As Cool As A Fruitstand

…and maybe as strange. A movie blog.

Inglourious Basterds

Posted by Hedwig on August 24, 2009

Who’d have thought: Tarantino does it again, “it” being making a quintessential Tarantino movie, talky, slow, yet exhilarating too, at moments horrifying, and veering wildly from authentic dread to over-the-top absurdism. In one word, it’s awesome – though admittedly not unproblematic.

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The main objection to the film, from venerable people like Daniel Mendelsohn at Newsweek and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is that the film is morally despicable, “akin to holocaust denial”. I can see the point… or could if it was unambiguous that Tarantino wanted us to root for the Basterds and cheer their vicious tactics, wanted us to glory in this revenge story, the third in a row in his recent filmography (counting Kill Billas one film). However, I’m not sure his intention is so crude. In fact, I think the case can be made that in all three films, there are significant question marks* as to whether the revenge is satisfactory and/or fully deserved. (warning: here be SPOILERS)


There are two examples I’d like to discuss from Inglourious Basterds. The first is the one most often cited: the first Nazi we see the Basterds kill is presented as a brave, loyal, patriotic man, unflinching even faced with the scare tactics the Basterds employ. He’s rather humorless, and Aldo Raine**’s verbal dexterity puts him at an advantage, but his jokes also make him seem callous. We start to feel for this Sgt. Werner Rachtman – and then Tarantino rather bluntly shifts our sympathies to the Basterds again by letting the Sgt. call Raine’s men his “Jew Dogs”. He exonerates us, in a way, by reminding us that while this man is loyal, it is to a truly despicable ideology. But it’s the bare minimum he offers us, letting us wonder whether it’s enough. It would have been easy to make this man a caricature of an evil nazi, but he doesn’t.

The second – and in my opinion more potent – example is the treatment of Fredrick Zoller. He is introduced to us in uniform (and thus, in the universe of this movie, as de facto evil), but the rest of his presentation is as innocent as can be. He’s good-looking, soft-spoken (in French, no less), and what’s more: he’s a cinephile. Granted, he likes Pabst and Riefenstahl, but even Tarantino has copped (or, depending on your interpretation, provocatively declared) to admire these two directors. Also in what follows, he is consequently presented as a nice guy: he fits into the stereotype of the “good nazi”, and we are even inclined to ask ourselves why Shosanna/Emmanuelle doesn’t just give him a chance. After all, he might have killed 200+ men – but he can’t watch himself re-enacting it on screen, so he has a tortured conscience. Right?

In short, Tarantino makes sure our sympathies lie with the guy… and then, once again, showing off how perfectly he controls audience perception, he takes that sympathy away in less than ten seconds: the nice guy turns out to be a “nice guy”, i.e. one who feels entitled to the girl if he just puts in enough effort.

The brilliant thing here is that the reveal is not unearned. Zoller displayed somewhat stalkerish behavior before, after all. He more or less had Shosanna abducted, too- though he acts like he doesn’t know about it, whether he ordered it or not is never explicitly addressed. Goebbels even complains about his entitlement! What Tarantino really shows here is that he doesn’t just know a lot about WWII flicks and German propaganda and spaghetti westerns. He knows rom-coms, too, and he understands how they’ve brainwashed us into considering all these traits – in movies, at least (cf. Twilight) – as sort of romantic. A sign of infatuation, and not of potential danger.

What these examples show above all is that Tarantino knows exactly what he wants the audience to feel, and likes to play with our expectations and sympathies. The claims that the movie turns the Jews into Nazis would only be legitimate if QT did everything in his power to make all nazis worthy of having their head banged in, of being scalped or having a swastika carved into their forehead. Some nazis (most notable the “real” ones), are cartoonishly evil, yes. But the total picture is quite a bit more complicated: after all, even the ultimately evil one is designed to be an audience favorite (I’ve already lost count of how often BF has said “It’s a bingo!” since friday night), and while it’s gratifying to see him get his comeuppance, it’s almost disappointingly easy.

As for the final act of revenge, the blaze of glory that illustrates the literal power of film, it’s climatic – but not cathartic. Not even for the instigator: her giant head cackles and oversees the death and destruction, but it’s only an image. The lady in red herself is already dead, making her revenge on those hundreds of nameless nazis seem not only over-the-top, but futile.

