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Film Review: Inglourious Basterds

Note: Random Dangling Mystery delves into the archives today for a older movie review. An oldie, but a goodie.)

Inglourious Basterds (2009; Directed by Quentin Tarantino)

Inglourious Basterds is not a movie about killin’ Nazis. Or, rather, it’s not only about killin’ Nazis. Many Nazis do dutifully get killed, though not nearly as many as the ad  campaigns may have lead you to believe. Anyone going into this movie expecting 152 minutes of unabashed brutalization of villainous Nazis is going to be sorely disappointed, and will be left wondering why they just spent a dozen bucks to sit and watch a movie about people sitting around and talking about movies.inglourious_basterds_poster

Inglourious Basterds is above all a movie about the movies. All of Quentin Tarantino’s movies are about the movies, but none quite as overtly and potently so as this one. This is a film about the way that films pull us together and how they tear us apart, how they seem to evaporate away as we watch them and yet far outlive us all. It’s about the utility and the futility of film, the hope and the fear of film, the way it repulses us and moves us, embraces us and betrays us, the way we need film but it can quite happily exist without us.

Tarantino’s particular interest in Nazis here is entirely mediated through film, and perhaps ours is, too. Six decades as film’s ultimate villains have knocked our historical memory of Nazism askew. It’s secular blasphemy to even suggest this, but fiction has perhaps made Nazi Germany’s evils more grand and symbolic than they initially were (and they were quite terribly grand to begin with). Certainly, the spectre of one of history’s worst genocides hangs always behind every Nazi movie character, a malignant shadow that darkens their every gesture; the Holocaust need not be mentioned (and Tarantino wisely leaves it so) to invest our jack-booted villains with inherent menace.

But what makes Nazis so eerily adept as film villains is that Nazism was constantly inventing itself through its own symbolism, a symbolism purpose-built for the filmic form. Joseph Goebbels well understood the power of film, but he may not have fathomed the way that the post-war cinema of Germany’s vanquishers would undo many times over what the cinema of the Third Reich was created to do. The propagandistic iconography of the Nazis, the cruel and precise geometry of power that animates Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and many of the other products of the Nazi-run UFA, were all too easily turned against them and their repellent, murderous ideology after their defeat. True-life details of the Reich’s horrors may fade, become muddied, be lost in historical distance, but generations on, filmgoers can still understand the dark import of a swastika armband or the sneering symmetry of a SS officer, Luger in hand. We see this, and we know what to think: “These people are Nazis; these people suck. Time to boo.”

With the most linear and direct narrative of his career, Tarantino destroys the Nazis with cinema one more time, all the while musing almost aloud about the very act he’s portraying. The plot that consumes the final two “chapters” (the use of chapter titles is one Tarantino mainstay that has grown a bit stale) is to lock 350 Nazis (including enough important party brass to end the war) in a theatre and burn it to the ground by igniting the joint’s whole supply of film stock (which, in the ’40s, was highly flammable). That’s symbolism even a junior-high English student couldn’t miss. But even before this apocalyptic climax, the movies inject themselves repeatedly into the narrative, often changing its course as they do so. Everyone seems to have some stake in the cinema: the characters we meet are projectionists, producers, film critics, movie stars, cinema fans; even when they aren’t involved in film, circumstances require them to pretend that they are. And in the end, with a scant few exceptions, the cinema kills them all off.

Am I… a stop-motion puppet? A man in a monkey suit? Andy Serkis?

As intimated, this film is chocked full of people sitting around talking to each other. As if we needed any further proof of Tarantino’s skill with dialogue, Inglourious Basterds provides ample further justification. We are never bored, even when the discussion veers into German film history (and it often does). It helps to have such a strong mix of actors doing the talking, too, although all other performers in the film pale in comparison to the amazing Christoph Waltz. He owns every scene he’s in as self-described SS “detective” Colonel Hans Landa, a multilingual charmer who sniffs out deceit like a bloodhound and takes an absurd amount of delight in the whole effort, in himself, or in both. In his first brief scene with the Southern-accented Brad Pitt near the end of the film, the movie star (who is no slouch at the craft himself) can do little but stare at his eloquent German opponent, mouth agape, stupefied. Of course, Landa gets his final comeuppance (though it perhaps isn’t what we expect). But up to that point, the day is repeatedly, deliciously his.

I came in to the film fretting about the possibility of another Tarantino revenge fantasy, all cool badassery shot with style but without much underlying insight. But I came away realizing that, for this film at least, QT is really less interested in the revenge side of that term than he is in the fantasy. I’ve long struggled with the inside-joke nature of Tarantino’s oeuvre, the referential code that sparks knowing grins from viewers but never flicks on a lightbulb. But perhaps all of the hip excesses of his career to this point have been building to this, to the moment when Tarantino finally locates the light switch. Some might call Inglourious Basterds a love letter to the power of the cinema, and it certainly is that. But it’s a warning about that power as well, as cautionary as it is celebratory. The movies can fulfill our fantasies (even the dark and violent ones), but they will always exact a price. And before they are slaughtered in a moviehouse, maybe even the Nazis realized this.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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