***This post contains spoilers.***
I want to be clear off the top: I like Quentin Tarantino. I love the Kill Bill movies. Reservoir Dogs is fantastic. Pulp Fiction is obviously a masterpiece. I thought Once Upon a Time in Hollywood easily justified its epic length and languid pace. Hell, I even enjoyed that two-part episode of CSI he directed.
My favorite Tarantino movie is actually Death Proof. And no, I’m not just saying that to be quirky and different. That movie is a lot of fun and I love the cast, and it’s sneakily his most feminist film.
So let it be known that I am not coming from the perspective of a hater when I say I have never particularly cared for Tarantino’s seventh film as a director, Inglourious Basterds. Something about it has never sat right with me. It’s taken me a long time to pin it down, but I finally figured out what it was.
Inglourious Basterds is a movie predicated on the gratifying value of revenge––not justice, but revenge. While it offers some cheap thrills, the pleasure or revenge is never more than surface deep, and once it fades, it leaves you feeling empty afterward, and even a little bit sullied.
For me, the problem started with the trailer:
It’s a hell of a trailer. It’s very exciting, filled with terrific shots and Brad Pitt’s bravura delivery of Tarantino’s excellent writing. Still, despite the obvious cinematic thrills on offer, I felt a sinking feeling while watching it. Inglorious Basterds was already known to be a film about an all-Jewish guerilla unit operating in Nazi-occupied Europe. The more I heard Brad Pitt’s Lieutenant Aldo Raine preach about mutilating people and taking scalps, the more antsy I felt.
As a Jewish person, I have grown up with the history of the Holocaust. I have experienced knowing that an unfathomable crime was perpetrated against my people, and we were powerless to stop it. A lot of emotions come with that knowledge. It makes you feel impotent and weak. It makes you angry. It makes you long for the ability to reach back into the past to simply strike back against your people’s oppressors.
However, as I got older, I realized the world was a complicated place and that true justice went beyond simple retaliation. Taking an eye for an eye feels good, but it is a superficial gratification. It passes quickly, and––usually––doesn’t solve anything, nor does it provide closure long-term.
Watching this trailer, I wondered: For as exciting as the movie was guaranteed to be, would it bring me any joy to watch fellow Jews behaving like savages? Would the momentary thrill of seeing us striking back against the Nazis justify our falling to their level, behaving just like them? Is it worth it to get revenge if this is what we become?
When Inglourious Basterds finally came out, I saw it in theaters, and it is, for the most part, a fantastic movie. Like most Tarantino films, the dialogue is superb and memorable. Scenes are shot with enormous skill and creativity. Characters are richly developed and portrayed by a stellar cast, most notably Colonel Hans Landa, as played by Cristoph Waltz, perhaps the most memorable screen villain of this century.
At first, I was able to enjoy the film on its own terms. The brutality promised by the trailer was not quite so evident as I’d feared. Yes, a German soldier gets pummeled by a baseball bat, but the only real torture in that scene was Eli Roth’s acting (swish).
One thing I went back and forth on was the calling card of the titular “Basterds.” They disfigure the captured German soldiers they opt not to kill by carving swastikas into their foreheads. This is an action with a purpose. It goes beyond the mere surface-level enjoyment of hurting your enemy: it permanently marks these Nazis as Nazis. It prevents them from ever again hiding what they are and returning to normal life in the guise of a regular, “good” person.
The act is particularly poignant at the end of the film, when the most odious Nazi of all, “the Jew Hunter,” Col. Landa, is so branded. Prior to this moment, he had been operating on the expectation that by freeing the Basterds and switching sides at the last minute––now that he realized which side was sure to win––all of his sins would be washed clean.
Landa’s smug assumption that he could simply remove his Nazi armband and rejoin society calls to mind the real-life of Wernher von Braun, and hundreds of other Nazi scientists whose atrocities were overlooked by the US Government, simply because they were useful. The work of Lt. Raine and his associate, “Little Man” Utivich (played by BJ Novak), ensured that this was not possible.
