Cinema is the weapon of mass destruction in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. On its surface the film is a war movie about a group of Jewish-American soldiers performing an apache resistance of the Nazis in the later days of World War II. The eponymous group is led by Lt. Aldo Raine (played by Brad Pitt). The goal of he and his men is to kill and scalp every Nazi that comes in their way.
It’s impossible to discuss the film without divulging the ending in which the heads of the Third Reich, including Hitler himself, are gathered together in a movie theatre burned alive, shot to death, and blown to smithereens. Tarantino’s brazen historical revisionism garnered strong controversy and criticism, with the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum going as far as to say that the film “seems morally akin to Holocaust denial…Insofar as [the Holocaust] becomes a movie convention — by which I mean a reality derived only from other movies — it loses its historical reality”.
This is surely not the case. What Mr. Rosenbaum is missing is the fact that the film is not a reality but a fantasy framed in the context of history. The film begins with the title card “Once Upon a Time in Nazi-Occupied France”. Not only is this a humorous nod to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, but it also points to the film’s rebuke of historical accuracy. It is not interested in actual history — it isn’t even particularly interested in war. What it is interested in is the idea that cinema need not be constrained by anything other than good storytelling.
In Inglourious Basterds, cinema is a medium which has the power to change history at the artists’ discretion. Several times throughout the film, Tarantino name checks the likes of Leni Riefenstahl and G.W. Pabst, two (at the time the film takes place) contemporary German filmmakers, the former known primarily for her propaganda films.
Not only does the appearance of these names place the audience within the setting of the time, but it also points out the films’ own propagandist tendencies. What are the Basterds themselves if not walking propaganda for the Americans? The few Nazis they let live are doomed to wear a swastika carved into their head by Lt. Raine in order to send a message to the others. It works as Hitler vents his frustration about the Basterds to his generals draped in the Nazi flag while throwing a tantrum. This kind of over the top cartoonishness points out the facetious quality of the film and provides a subtle joke about the nature of propaganda. It is only funny to the people on the winning end.
Nation’s Pride, the propaganda film within Inglourious Basterds, is being screened for Hitler and his Third Reich compatriots near the end of the film. They cheer and howl when the German hero Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl) mows down Allied soldiers from a rooftop. Zoller, during the screening, excuses himself and feels uneasy watching. He becomes uncomfortable with the artifice that he has become a part of which questions whether propaganda is good or not. Again it seems the film’s answer would be that it depends on who is watching.
All of Tarantino’s films point out their own status as cinematic artefacts and Inglourious Basterds is no different. In a Tarantino film, nothing is sacred and everything is fair game to contort and use for the filmmakers’ own purposes.
The film is divided into chapters, the music is appropriated from other films, and the narrative shifts back and forth where appropriate. Even the title of the film is purposely spelled incorrectly as Ben Walters points out in Debating Inglourious Basterds, “The film explicitly invites us to take a break from historical reality, and presents itself under an obviously incorrect title”.
Everything about the film is hyper real. It is interesting that in 2004 the novelist Philip Roth released the book The Plot Against America. The novel takes place in an alternate 1941 in which Charles Lindbergh becomes President of the United States and a supporter of Adolf Hitler. The book met with critical acclaim and considerably less controversy than Tarantino’s film. Why must cinema conform to history?
Just as literature is a manipulation of words and language, cinema is a manipulation of sound, light, image, and editing, so why pretend otherwise? More than that — why not use that to the utmost advantage in creating a story? This idea is central to the film. The title could be spelled correctly, but it isn’t. Hitler could have lived, but he doesn’t. These deviations from history and accuracy point out the fact that the film is a film and also pose the question, why does the cinema have to be like real life?
The film’s infamous ending offers Tarantino’s most pronounced metaphor for cinema. With high ranking Nazi officers trapped in a burning theatre, the fire started by 35-millimetre nitrate film, gunshots raining down upon them, the implication is clear. Cinema has the power to change history if one so pleases. There is no reason to accommodate history when engaged in myth-making
In Do You Find Me Sadistic, Lee Weston Sabo asserts, that “to neglect this power is to neglect cinema itself, and by exposing the grotesqueness 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.
This is what Inglourious Basterds is interested in—the unlimited power of the filmmaker. Whether it’s Leni Riefenstahl manipulating the 1934 Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg or Tarantino completely altering the entire outcome of World War II, cinema provides us an outlet where our dreams and fantasies can escape and become real in some form. When it comes to the cinema, war really is over if you want it.
This article was first posted on January 24, 2013