The plot of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds is ridiculous. A group of Jewish American soldiers are recruited by a Tennessee mountain man played by Brad Pitt to kill Nazis during the Second World War. Along the way they discover a plan to screen a new propaganda film by Goebbels at a cinema in Paris. All the top Nazis will be there, Hitler included. Exterminating them in one fell swoop will end the war. A few twists later, that is exactly what happens. So what’s the point? What is it about this counterfactual and openly farcical scenario that so intrigued Mr. Tarantino?
It must have something to do with the relationship between film and reality. The fate of Europe hangs, in this case literally, on a movie. Directors, actors, and even film critics are central players in events of world historical importance.
To the David Denbys of the world (he’s a film critic at The New Yorker), this premise amounts to “moral callousness.” Tarantino, he says, is “mucking about with a tragic moment of history. Chaplin and Lubitsch played with Nazis, too, but they worked as farceurs, using comedy to warn of catastrophe; they didn’t carve up Nazis using horror-film flourishes.” In Denby’s eyes, Tarantino will exploit any subject matter, even the most serious of real-world issues, in the name of schlock. A talented nihilist, he is the most dangerous species of auteur. Though this tells us little about Tarantino it does reveal something about Denby’s conception of the relationship between movies and the real world. Movies that Denby doesn’t like are therefore morally contemptible and should be kept out of the real world.
Christopher Orr at The New Republic takes a less censorious view. He enjoys the filmmaking skill displayed throughout Inglourious Basterds. According to Orr, Tarantino is not engaging in moral callousness. If anything, he displays a rather naive belief in the capacity for movies to affect the world. Summing up the film, Orr says, “The whole affair culminates with a massive, murderous set piece at the movie house, which testifies to the purifying power of film as a political medium and film stock as a combustion agent.” The problem for Orr is that Tarantino won’t let himself close enough to the reality films are supposed to reflect and critique. Instead of making movies, he makes “movies.” Someday, Orr says, Tarantino is “going to have to find the nerve to work … outside the quotation marks.” Enclosed in an ironic circle, Tarantino inhabits a shadowy world of meta-levels from which he cannot escape.
Most of Tarantino’s critics fall somewhere between Denby and Orr. Tarantino is accused of everything from glib self-awareness to outright misanthropy. He may be a talented filmmaker, but he uses the power of cinema in the cause of evil. Inglourious Basterds mocks the idea that cinema can have moral content, or that film even relates to anything other than itself.
In an interview by Henri Sordeau for Rotten Tomatoes, Tarantino was asked, point blank, whether Inglourious Basterds is about “the power of cinema.” Tarantino’s answer, “Well, yeah … I like the idea that it’s the power of cinema that fights the Nazis. But not even as a metaphor — as a literal reality.” That would seem to be a clear claim on Tarantino’s part. Movies have a relationship to the world and, when made correctly, directly impact, even change the world. Inglourious Basterds is thus something close to a manifesto about the importance of cinema and, contra David Denby, its moral content.
Except that movies don’t actually “fight the Nazis” in Inglourious Basterds. It is the fact that old nitrate film stock burns easily and with great intensity that matters. The movie house in Inglourious Basterds has a large storehouse of such film stock and it is the burning of this stock that kills the Nazi elite and ends the war. The film all the Nazis come to watch is similarly meaningless. It is the story of a heroic German sniper who kills hundreds of Allied troops from a clock tower. That’s all the movie is — scene after scene of one soldier pointing and shooting and killing. There is no story, no plot, no content at all. Goebbels makes the film, presumably, as an antidote to what was actually happening on the battlefields of Europe on the advent of D-Day: the Nazis are losing. The film inside Tarantino’s film is therefore, itself, a total fantasy with which Goebbels hopes to inspire the German people. And it doesn’t work. The English film critic who joins the plotting Basterds is an expert on German cinema and similarly ineffective. He is terrible at actually being German and gets himself and many others killed while impersonating a German officer. The German actress and spy who helps the Basterds is really quite bad at acting the spy, which almost fouls the entire caper and gets her killed in a particularly gruesome manner. And we never do find out anything about the content of the filmstrips that burn up and kill all the evil Nazis. They are simply nameless strips of nitrate. So much for the power of cinema.
