Quentin Tarantino has finally made a movie that means something, though I think that’s happened entirely by accident.
And it’s not a happy one.
Inglourious Basterds is Tarantino’s Holocaust comedy, and if that sounds gauche, it’s nothing compared to the film itself. The movie may take place in the midst of World War II, before the true horrors of the Nazi agenda were revealed to the world, but our knowledge of the Third Reich’s ultimate evil underlines the entire picture. That knowledge is Tarantino’s license to kill. He uses Jewish vengeance as fuel for brutal comedy, as if he thought that last year’s Defiance didn’t have enough jokes.
The story, written by Tarantino and slightly inspired by the 1978 Italian import The Inglorious Bastards, follows a guerrilla team of American soldiers who operate behind enemy lines in occupied France, picking off Nazis and taking their scalps. The group’s leader, you see, is Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a Tennessean who claims to have Native-American blood. His men – all Jewish-American soldiers with a more vested interest than most in the conflict – are happy to oblige his peculiar requirements.
Charged with rooting out these Basterds, as they’ve come to be known, is Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Pitt is amusing –Tarantino, like the Coen brothers, understands his true value is as a comedian – but the moments with Waltz are those that have the Tarantino touch. With circular and seemingly inconsequential dialogue, Waltz keeps us mesmerized in each of his lengthy scenes, most of which involve the questioning of a squirming suspect. Like a satanic Lt. Columbo, he subtly lets his targets know from the start that he holds the truth, then verbally tiptoes around them until they crack.
Consider the lengthy, indulgent opening scene, which nevertheless doesn’t waste a second. Landa visits a French farm to ask the stoic owner what he knows about a nearby Jewish family who has gone missing. Through careful framing, deliberate pauses and precise drops of dialogue, Tarantino masterfully escalates a seemingly benign situation into one of excruciating tension.
From the start of his career, Tarantino’s abundant filmmaking talent has been simultaneously invigorating and frustrating. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction were dazzling cinematic concoctions – Pulp Fiction was a game-changer for the art form – yet both were also hollow and empty. The Kill Bill opus and his contribution to Grindhouse were even worse – stylistic delights but black holes for the soul. Only Jackie Brown, his least discussed yet best picture, offered any sense of gravity.
There is gravity to Inglourious Basterds, yet I’m not sure Tarantino realizes it. The picture questions the very existence of such a thing as righteous vengeance, but its maker either doesn’t understand that or he doesn’t care. I’m not sure which option is worse.
The movie’s climax takes place in a Parisian theater that has been chosen for the premiere of the latest film from Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. Because Hitler himself will be in attendance along with Goebbels and other top members of the Third Reich, the event becomes a target for the Basterds.
Once Goebbels’ movie begins to unspool, Inglorious Basterds attains a new level of moral dizziness, even for a Tarantino film. Titled Nation’s Pride, the movie is a dramatic recreation of the exploits of a German sniper who took out some 300 Allied soldiers during a standoff in Italy. From the many excerpts we see, Nation’s Pride consists almost entirely of shots of the Nazi sniper squeezing the trigger and some faceless Allied soldier being shot – a death that elicits an approving roar from the Third Reich members in the theater.
Herein lies the crucial question of Inglourious Basterds. Is Nation’s Pride merely a spoof of the crudeness of Nazi propaganda films or is it meant to implicate us, the Inglourious Basterds audience? In other words, does Tarantino realize that the Nazis’ cheers are the equivalent of what actual theatergoers are doing during his own film? (I can’t believe I was in the only theater that greeted various beatings, stabbings and shootings of Nazi characters with hoots of delight.)
If Tarantino is blind to all of this, then he’s even shallower than I thought. If he understands it, then all of the comic killings in his film are hypocritical attempts to condemn his own, bloodthirsty audience – similar to what director Michael Haneke attempted with his detestable Funny Games films.
Haneke is an intellectual provocateur; he knows what he’s doing. For all his innate cinematic sensibility, I don’t think Tarantino operates on that level. He’s impish, instinctual and – I’m beginning to think – hopelessly immature. Increasingly, his movies strike me as exceptionally impressive kiddie sparklers. True, those work best in darkness, but that doesn’t mean they should be brought into a mausoleum.