The four films Quentin Tarantino made following the events of September 11th, 2001 were, if you noticed, all stories of revenge. Kill Bill was about a woman’s revenge against the people who beat her into a coma and left her for dead, presumably killing her unborn daughter. Death Proof was about women facing off against the serial killer who targeted them. Inglourious Basterds was about Jews taking personal, violent revenge against notable members of the Nazi regime. And Django Unchained was about a black man in the South taking bloody revenge against racist white slave-owners. The Hateful Eight featured revenge, but the overall thrust of that film skewed nihilistic.
Seeing as this month will feature multiple screenings of Inglourious Basterds (which will be showing at midnight on the 6th, the 20th and the 27th), I’d like to spend a moment discussing that film, and the way Signore Tarantino seems to be wielding cinema as a means of cultural redemption.
Tarantino is, as has been previously discussed, intensely interested in film history, the robust techniques of shooting on actual film strips and the warm, exciting atmosphere of projecting 35mm in a group environment. When it comes to consuming film, Tarantino seems to like the thrill of being shocked in public with a group of strangers. As such, the bulk of his films are incredibly violent, typically pretty dark and in some cases, downright harrowing. Some critics have assumed that Tarantino is making some sort of oblique artistic point with his violence, and that is certainly open for discussion, but it seems clear to this essayist that Tarantino includes extreme violence merely because he loves movies with blood and death in ’em.
As such, most of Tarantino’s films have to take place in a heightened non-reality, where people have a little too much blood, where bullets explode sizable chunks of meat out of people’s heads, where mythical kung-fu moves actually work, and where everyone speaks in a heightened, stylized fashion. This has been Tarantino’s greatest strength since the beginning: his heightening of style. For Tarantino, the style is the substance.
It may be assumed that operating within this milieu would make for stories that are empty and exist only as visual flash. Inglourious Basterds, however, was the first time Tarantino seemed to be openly declaring that his style can have a direct, cultural function: bloody, bloody catharsis.
Inglourious Basterds takes its thematic cues (and indeed even its title) from a vast history of war pictures produced by Hollywood (and Italy), chiming in with a great tradition of mining WWII for its myriad of violent, tragic, exciting and dramatic stories. Many WWII films take a staid, analytical, regretful approach to the war, treating all battles and violence as the vastest violation of human endeavor in our species’ history. It’s here you’ll find classics like Shoah or grand Hollywood weepies like Schindler’s List (both great films, incidentally). These are films that serve to magnify the gross truths of WWII and how terrible it was.
On the opposite extreme, certain WWII films tend to look at the soldiers in the field, Nazi atrocities and underground German sex clubs of the 1940s to find building matter for grand exploitation movies. Exploitation cinema has always been about sex and violence, so why not take the real-life sex and violence of WWII and jazz it up? WWII can class up an exploitation film or trash the heady darkness of the war.
Most American audiences already have the tone of the former type of WWII films deeply ensconced in their consciousnesses. Thanks to generations of films, not to mention lesson after lesson from our high school history classes, American citizens have a pretty clear portrait of what happened during WWII, the Americans’ involvement in it and the outright comic-book-ready villainy of the Nazi empire. We are taught, from early on, that we are to treat WWII with humorless respect. The only emotions allowed are sadness, regret, grief and caution. We are not to joke about this because it could easily happen again anywhere and at any time.
This attitude, however, seems to have proven a detriment to certain filmmakers. With an air of respect and regret, there are stories that are difficult to tell. Even exploitation movies set during WWII are colored by tragedy. We know how the war went down, we know how Hitler died, and any stories of brave soldiers fighting off the Nazis will have to, invariably, end in death and tragedy. Even when watching a thrilling masculinity-fest like The Dirty Dozen, you know that however badass the 12 in question may be, they’re not going to be able to kill Hitler. That was reserved for history.
As such, the audience is robbed of its true catharsis. We all carry within us a general hatred of Nazis. Thanks to Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, we have even come to accept Nazis as a go-to universal movie bad guy. Far away from Germany’s actual National Socialist Party, Nazis have come to function as stock villains. Even in fluff like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 7-year-old boys have learned to accept that having secret Nazis hiding out in the government is a bad thing. And while it’s guiltily cathartic watching Indiana Jones and Captain America slugging Fritz in the face, in the back of our minds, we’re going to be denied the catharsis of these heroes “going all the way,” as it were. Hitler killed himself in a bunker. Captain America, then, has to fight a secret distaff party of not-real Nazis. He can’t really fix the problem. He’s just a fantasy.
Exploitation movies about WWII have been hermetically sealed off from history. They have to stop short. They have to be taken as fantasy, even if they’re based on real missions. They offer us a taste – but only a taste – of what might have been. They’re all about how we almost took down Hitler.
Not so with Inglourious Basterds. Tarantino’s film brushes all forms of stuffy respect and tragedy aside with one of the greatest surprises in cinema of the 2000s. Tarantino finally plays into every dark, death-and-rage-fueled kill fantasy the audience has in their blackened hearts. The catharsis we long for is finally provided. He’s finally going to kill Hitler. We know that’s not how it happened and we shouldn’t, morally speaking, cheapen the true sacrifices of WWII with petty revenge fantasies… but we still have those revenge fantasies. We want Hitler to be stopped. We want Americans to take him down. We want two Jews with machine guns to fire multiple rounds into his face while his empire collapses around him in a fiery inferno.
And so Tarantino provides. He was the first mainstream filmmaker in many audience’s experience to finally break down that wall. To cater to culture’s need to kill Hitler. To show a doomed quest to assassinate Hitler actually succeed. We all regret the way WWII turned out. Inglourious Basterds finally offers us that cultural redemption. That release. That fantasy that not only could it have worked but that it did work. It’s a fantasy, of course, but it’s a fantasy that hadn’t been addressed in cinematic form before.
Of course, Tarantino’s comment extends even further. He argues, very openly, that this type of dark, revisionist catharsis may be cinema’s greatest function. In Inglourious Basterds, the ultimate killer of the Nazi party is a Jewish woman, yes, and the two men who gun down Hitler are also Jewish, but the means by which the Nazi party is killed is more important: the Nazis are killed in a fire in a movie theater, ignited by nitrate film stock (explained in the film as being particularly flammable).
Jews are not just getting their revenge but the physical makings of film itself – the actual celluloid strips – are an instrument of vengeance. Movies themselves are a weapon in the world of Inglourious Basterds. The messages of propaganda are small potatoes when it comes to the ultimate power of cinema. Political proselytizing is meaningless. Triumph of the Will offers nothing to a broad audience. Bloody, gloriously morally-irresponsible catharsis may do more for the human mind than anything. And that catharsis belongs entirely to cinema.
So a stylistic view of history – revised through a lens of modern knowledge, hindsight, and resentment – may be, according to Inglourious Basterds, a less accurate but more emotionally genuine view. Movies serve to cater to, play with, manipulate, or give vent to, our emotions. Tarantino brazenly and audaciously plays to the dark side of the heart. He acknowledges that films are more style than anything, and also that films have the ultimate last word. A stylized version of WWII that finally takes the war to a more satisfying conclusion, then, is the most logical thing imaginable.
Modern movie stars, modern directors and modern audiences can look back in time and fancy a universe where they finally had the last laugh.