Inglourious Basterds: the most controversial film of the year?
The release of Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is upon us, and critics are drawing battle lines. You can read my five-star take here, but not everyone has reacted so positively. In Newsweek, Daniel Mendelsohn accuses Tarantino of indulging his fantasies at the expense of truth—which is, of course, perfectly accurate. Jumping off of Mendelsohn's piece, former Reader critic Jonathan Rosenbaum goes further, saying the film "seems morally akin to Holocaust denial" and specifically calling out Jewish critics—or at least Jewish critics who took issue with Styron's novel Sophie's Choice—who have been willing to defend Tarantino's film.
The implication that one group has a responsibility to review the film a certain way is itself problematic, but never mind. Inglourious Basterds is extravagantly tasteless—and that's exactly the idea. The Voice's J. Hoberman, who I'm quite sure does not condone the headline his publication has given his review, points out that Schindler's List, in its way, also inverted traditional Holocaust-movie archetypes in the name of offering catharsis. That comparison doesn't by any means make Basterds as respectable as Schindler's List, but given that Tarantino's subject is how movies interpret history, it does cast his film in an interesting light.
Essentially, Basterds pushes WWII genre conventions so far past the breaking point that it leaves you with no choice but to grapple with them; it critiques the idea of war movies even as it celebrates them. As Scott Foundas argued in a piece in Film Comment (not available online), you're supposed to feel uneasy about it, particularly the scalping motif. Critics calling for a more "responsible" Basterds (that's the word that keeps coming up in conversations) might as well ask that the movie not exist at all. Yes, it's a revenge fantasy that turns Jews into Nazis. But Tarantino is entirely conscious of his bloodlust, and indeed questions the impulse for revenge even as he seems to condone it. It's subtle, but there's actually a line of dialogue—spoken by a character (Daniel Brühl) whom the Nazis have held up as a war hero—in which Tarantino likens himself to Goebbels.
It's difficult to talk about the film without revealing the ending, something that several prominent film critics, like David Denby, have had no compunctions about doing. But knowing what happens in advance would ruin the effect. Without giving anything away, I submit that if the movie went for the opposite, quasi-historical outcome, it wouldn't make any sense. Right from its misspelled title (which everyone, including Tarantino, seems content to dismiss as a mere typographical flourish), Inglourious Basterds is forthright about taking place in an alternate reality. It's not about World War II; it's about World War II movies—how they interpret history and how they feed off a desire for entertainment and satisfaction.
As I say in my review of Basterds, Kill Bill plays similar tricks on our expectations about revenge films—giving us a first half in which revenge is all that matters, then countering it with a mirror-image movie in which vengeance is revealed as a fundamentally hollow goal. If you go into Basterds with the mentality that Tarantino has never had any serious moral concerns, then of course the movie seems gleefully offensive—on the surface, it absolutely is. But it's a more complex film than even Tarantino, who's perennially conscious of the need to sell his movies commercially, has been willing to acknowledge publicly. That may be an evasion on his part, but his showboating doesn't make Basterds a bad film—and certainly not a reprehensible one.