Tarantino’s claim that he made Inglourious Basterds as a testament to the power of cinema is the opposite of what it seems. He is, in fact, as little interested in the moral content of film as David Denby assumes him to be. Inglourious Basterds turned out as it did because Tarantino took an idea and let it unfold as he was writing it. He explains what happened in the aforementioned interview.
Well, on this movie there’s one real big roadblock, and that’s history itself. And I expected to honour that roadblock. But then at some point, deep, deep, deep into writing it, it hit me. I thought, Wait a minute: my characters don’t know they’re part of history. They’re in the immediate, they’re in the here, they’re in the now, this is happening. Any minute, they’re dead. And you know what? What happens in this movie didn’t happen in real life because my characters didn’t exist. But if they had, this could have happened in real life. And from that point on, it simply had to be plausible, and I had to be able to pull it off.
In short, Inglourious Basterds is just like any other movie. It portrays a group of characters moving through a series of events. Choose another work from the history of film that’s more grounded in “the real world.” Take a film like Kramer vs. Kramer, which in its day was lauded for its “realism.” It sets itself in a real city, references actual events, and sticks to a specific period in history — the late 1970s. The characters are fictional, but everything they do is entirely plausible. Though on a far more modest scale, it is as much a blend of actual and imagined history as Inglourious Basterds. There’s also a fair amount of moral ambiguity in Kramer vs. Kramer. Many of the characters behave badly. The end result of the story is troubling while still satisfying. One can like or dislike the movie, but it would be strange to object to it on the grounds that it is not an accurate portrayal of reality.
What people are really protesting in Inglourious Basterds is the idea that movies can be about anything, that they set their own terms from within. This probably bothers us about all art, but it seems to strike us more viscerally with movies. In the case of Tarantino, he rubs our faces in this freedom, so much so that it begins to feel like an affront. Tarantino is simply and deeply pleased with the fact that movies are movies, that they do what they do and nothing else. He has a special talent for using a vast array of cinematic techniques to impressive effect while simultaneously telling us a story about those cinematic techniques. This opens him to the charge of empty irony, nihilism.
Still, the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds in which an SS officer interrogates a French farmer suspected of hiding Jews is as taut and sharp as any other great scene in cinema. It portrays the specific horrors of WWII more deeply, I would submit, than anything in Schindler’s List. A scene in the middle of the movie in which a group of Basterds impersonate Nazi officers in a basement bar stretches the tension to a breaking point as masterfully as Hitchcock ever did. The explosion of violence at the end of the scene is literally that — an explosion of form and color and movement that expresses the very essence of violence. And yet Tarantino tosses it off like so much play. He shows you something that matters and then takes it away in the next scene.
That’s because movies do matter, and they don’t. Movie critics should know that more than anyone. They love the experience of the movies, whether it be in works of the highest realism or well-crafted drama or sustained acts of goofing around. Movies do matter. And yet there is no argument for why. It is neither good nor bad that movies matter to us. It is simply a fact. Movies, to a greater or lesser degree, become parts of the lives of the people who watch them. We want to justify that love, to puff up the objective importance of movies in order to validate the subjective importance. There is a gap, though, between our love for the movies and our attempts at justification. Unlike most directors and almost all critics, Tarantino is perfectly comfortable in that gap. He exploits everything troubling and uncomfortable about the fact that a love of movies has no inherent virtue.
And let us be brutally honest with ourselves for a moment here. Inglourious Basterds is a better film than most of your WWII and Holocaust movies, especially the ones that stick closer to the historical record. It is impossible to know whether those films, or any film for that matter, had a positive moral impact on the world. The way that films matter, the way that they mean something to us never reduces to such a formula. The fact that Tarantino so gleefully exploits the gray area where film and meaning overlap is what makes him great. To claim that Tarantino’s films are empty and self-referential is to ignore the obvious truth. Tarantino has already achieved relevance simply by being good at making something we like. Movies. Each of our lives has been affected by the films we’ve experienced and enjoyed. That is quite a lot of meaning right there. Tarantino knows that. He even sometimes teases us with how much we already love the movies and thus with how much his talent matters to us. He runs wild with our guilty pleasure. But that is our fault, and not his. We gave him the power, and he is never, ever going to give it back. • 9 September 2009