Quentin Tarantino’s newest movie, Inglourious Basterds, is the best picture I’ve ever seen at a multiplex. This is no hyperbole, it easily tops anything else he has directed (disclaimer: I haven’t seen Jackie Brown) and it makes the rest of the “best picture” nominees from 2009 look like amateur trash. It earned some fairly strong reviews, but unfortunately Inglourious Basterds happens to be an incredibly dangerous piece of cinema, and most mainstream critics happen to be cowards. I’m going to pause here for a second and say that this review is going to spoil the shit out of the movie if you haven’t seen it already, in which case you should stop reading right now and go buy it on DVD – and regret missing it in theaters for the rest of your life.
Those of you who are still here might be wondering exactly why the film is so dangerous, or perhaps thinking it must have something to do with the gratuitous on-screen murder of hundreds of Top Nazis. That certainly drew attention and criticism from the press, but the far more subversive details have been all but ignored. To fully appreciate these details, we need to look not only at the characters on the screen, but also at what each character represents. This will be mostly speculation on my part, but I am convinced that the interpretation is correct.
First things first: the movie is dangerous specifically because the Nazis represent the Hollywood film industry. This is most obvious during the premiere of Goebbels’ film, a transparent subversion of American war movies (curiously containing all of the most traditional “war action” in Basterds). Moviegoers who were expecting epic Tarantino-styled battles got a bit of what they wanted, but the Nazi was the protagonist and the segment was directed by Eli Roth. Tarantino has often used movie symbolism within his work, and in Basterds the place of the producer is undeniably occupied by the Nazi Party: the fact that the final acts revolve around a cinema premiere is no coincidence. The very clear message contained in the framework of a French cinema “hijacked” by racist murderers isn’t a coincidence either.
Now if the Nazis represent the Hollywood establishment, the good guys obviously represent Tarantino (and company). This is very interesting, because I think we can pin specific character traits that he sees in himself on each character. Aldo the Apache represents Tarantino the Guerrilla, working “behind enemy lines” or within the film industry. The Bear Jew represents Tarantino the Exploiter, and Eli Roth absolutely is the perfect person for the role – say what you will about his acting. The rest of the Basterds could represent other sides of Tarantino the Director, or they could be homages to others in the community.
Shosanna is a bit of an anomaly: she doesn’t meet up with the rest of the good guys until the very end. While the Basterds’ story is violent, suspenseful and funny, hers is tragic and touching. Her character is probably a very profound statement of what Tarantino aspires to be, rather than a narcissistic idea of who he already is. Where the Basterds are savage men at war, Shosanna is classy and intelligent. Her motive is pure, born from a determination to see justice for her family. Theirs is a desire to kill the enemy, plain and simple. In the end, her mission tragically fails, but theirs succeeds, and this is certainly not without significance.
Which brings us to the target of Shosanna’s mission: Colonel Hans Landa. I’m fairly certain that Landa represents Harvey Weinstein: as a power player in the film industry, he obviously evokes a ruthlessly effective Nazi. The deal at the end between Col. Landa and Lt. Raine represents the deal Tarantino made with Weinstein, to produce Inglourious Basterds itself. By making such a deal, Aldo forfeits any hope of fulfilling the dead Shosanna’s mission (eliminating Weinstein) for the sake of the war effort (making Basterds). However, he does get away with brutally carving a swastika into Landa’s forehead – Shosanna the Virtuous is replaced by Tarantino the Narcissist, who declares Basterds to be his “masterpiece.”
The funny thing is, he’s right.