Am I the only one who thinks critics have overlooked a valid and exciting interpretation of Quentin Tarantino's new film Inglourious Basterds?
Let me explain what I mean...
(Warning: Major spoilers ahead.)
You see, I was enthralled by this movie, which rewrites WWII history to include both a group of Nazi-scalping American soldiers (called the Basterds) and a Jewish cinema owner who avenges her family's murder by burning her movie house while every important SS officer (including Hitler) is trapped inside.
Walking out of the theater, I was buzzing: Like every Tarantino film, Inglourious Basterds delivers zippy entertainment, masterful filmmaking, and intelligent dialogue. This one, however, injects the fun with larger questions about revenge and national character. For me, the extra layer makes this Tarantino's best movie.
Imagine my surprise, then, when none of the reviews I read discussed Basterds' social critique. Critics like Roger Ebert and Mick Lasalle hint at this perspective, but they mostly praise Tarantino's style and Christoph Waltz's glorious performance as a Nazi commander. Even more surprising, a large number of critics specifically slam Tarantino for making a mindless revenge picture. In his review for Slate.com, for instance, Dana Stevens writes, "If Inglorious Basterds were about something more than the cinematic thrill of watching Nazis suffer, it could have been a revelation."
Maybe I'm alone here, but I say the film is about something more.
To begin, I'd argue that Tarantino has consciously chosen to make a movie about hating Nazis because Nazis are the only people that most of the Western world agrees to hate. And since most of us concur that their actions were evil, Hitler and the Nazis often become abstracted into general symbols for dark deeds. I mean, it seems like every time one politician wants to belittle another, or a student wants to complain about a teacher, or hell, a fry cook wants to bash her shift manager, they all resort to calling their enemy a "Nazi" or "Mrs. Hitler" or some such thing.
That's not to say that the Holocaust itself is an abstraction. But when we call our math teachers Nazis, we aren't suggesting they want to lock up our Jewish classmates. We're just reaching for our culture's most universal synonym for "Evil Demon." Right or wrong, the Third Reich often functions as a metaphor in our daily discourse.
I think Tarantino knows that. The way I see it, if Inglourous Basterds isn't about Nazis, then it can't explore its larger theme.
And that theme is how revenge cripples societies.
More than just "kosher porn" or a cheap excuse to show some bad guys getting whacked, Inglourious Basterds is an unsettling examination of how culturally acceptable hatred creates a terrifying mob mentality.
That idea is most pronounced in the climactic "burning cinema" scene.
There's no question that Tarantino wants us to cheer when Shoshanna Dreyfuss and her lover Marcel burn down her movie theater, trapping Hitler and his fellow Nazis inside. There's no question that we're meant to whoop when the Basterds inside the flaming theater shoot SS officers like sitting ducks.
But this is not an uncomplicated victory. For one thing, everyone inside the cinema (with the possible exception of Marcel) dies. Even Shoshanna, who is clearly planning to escape, gets shot by the SS Officer she thought she killed. Her revenge plot works, but it swallows her whole.
And doesn't it swallow us as well? Consider this: Just before the Nazis get burned, we see them clapping and cheering as they watch a movie about a German sniper who kills vulnerable American soldiers. It's framed as a horrible event. Yet a few moments later, the film puts us in the position of those Nazi moviegoers. If we feel excited to see Hitler and Goebells get assassinated by Basterds, or if we cheer as the Germans on the cinema floor get shot from the balcony, then we are behaving just like the Nazis as they watch their propaganda film.
That's not a pleasant thing to think about, but that's the point. Why should it be easy to cheer for another person's death, no matter how wicked they are? When we celebrate death, who have we become?
To make those questions truly resonant, the film must depict Nazis getting killed. The audience has to be able to hate the villains so much (and so easily) that it can cheer when they die. We have to be so thirsty for revenge that we can feel ourselves applauding for our movie just like Nazis applaud for theirs.
A film that creates that kind of parallel is not just a collection of genre homages and fight scenes. It's a sophisticated insight into how the hive mind affects us all, no matter which side we're on.
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