Quentin Tarantino has taken the prototypical, vengeful wet dream of Jewish, male adolescents and built a spectacularly violent film around it. Don’t let the abundance of uniformed Germans and swastikas fool you, “Inglourious Basterds” is not really about Nazis or World War II at all. At its core, Basterds, like so many of Tarantino’s creations, is a movie about movies.
Tarantino has repeatedly stressed that “Basterds” is a, “Spaghetti Western but with World War II iconography.” The influence on Tarantino’s vision by Western director Sam Peckinpah can be felt in the film’s agonizing tension, punctuated by sudden violence. Tarantino has embraced Peckinpah’s cinematic revisionism. His “Basterds,” arguably the cowboys of the film, scalp their victims, a behavior typical of the American Indians portrayed in many Westerns.
“Basterds” is rife with gentle allusions and explicit references to the films that inspired it, but the movie takes Tarantino’s cinema fetish to new heights of exhibitionism. Like most exhibitionist spectacles, “Basterds” has the tendency to be intensely exciting or just sort of gross.
The concept of Jewish, armed resistance against Nazi oppression is not a myth, but it is doubtful that any of the freedom fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto were as bad-ass and lethal as the remorseless “Basterds” of Tarantino’s creation. Though somewhat satisfying on a shoot-em-up level, Tarantino’s Jewish caricatures are disturbingly ruthless and rooted in outdated stereotypes.
In one scene a Nazi officer comments on the parallels between the hardships faced by Africans brought to the United States as slaves and the plight of King Kong. One can easily imagine the same speech being delivered to film 101 students by a professor eager to provide social context for the classic film.
What Tarantino is saying about society and film is perfectly legitimate. He believes that society and film are mirrors held up to each other. Film is the magic mirror that society wishes upon. In Tarantino’s mind, we should make things “right” through the magic of cinema, but his attempts to do this come off as extremely heavy-handed and, like much of the film, self indulgent on his part.
The film’s climax, which takes place in a locked movie theater, expresses the philosophy of the film: Cinema is about raw emotion and exploiting it to whatever effect suits the film maker. Tarantino’s concept of film is like fire, with equal potential for illumination and destruction.
Tarantino employs the general hatred of Nazis, particularly the dastardly ones in American films, to great effect. The dream of taking merciless revenge on what’s considered evil is hardly original or uniquely American or Jewish. By framing the often black and white morality of the Western film in the emotional context of the Holocaust, Tarantino attempts to write the ultimate blank check for the audience: permission to celebrate the killing of enemies without reservation.
I recommend this film to film fanatics, film students and groups of drunk, adolescent boys at Bar Mitzvah party sleepovers. (1984)