(Note: The following article about Inglourious Basterds contains spoilers. Significant spoilers. Giving-away-the-ending spoilers. If you intend to watch the film but haven't done it yet, see it before reading further. The article will still be here when you're finished.)
With Inglourious Basterds, his genre-scrambling film about vengeful Jews killing Nazis, writer-director Quentin Tarantino has had his strongest opening weekend ever, finishing first at the box office and taking in about $37.6 million. His movie deserves to do well next weekend, too: It is witty and suspenseful, smart and entertaining. It is also controversial, which ought to boost its receipts even more.
Tarantino has always been a figure of controversy—when Bob Dole denounced the culture industry during the 1996 presidential campaign, he singled out two Tarantino-scripted pictures, True Romance and Natural Born Killers—but by taking a deeply unorthodox approach to the Nazi persecution of the Jews, a topic Hollywood usually approaches with somber reverence, the filmmaker has attracted more uneasiness than usual. Three charges against the director stand out:
Charge #1: Quentin Tarantino is Tommy Westphall. All of Tarantino's movies are marinated in pop culture. He names characters after obscure European actresses; he deliberately echoes images from films both famous and arcane; his protagonists chat constantly about pop songs and superhero stories; even the fonts in his credits are nods to the Hollywood past. This thicket of allusions has left him open to accusations of ignoring the real world. His "frame of reference," to quote one typical appraisal, "seems limited to the movie theatre, the comics store and the record store." In a scathing review of Basterds in The Independent, Johann Hari accuses its author of "mistaking his DVD collection for a life." In a more sympathetic assessment in Salon, Stephanie Zacharek still feels the need to suggest that "real-life moviegoers might be frustrated or flummoxed by Tarantino's constant parade of references" before arguing that this time, at last, "Tarantino's vision is opening wider instead of closing in on itself." For many critics, Tarantino is the auterist equivalent of Tommy Westphall, the autistic boy in St. Elsewhere who turns out, in the most common interpretation of that TV show's finale, to have imagined the entire run of the series while staring at a snow globe (and, according to a logically cracked but diverting fan theory, to have imagined the 280-plus programs that overlap in some way with the St. Elsewhere universe as well).
The first thing to note, before we say anything about Inglourious Basterds, is that this charge has always been unfair. It's true that Tarantino's pictures are tapestries of quotations and allusions, some of them invisible to everyone but him. But his films aren't merely about movies, music, and comics; they're about the people who watch movies, listen to music, and read comics. In other words, they're about us. Tarantino's dialogue reflects the way the citizens of a media-saturated society actually talk: We debate the meaning of Madonna lyrics, explain ourselves with allusions to Superman or Kung Fu, crack jokes about Tom Cruise movies, and shift easily from such subjects to Seinfeldian arguments about tipping, foot massages, and other matters of social protocol. Tarantino's dialogue is too comic and stylized to be completely naturalistic, but it reflects the world outside the movie theater at least as much as the world within it. This isn't the Tommy Westphall mode of media consumption, the perspective of an autistic boy lost in a self-contained universe. It's groups of people experiencing the culture together and relating it to their lives.
You can't claim such realism for the equally pop-savvy dialogue in Inglourious Basterds, given that it takes place in Europe during World War II. (It's unlikely that a real Nazi soldier would be familiar with the phrase "Mexican stand-off.") But the new film's conversations aren't mere movie-geek games either.
Films about World War II typically conform to the conventions of one genre or another, from gritty platoon tales like The Naked and the Dead to solemn Holocaust dramas like Schindler's List; viewers generally judge them by how well they meet their expectations for the genre. The most popular of these pictures are often the ones in which those expectations are unstated and the mechanics that meet them act invisibly, so that we don't see, say, that when Schindler's List invites us to identify with its hero, it lets us flatter ourselves into believing we too would act so nobly under such difficult circumstances. Inglourious Basterds, by contrast, constantly calls attention to the fact that it's a movie, and not just by making sly references to everything from The Searchers to The Wizard of Oz. It recognizes frankly that its fantasies are confined to the theater. Indeed, when it gives us one of the most brazen plot twists ever to appear onscreen—Adolf Hitler is assassinated and the war comes to an early conclusion—the fantastic event takes place in a theater. Movies ignore the real details of history all the time, and typically only historians notice the errors. This movie breaks with history so radically that it's impossible, deliberately impossible, to miss the fact that it's a fantasy. That too is far from Tommy Westphall territory.
Charge #2: Quentin Tarantino is John Yoo. The violence in Tarantino's movies has always been controversial. But this time, with sympathetic characters committing acts that would be war crimes in the real world, the topic has been especially contentious. Hari describes the movie as a story that "sees the Holocaust as just another spaghetti Western, and one where the suggested solution is more torture, coming from the victims this time." In this view, Basterds is a brief for sadism, a movie for the sort of people who think the way to defeat Al Qaeda is to emulate its brutal tactics.