Nonetheless, I could not help but consider the fact that there was a notorious group in history that permanently marked the people they considered socially unworthy, so as to make them forever identifiable. Did I want to take pleasure in seeing Americans, American Jews, behaving in the exact same way?
All of this, however, is a mere prologue to my biggest issue with the film, which is its dramatic conclusion.
Inglorious Basterds ends, rather unexpectedly, with the assassination of Adolph Hitler by members of the titular squad, at the same time that a Jewish refugee, Shosanna Dreyfus, played by Melanie Laurant, traps and kills a huge group of the Nazi high command at her movie theater.
Once again, I found myself unable to accept the satisfaction the movie was offering me with these moments. The problem, I think, is the fact that they are counter-factual, they aren’t real. Beyond mere fiction, which can be enjoyed on its own terms, Inglorious Basterds is alternate history. Therefore, the fact that I knew what I was watching never actually happened limited the enjoyment for me. It made the entire experience nothing more than a thought exercise.
Sure, it’s cool seeing a Jewish woman take laughing revenge against Nazi high society, but the knowledge that this never truly took place renders the whole thing fundamentally masturbatory.
Yes, I could just watch the movie with the perspective of “wouldn’t it be cool if this had happened?” But the fact that it didn’t is always there at the back of my mind. What’s more, the movie takes place in 1944, the Holocaust has been in full swing for years already and the historical end of the war is only months away. If I were going to truly indulge in a counterfactual, why not imagine killing Hitler in 1929?
Don’t get me wrong, I like alternate history (What’s up Harry Turtledove?) but those types of stories usually rest on genuine historical divergences. What if the South won the Civil War? What if the Roman Empire never fell? What if JFK never died? This scenario is more like: “What if the Red Sox won the World Series in five games instead of six?”
Reflecting on this also got me thinking about a few of Tarantino’s other films. Django Unchained presents a similar concept, only substituting the historical injustice of the Holocaust with that of American slavery. Once again, a fictitious scenario is invented in order to provide the opportunity to cheer on acts of vengeance that never actually took place.
The fact that Tarantino is neither Black nor Jewish should not be an impediment to his creating art about either of these historical events, but I question the wisdom of using such agonizing experiences as a backdrop and motivator for scenes of tawdry, rah-rah action thrill-seeking.
That, especially when there are true to life historical instances of heroics that could have been portrayed, instead of the crass revenge scenarios invented whole cloth for these movies. Instead of imagining a fake Hitler assassination, why not present a real instance of Jews fighting back during the Warsaw Ghetto uprising? Rather than Django’s fictitious mission, why not tell the story of Harriet Tubman? There’s the opportunity for plenty of action there.
Even Kill Bill can be examined through this lens: the Bride’s motivation for two movies worth of bloody vengeance is rooted in being stalked and attacked by an abusive boyfriend, repeatedly raped, and having her child unfairly taken from her, all experiences that speak particularly to women. Thanks, Quentin.
Of course, I am receptive to the argument that it is better for Tarantino to give completely fictional events the benefit of his stylistic gloss, rather than subject true events to the Tarantino treatment. Is that what motivated the decision-making in these cases? If so, fair enough.
Alright, sue me, I have one more problem with the movie. It’s this scene:
Why does Landa murder Bridget von Hammersmark here? Is he angry that she betrayed the Reich? He betrays the Reich himself in the very next scene. Does he think he’s improving his bargaining power by removing her from the board, leaving him the only person for Lt. Raine to deal with for a way out? Why not keep her alive to use as a bargaining chip? Did he snap? He’s been perfectly composed for the entire film and remains so for the rest of it. I just can’t make heads or tails of his motivation here, and it drives me crazy.
In the end, there’s a lot I like about Inglourious Basterds. The bar scene alone could be an Oscar-worthy short film. However, I just can’t bring myself to get fully immersed in its premise. Individual scenes are among the best Tarantino has ever produced, but they don’t cohere into a consistent whole that I enjoy. Between the brutality, the false history, and my distaste for revenge as a source of thrills, the movie ultimately leaves me feeling alienated. I want to enjoy it, but it holds me at an arm’s length.
That’s okay, though. I’ll just go watch Death Proof again.