There’s so much to talk about in this movie. I barely touched on how (in)glorious the character Hans Landa is, or on the myriad ways in which Tarantino has made this a movie that’s first and foremost about movies. I fear I’ve been too analytical, when the pleasures of this film are also very simple and visceral, so playful too (the Hugo Stiglitz flashback comes to mind). I haven’t talked about how brilliantly and meticulously the suspense is built up in the opening (clearly Leone-inspired) scene, and in the cellar scene later. I need to mention so much: the revelation that Kruger CAN, in fact, act, or that Michael Fassbender is delicious as Archie Hicox (Mike Myers as his commanding officer? not so much). Even in the context of my argument, I haven’t even mentioned poor Willy. But this piece is already too long, and much of it has already been written about extensively, so I’ll point you instead to the Auteurs for a great many links, and urge you to check out Craig’s great piece here. And who knows… I might just write another thousand words tomorrow – the film’s worth it.

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*not to digress, here are some: in Kill Bill, Vernita Green’s killing is triumphant only for a few seconds, until we see her daughter standing there. Furthermore, Bill, who’s been a looming, threatening presence throughout the first movie, a true antagonist, is then presented as a charismatic and sympathetic character in pt. 2, and his death is without joy, in fact, it’s almost a tragedy. In Death Proof, Stuntman Mike is a much less ambiguous villain, and his distress after the tables are turned is more pathetic than endearing. The glee of the final girls is absolutely infectious, but the overkill they employ does make me cringe a little every time, and I think that’s intentional.

**what a performance by Pitt, by the by, he’s pretty impressive in comedy mode, when he can let loose his movie star charisma instead of playing dour and serious (I’m looking at you, Benjamin Button).

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5 Responses to “Inglourious Basterds”

  1. It’s funny you worry about being too analytical. I have the same concern. It seems like the last thing you should bring to a Tarantino movie in some ways because the poppy, candy coated surfaces of his movies dont automatically beg to be analyzed. They almost seem to defy it or make the very idea laughable, but every scene is filled with such interesting ambiguities and contradictions that you can’t resist.

    I think there’s also a temptation to want to “justify” a passion for the man’s films to people who think of them as trifles.

    Luckily, I found that in the moment of the movie I was just in full on receiving mode and enjoying the hell out of it. It was only afterward when I was trying to describe it that analysis kicked in.

    Still, I’m not sure I conveyed how much fun this movie is.

    I wish too I’d spent more time talking about Shosanna and Zoller as you did here, but one could pick a moment or a thread and just talk all day about it.

    Also, I kind of love how it was a whole family affair for you with the dad and BF involved. I’m a hermit and saw it alone, but I like the idea of the shared experience and the communal enjoyment factor.

    Inglourious Basterds: It’s a bingo!

  2. Lanchka said

    Awesome, I’ve been waiting for this review!!! I was just talking with Erik about the movie (he saw it on Tuesday) and saying that I reallyreallyreally had to know what you had to say on the matter. You know, I appreciate movies a lot more when I read about them on your blog, even though I don’t usually like them 😉

  3. Kaj said

    I saw this movie with the daughter of a holocaust survivor, and she did experience it as cathartic, and she even implied that Tarantino gave her more of a sense of relief than she could do herself during ten years of telling stories of the holocaust on the stage. So coming back from my vacation (in the Catskills, by the way, holiday center for American Orthodox Jews. Not that my companion that night is one) to the Netherlands and reading about “holocaust denial” accusations just now was a big surprise to me.

    Of course, this was only one family member of a survivor, but for me it sort of negates this “holocaust denial” theory – or at least robs it of any power.

    How is killing all the top nazi’s, plus the murderer of one’s family, over the top, even if it cost one’s own life? I don’t think either Shoshanna or Marcel ever planned on getting out in time… Futile? Knowing what they’ve done and would do for two more years?

    Apart from that tidbid, a great piece of blogging, I have to say.

  4. […] Inglourious Basterds […]

  5. VChre said

    I think this movie was great. Not the best movie of QT but a very good one. I hope the next movie will be a bit different.

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