There's no denying it: The film's anti-Nazi warriors, a French Jew seeking revenge for her family's death (Mélanie Laurent) and a Jewish fighting unit led by Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are torturers and killers. Any time Pitt's platoon lets a German fighter go, he first carves a swastika on the soldier's forehead so he'll never be able to deny his past. In Newsweek, Daniel Mendelsohn writes that this echoes a Nazi practice of carving Stars of David into rabbis' chests before murdering them. Mendelsohn also notes that the film's climax echoes another set of German atrocities:
A group of unsuspecting people is tricked into entering a large building; the doors of the building are locked and bolted from the outside; then the building is set on fire. The twist here is not that Tarantino, a director with a notorious penchant for explicit violence, shows you in loving detail what happens inside the burning building—the desperate banging on the doors, the bodies alight, the screams, confusion, the flames. The twist is that this time the people inside the building are Nazis and the people who are killing them are Jews.
If you assume the audience is supposed to root uncritically for the people who set that building on fire, it's easy to find Hari's simple moral in the movie: Villains deserve to die of their own medicine, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But Mendelsohn doesn't mention something significant about the burning building: It's a movie theater, and the people inside it have been watching a violent picture about a Nazi sniper (a man known, we're told, as "the German Sgt. York") as he picks off Allied soldiers. In a movie that has invited us to sympathize with savage soldiers, we suddenly see a roomful of grotesque German theatergoers, one of them Hitler himself, cheering delightedly as the shooter on the screen cold-bloodedly slaughters Americans. Tarantino doesn't just show us vengeful Jews reenacting the crimes of the Nazis; he shows us Nazi film fans reenacting his own audience's bloodlust. And then they're killed for their complicity.
Tarantino engages in this sort of doubling throughout the movie. In the film's first segment, an SS officer nicknamed the Jew Hunter (played brilliantly by Christoph Waltz) delivers a speech echoing the Nazi propaganda theme that Jews are equivalent to rats. In the second segment, Pitt's Nazi-hunting commando delivers a speech that treats German soldiers as vermin fit only to be killed. And when Laurent's character prepares for an evening of killing Nazis, the soundtrack thunders with David Bowie's theme from Cat People. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that Tarantino selected a track by a musician who infamously flirted with fascism in the mid-1970s. But surely it means something that the song he chose keeps returning to the line "I've been putting out fire with gasoline." When Inglourious Basterds shows anti-Nazis emulating Nazis, it's more than willing to raise the possibility that such tactics will make things worse.
It's also willing to suggest that the bastards deserve it. From Death Wish to Thelma and Louise, critics have accused revenge movies and their cinematic kin of being fascist. When Tarantino shows us Hitler reacting gleefully to a film filled with cathartic violence, he takes that charge seriously. But he also poses a question of his own: What if the people your vigilantes are killing are fascists themselves?
He doesn't give an easy answer. Tarantino once said that he'd like to make films that deal with the atrocities of the past "but do them like spaghetti westerns, not like big issue movies. I want to do them like they're genre films." What he didn't say was that the first genre picture that he'd make along those lines would ask the sort of open-ended moral questions that the middlebrow Holocaust movies that win Oscars aren't interested in engaging.
Charge #3: Quentin Tarantino is David Irving. Some critics seem offended at the very thought of treating weighty subjects this way. In a blog post that repeats many of the above criticisms—he calls Basterds a "gleeful celebration of savagery" with a "blindness to history" and an "infantile lust for revenge"—former Chicago Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum announces that the movie is "morally akin to Holocaust denial." Mr. Brown, meet Mr. Death.
Obviously I disagree. But if it's still necessary to demonstrate the moral complexity of this film, consider its conclusion.
At the end of the picture, Waltz's SS man switches sides, agreeing not to stop the plot to kill the Nazi leadership in exchange for a comfortable Nantucket home, a Congressional Medal of Honor, and other rewards from the U.S. government. At this point, the doubling process that began with Waltz and Pitt's dual speeches is complete: The most repellant figure in the film—more frightening even than Hitler, who is played here as a simple buffoon—has become an essential part of the fight against the Reich. (Apparently essential, that is. Neither Waltz nor Pitt is aware of a parallel plot that would have killed the Nazi leadership anyway.) Pitt's character accepts that the Nazi's help is necessary to win the war, but he won't let him off easy. Waltz gets a swastika on his forehead, same as all the other prisoners the team has released. Grinning like a confident auteur at his expertly carved cross, Pitt says the last eight words in the movie: "I think this just might be my masterpiece."
Maybe you helped defeat an enormously evil enemy, that act seems to say, but you can't erase your own complicity in evil. It will forever be on your head. Each viewer can decide for himself whether this message is meant just for the Nazi writhing on the ground, or if it applies equally to the avengers on the other side—and perhaps to the audience itself.
Jesse Walker is managing editor of Reason magazine.