Most people either love Quentin Tarantino’s films or don’t give them the time of day. Honest people who love movies have to admit that they’re just jealous. We all wish we could move from geeks to filmmakers. Everything Tarantino knows in life he learned from the cinema, making his films unique. He draws from a vast breadth and depth of knowledge that is entirely restricted to things he’s seen and heard in films. His scope is myopically diverse, and he’s willing and able to access everything from trivia to theory that film has ever produced. As a result of this, his films are rewarding in direct proportion to one’s fluency in the grammar of the movies. Inglourious Basterds is easily the most self-reflexive film he’s made, and the only one that his diegetic alter-ego has labeled, in the film’s final words, his “masterpiece.”
This identification between Tarantino the director and Brad Pitt’s character, Lt. Aldo Raine, is strong throughout the film and functions like an anchor to the rest of the filmic and metafilmic connections going on. Tarantino, like Raine, is a non-Jew in charge of a mission that American Jews carry out. The Weinstein Brothers even produced the film, to say nothing of the cast of characters and invisible Hollywood people who are, at least stereotypically, Jewish.
Marketed as a World War II film with a violent and comedic bent, in a way this is precisely what Inglourious Basterds is. The opening intertitles tell the audience exactly how to categorize the film it’s about to see, stating, “Once upon a time… …in Nazi-occupied France.” The first half is fairy tale, the second history. Put them together and we get a fantasy masquerading as history, and not even historical fiction. The director’s fellow cinephiles will also identify a nod to the Western film in the first few words. Once it gets going, Tarantino’s trademark dialogue is toned down a notch but present from beginning to end. A number of scenes featuring Allied soldiers operating undercover in Nazi territory have that psychological cat-and-mouse component to them that made classics like Where Eagles Dare work so well even when there wasn’t any gunfire. The picture here is of a Nazi officer grilling a supposed comrade at a German bar, suspecting him of being an infidel but toying with him before proving it. Tarantino plays up these scenes as the clichés that they are, heightening viewer expectation and utilizing standard film language to create the illusion that this actually is just a WWII film. When the bullets start flying and no one (apparently) is left alive except for the least important character in the scene, one can’t help but remember that these supposedly clichéd scenes are being created by the guy who shot Pulp Fiction and took out those main characters as if they had never mattered to the narrative. But just when you remember that, someone else in Inglourious Basterds pops up and screws with your newly-founded conclusions.
Unwritten rules have always constrained the WWII film genre from traversing into really new territory. Fiction is permitted, but only the kind of fiction that could have happened, though we know it didn’t. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade may not be a WWII film, but Indy does get to meet Hitler and obtain his autograph. Often, the cinematic character of Hitler is more untouchable than the historical figure. Perhaps forgetting that the Führer died like a cowardly rat in more ways than one, films have often shot Hitler from the neck down, or perhaps from the mustache down, as if therein lies the image of a man too important to be represented. Why is such respect so often paid to one of the worst people in history? Tarantino taps into this and finally moves cinema forward, giving us a Hitler shot in broad daylight, revealing an acne-scarred face, a mug just as ugly as the original, and a mental and emotional instability directly related to a lot of genuinely bad ideas.
As Tarantino’s only weapon, then, he enlists the help of the cinema, luring the Führer in along with his best friends to annihilate them in a way that would have ended the war much more satisfactorily. Again appealing to genre conventions, we have two different and unrelated plots to kill Hitler, and each of them fails, but only in part. Knowing that the perfect plot truly was impossible, the film gives parallel missions that the viewer knows are too flawed to work. When the missions intersect at the cinema (“Operation Kino”!) and make such use of the literal medium itself to win the war, the WWII film becomes a fantasy film, a genre traditionally about as far removed from it as there was.
Inglourious Basterds has brawn, guts, and a complete fearlessness that justifies everything in it. When Eli Roth, the “Bear Jew,” walks down the tunnel toward the ill-fated Nazi colonel, it’s a dead-on shot, a perpendicular angle in which the Bear Jew moves straight toward the camera unflinchingly. When Raine carves swastikas on the foreheads of the damned survivors, the viewer is placed again in the point-of-view of the poor soul; in these scenes, the Nazi symbol is being carved on the foreheads of the audience, albeit briefly. In the diegetic cinema, the camera position creates the uncanny illusion that the burning screen is the one in our theater, and we’re about to be burned to a crisp. These and countless other examples demonstrate that Inglourious Basterds was not actually made for the mere gratification of all us Nazi-haters. Camera shots do not lie, and those that speak loudest here are the ones assuming a (hypothetical) Nazi spectator. Quentin Tarantino has been obsessed with revenge in most of his films, and this obsession only seems to be growing. Kill Bill and Death Proof explicitly revolved around the theme. Inglourious Basterds, which Tarantino suggests is his masterpiece, is, both within the film and outside of it, his attack on Nazism with the weapon of film. Spectator theory can have a heyday with this one, which illustrates as well as any film has ever done that if the photograph embodies death à la Barthes, cinema is a murderous force rendered nay-unstoppable when confronted in a dark room.
Tarantino surely hates Nazis, but the trajectory of his film career makes one wonder if he hasn’t been looking for the perfect target at which to direct his vengeful cinema. In his last two films, he gave women the pleasure of vengeance against the macho male. He does love his women, as others have noted. That he kills them off in Basterds really just gives all the more reason for the Jews to show not a shred of mercy to their opponents. The film is kind enough to give the non-Nazi audience the pleasure of suturing to the Bear Jew and company as they mow down a theater full of anti-Semites after obliterating the face of Hitler with a machine gun. The disintegration of the face of Nazism by a Jew is the ultimate fantasy Tarantino could depict. He condones the rage and glories in it by letting the Jewish Basterds fire the guns. Once Raine is back in charge, Raine/Tarantino withholds his fury, unleashing instead a calm non-annihilation. Rather than disintegrating the Nazi face, he reintegrates it with its symbol. The Nazi audience is shown its only two options through an apologetic for semiotics: destroy the signified or be wed to that ugliest of signifiers.