“This is the World War II film confronting its Jungian shadow, acknowledging its darkest impulses and finally purging them.”
Fredric Jameson said that pastiche is a “dead language,” that postmodernists have ruined the form itself by depriving it of any historicity. With no political or historical content, pastiche cannot effectively satirize anything. The result is what Jameson calls “blank parody,” a mere gesture of satire too hollow to properly skewer anything. Quentin Tarantino, a postmodern satirist whose only major form of expression is pastiche, has struggled against this limitation his entire career. Kill Bill, one of the most flamboyant pieces of cinematic pastiche in recent years, is grand entertainment, but it’s a near total failure as social commentary because all of its reference points are in other (mostly terrible) films. The typical complaint is that Tarantino is “too in love” with his subject matter – the French New Wave and gangster movies with Pulp Fiction, for example – to parody or even comment on them effectively, but the truth is closer to Jameson’s critique of the form itself.
Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino’s finest work to date, is a masterpiece of satirical pastiche, and it succeeds precisely because it is the first time Tarantino’s hyberbolic style has had a sociopolitical context to strain against, i.e., World War II and the Third Reich. True to the increasingly metafictional nature of Tarantino’s work, the war is only dealt with in terms of other films, something many of his detractors have singled out as an unforgivable flaw. Jonathan Rosenbaum actually described the film as Holocaust denial, saying that “Insofar as [the Holocaust] becomes a movie convention – by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies – it loses its historical reality.” What Rosenbaum and others seem to either ignore or not realize is that the target of Inglourious Basterds’ acerbity isn’t the Nazis, the Holocaust, or any of the other actual people involved, but the postwar film audiences in Europe and America whose fondness for action and cheap drama reduced World War II to a genre. It’s not as if previous films have offered a particularly accurate portrayal of the war, and at least Tarantino’s version is so campy that it could not seriously be interpreted as history.
Tarantino partially modeled the film after Sergio Leone’s western epics, and not just as homage. By the time A Fistful of Dollars came out in 1964, the historical reality of the American West had long been erased by cinematic lies. Leone’s westerns – exaggerations and parodies of the same mythologization found in others in the genre – have as little to do with the actual settling of the frontier as Inglourious Basterds does with the actual Nazi occupation of France. Perhaps Rosenbaum considers The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’s treatment of the Civil War a form of slavery denial, or perhaps he thinks it’s just “too soon” to apply such an aesthetic to World War II.
Of course, Tarantino isn’t the first filmmaker to draw the connection between the American West and World War II. Enzo G. Castellari did the same thing in 1978 with That Damned Armored Train, known in the United States as The Inglorious Bastards, and that was only the most popular in a cluster of “macaroni combat” movies (Tarantino’s deliberate misspelling – which is scrawled on a character’s rifle stock – indicates the sort of metafiction at hand, where characters in 1944 are aware that they’re characters in a film made long after their “deaths,” but only at such a subconscious level that they don’t even get the spelling right). It’s a rather obvious link to draw, considering how similarly fetishized they’ve been by Western culture, both in the sexual and anthropological sense. Like the western, the World War II movie has been annually repurposed and refurbished for the immediate, modern uses of the public (does anyone doubt that The Dirty Dozen and The Undefeated are really about Vietnam?). The Nazi, as a stock character, has effectively been stripped of his historical context and been transformed into an all-purpose villain, a vessel into which any artist can pour his desired message. The G.I. is perfectly interchangeable with The Cowboy: tough, handsome, and courageously fighting for any number of specific kinds of patriotism and honor. Other character types – The Mexican Whore, The French Girl, The British Officer, The Corrupt Sheriff – have been treated likewise.
