Let me say, right from the beginning, that I have never been one of Quentin Tarantino’s biggest fans. I enjoy his films, mostly. I think his dialogue is often very good. I love the way that he frames and moves through his shots. I am not, however, able to respond to his films in the ways that other people do. On the one hand, I cannot wallow in the popular culture references, in the violence, in the genre mashing that attracts the greater part of his audience. On the other hand, neither can I find much profundity in the irony and social commentary that attracts his more intellectual admirers. I find his work far more interesting than the generic Hollywood films that are generally found in theatres, of course, but this is not exactly a grand achievement.
On Tuesday night, however, I went with Don Moore and John Jantunen to see Inglourious Basterds, and I think my opinion of the film might very well be summed up in the words that close it. They are spoken by Aldo, an American officer in charge of a Jewish special forces unit that has been dropped into Nazi France to wreak havoc on the occupying forces. Throughout the film, he has allowed only a very few of his Nazi prisoners to survive, and he has carved a swastika into the foreheads of each of these men as a way of marking them as Nazis even after they have removed their uniforms. He takes a certain pride in this operation, remarking at one point that he is getting quite good at it, and suggests that you only get to be the best with practice.
In the final scene, Aldo is taking charge of a German SS officer who has made a deal with the Allies. He knows that he cannot kill his prisoner, but he is also unwilling to let the man escape his crimes, so he resorts again to carving a swastika on his prisoner’s forehead. The closing shot is of Aldo’s face from below, from the perspective of the newly branded officer, as Aldo says, “I think this may be my masterpiece.”
All of which is to say that Tarantino, at least in my opinion, could have put these same words in his own mouth, and perhaps, in a way, he even does, since there are more than a few similarities between how Aldo and Tarantino use violence as a medium. In any case, whether or nor he had the audacity to say so himself, I think Inglourious Basterds is indeed Tarantino’s masterpiece, at least to date. What distinguishes it from his previous films, at least in my opinion, is the structural complexity of the story, the many layers of parallelism that engage the audience itself in the film’s social and ethical critique. I could give many examples of this, but one will have to suffice.
In the climactic sequence, a Jewish theatre owner is hosting the première of a Goebbles film. The entirety of the Nazi high command is in attendance, so the owner and her black lover have decided to lock the doors and burn the theatre down around the audience. The film being premièred is about a young German soldier who single-handedly defends a tower against 300 Allied soldiers, and the footage is mostly of these Allied soldiers being gunned down in various ways. Hitler and the other Nazi luminaries are shown laughing at this carnage, and Hitler even mentions to Goebbles that the film is his best work.
This moment produces an interesting irony, however, considering that the audience of Tarantino’s film has been similarly laughing at depictions of German soldiers being shot, scalped, smothered, strangled, and beaten with baseball bats. Suddenly, the audience of Tarantino’s film is being paralleled with the audience of Goebbles’ film, and our laughter begins to appear disturbingly akin to Hitler’s laughter, a laughter that comes from seeing the death of those we have always assumed to be deserving of nothing other than death.
Film logic has always told us that Nazis are the one unambiguous evil. Nazis appear on screen only to be killed. They can be killed without conscience. In fact, they can even be killed with a certain humour, and we will laugh along. Yet, this laughter, Tarantino implies, is very much Hitler’s laughter also. The only difference is in the kinds of people that we are amused to see dying.
This is not say that Tarantino is in any way excusing the Nazis. Quite the opposite: without offering them any excuse whatsoever, he is implicating his own audience in their behaviour and implying that we are also guilty of the same unambiguous evil that the Nazis have come to represent, and when the theatre burns down around Hitler and his staff, there is the uncomfortable implication that we, as an audience of Tarantino’s film, might expect a similar fate.
We are left to wonder whether there might not be those who would indeed happily burn us in our seats because we have been all too content to watch them dying, because we have always assumed that they exist only to die. There may not be an orphaned Jewish girl behind the projector or her persecuted black lover behind the screen, but there are any number of candidates to take their places, some who have already taken their places, the oppressed and forgotten people of the world for whom violence and torture and terrorism appear to be the only choices available.
Which brings me back to that final scene, where Aldo is etching a Swastika in his prisoner’s forehead. Perhaps Tarantino’s film puts us in the place of that prisoner. After all, it is in that moment, for the first time, that the camera takes the point of view of one of its characters, and we are made to look, through the SS officer’s eyes, at the face of the one who has just marked us forever. Perhaps we are meant to recognize that we too have committed the same kinds atrocities through the very ways that we live, that we too have cut a deal that lets us escape responsibility for the violence that our lives inflict on others, and that we too, through the film, are now being marked as a permanent reminder of our culpability, though we have no uniform that others might recognize. Perhaps, Tarantino’s film is his way of sitting on our chests, taking a knife in his hand, and marking us as those who are content to have certain kinds of people die so that we can live the way we do. Perhaps this is his masterpiece. Perhaps.