir Dogs, the Kill Bill films, or perhaps his best known film, Pulp Fiction. (The latter is actually on the AFI's '100 Years... 100 Movies' list--it's low, but it's on there.) Probably the first association made when speaking of a Quentin Tarantino film will be "violence". I don't mean violence a la The Godfather... or even violence like that in Saving Private Ryan. Tarantino's violence is hard to describe. "Gratuitous" doesn't quite capture it. The violence in his films is very purposefully extravagent. You should expect going in to be immersed in this really mortifying world.
Inglourious Basterds is certainly no exception to this--in fact I have to say no that if you have any qualms about watching film violence, never see this movie. The violence enters is abruptly and unexpectedly with a man being scalped, and it is not really subdued in what follows.
The violence is so striking, in fact, that it has been able to shape all of my reflections coming out of the theater.
Why? What message is he trying to send? When you use violence the way that Tarantino does, you must be prepared to answer these questions.
The Basterds are a small group of Jewish-American soldiers who have been unleashed on the German forces in France, where they are striking terror in the Nazi military with their brutality and sadism. Early in the film Brad Pitt's character happily tells a Nazi prisoner (soon to be executed): "Quite frankly, watching Donny beat Nazis to death is the closest we ever get to going to the movies."
Tarantino certainly understands the depravity of much of modern cinema. One of the glories of Pulp Fiction is its portrayal of the senselessness of this... but I believe the message of Inglorious Basterds is more layered, and more particular than a simply critique of our current gore-drenched movie culture.
The movie's finale revolves around a film premiere in German-occupied France, where the latest piece of Nazi propaganda is being screened. This Nazi film showcases the exploits of a brave Nazi sniper who is single-handedly able to kill nearly 300 Allied troops in three days. This film is extremely violent itself, for the 1940s, and it is received with disturbing glee by the audience (especially by Hitler himself).
Minutes later we, the viewers, find ourselves presented with a similar spectacle, as Allied soldiers fire mercilessly into a crowd of Nazis from a sniper's 'bird's nest' of their own.
The question you are meant to ask yourself: how does your reception of this horror compare to the Nazis' reception of their own film? To Hitler's reception of it?
Once you begin to ask these question, you are only faced with more.
How do we think about the Nazis in our culture? Is that itself really humane? Is watching--and enjoying--a film about killing Nazis any less detestable than those atrocities we accuse them of?
These questions probe deeper than a critique of our film industry. They go to the heart of our existence as social creatures. Tarantino accuses the gleeful observer of, with Brad Pitt and the Basterds, carving a swastika into the foreheads our the Germans in our memories, refusing to let them remove that uniform, and then reveling in the punishment that they deserve... surely they deserve?
This movie is about more than the film industry, it is about revenge.
What are we doing when we take revenge--as the Basterds on the ground or as the viewers vicariously--to ourselves as humans or to our enemies as humans? When we wish to 'settle the score' with Nazis, with terrorists, with whomever, what, in that moment, do we have in common with Tarantino's sadistic Adolf Hitler?
Some of the performances in Basterds are really exceptional. Christoph Waltz is excellent as the Nazi "Jew Hunter" Col. Landa--really stealing the show from the opening scene. I thought, contra some other reviewers whom I've seen, that Brad Pitt did an excellent job as well. He's over-the-top American, and that's precisely what you need for that role. He also offers the funniest performance--unfortunately B. J. Novak isn't given much space to stretch his legs, otherwise perhaps Pitt would have had competition there.
On the whole, though, it's hard to call the film enjoyable. It's certainly disturbing. It's also though-provoking... but while I enjoy having my mind provoked, I appreciate it when the provocation is dealt by a lighter hand. And I'm being pretty liberal here: most people will not enjoy the film at all (I'd like to think, at any rate). I can't overstate the sheer gruesomeness of it. If you are already a fan of Tarantino, you will probably enjoy it thoroughly without a hitch. Most people, however, ought to sit this one out. If you'd like to think deeply about how we characterize Nazis, perhaps you'd be better off watching Tom Cruise's recent Valkyrie, the only other film in the last few years which I'm aware of that give a human face to the Nazi uniform, and this in a much more direct (and by means of a much less graphic) way.