Tarantino’s versions of these characters are purposely disconnected from their historical counterparts, but they aren’t just a means to a symbolic end. They are caricatures, the unrestrained ids of all their previous incarnations, freed from the prisons of historical accuracy, morality, and realism, able to run amok in Tarantino’s hyperreality. SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) is a Nazi unlike any other Nazi in cinema, a character so complex, charming, and eerily entertaining that you almost forget that he’s an altogether implausible person. Yet there’s the sneaking suspicion that his eccentricities and manic quirks lurk right beneath the surface of, say, Amon Goeth (Ralph Fiennes) in Schindler’s List. Likewise, there’s a little bit of the Nazi-scalping, face-mutilating, ignorant hillbilly psychopath Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) in all the tough-guy officers from John Wayne in The Sands of Iwo Jima to Lee Marvin in The Big Red One. Inglourious Basterds has no ideology to hold them back. It’s raw viscera.
What Tarantino has done is locate the undercurrent of sadomasochistic glee responsible for the continued popularity of World War II movies and express it in purest, unadulterated form. Like the brutal sexual honesty of Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (which Tarantino borrowed rather heavily from for Death Proof), Inglourious Basterds embodies a panoply of guilt-ridden, half-repressed masturbatory fantasies about bloodshed and predation, and many people who are repulsed by them call the film “obscene.” Tarantino didn’t create those fantasies, though. They were already there, waiting to be tapped by someone bold enough to drink them straight, and in this potent state, they’re too disturbing to write the film off as mere trash entertainment. This is the World War II film confronting its Jungian shadow, acknowledging its darkest impulses and finally purging them. Inglourious Basterds is too brutal to enjoy without a sadistic streak, and too honest about the immorality of that brutality to enjoy without equal parts masochism. It’s a testament to Tarantino’s lack of hypocrisy that he counts himself among the sick “basterds” who delight in both the savagery they’re treated to and the punishment doled out to them for enjoying it, and, if box office returns are any indication, there are plenty such “basterds.”
Not that you have to look hard to see that moviegoers are filled with blood lust. People have a lot of reasons for going to see World War II movies, but just about everybody wants to see Nazis get blown away (one of the film’s most gripping moments is watching Nazis laugh at a movie where Americans get killed with equal abandon). Different directors dish out different levels of wanton Nazi slaughter, but only Tarantino has the audacity to unload a clip of machine gun ammo into Hitler’s face and turn it into a pile of hamburger meat with a toothbrush mustache.
Many critics, like The New Yorker‘s David Denby, trying to pin the sadism squarely on Tarantino, have described the film’s infamous climax as “wish fulfillment” (though others have used the term in a more positive, camp-oriented sense), but there’s nothing inherently desirable or fun about the scene: two men with machine guns firing down from a balcony into a crowd of unarmed people as the building around them burns down, culminating in a suicide terrorist bombing where innocent civilians are killed. It’s horrifying, and I can’t help but wonder if Denby’s assertion that Tarantino intended this alternate ending to World War II as a favor to vengeful Jews indicates a repressed fantasy on his own part (Jungian shadows tend to project themselves out into the world, after all). Tarantino is certainly partial to revenge as character motivation, but he no more wishes that World War II ended with a theatrical orgy of murder than Mel Brooks wishes the Spanish Inquisition had been staged as an extravagant musical.
The cinephilic celebration present in Tarantino’s first five films – the boyish love for the possibilities of film that led him to, among other equally absurd things, hybridize carsploitation movies and slasher flicks – has matured into a moral consciousness. Inglourious Basterds constantly denies the veracity of its own medium, and the self-reflexiveness becomes, as with many works of postmodern metafiction, layered beyond easy verbal description (if films are untrustworthy, how can we trust the one that tells us so?). Leni Riefenstahl – who eroticized the Nazi Party like no other and became recognized as one of the greatest of all film artists for it – looms large, drawing implicit parallels between her own propaganda and the British and American World War II films referenced alongside it. Everything from the combustibility of nitrate film to the pseudo-immortality fugitive Jew Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) achieves by filming herself calls attention to the ease with which a filmmaker can disrupt and distort history. Pretending that the World War II you’ve seen in movies has anything to do at all with real life is, as Tarantino sees it, just plain silly, so there’s no reason to try and maintain even the slightest bit of accuracy. To neglect this power is to neglect cinema itself, and by exposing the grotesquerie behind the war films that came before it and displaying it in all its naked grisliness, Inglourious Basterds, like all transgressive comedies, undermines the power of other films’ lies.