When Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds came out in 2009, it took a while for people to really catch on. What was this movie? What did it want to be? It seems that on its release in the summer, most critics dismissed it as being trashy, self-indulgent, and cruel. However, by the end of the year, the movie made its way to many, many Best Of 2009 year lists, and for good reason. Inglorious Basterds is shot perfectly, impeccably paced, and well written. It has become regarded as one of Tarantino’s best movies — a large claim for someone with such a cherished catalog. I would argue though, for all its acclaim, it’s one of his misunderstood movies released in recent years. Here’s why.
On the face of it, Inglorious Basterds has an incredibly simple plot: a number of Jewish folks want Hitler dead, so they come up with a way to make him dead, and they do indeed make him dead. There are clear lines drawn between characters: some characters are undeniably good (like Brad Pitt or Melanie Laurent), and some characters are just plain-out bad (like, well, Hitler or the “Jew Hunter” Hans Landa). At least, that’s what most people would say coming and leaving the movie: the Basterds are good, the Nazi’s are bad. But that’s wrong. The Nazi’s aren’t the bad guys. The people watching the movie thinking that the Basterds are good guys — those are the actual bad guys.
Now, I know that this doesn’t make sense on the face of it. The first time I watched Inglorious Basterds, I nearly broke into applause whenever the theater full of Nazi’s erupted into flames. I experienced barely-bridled glee watching Hitler’s face turn to swiss cheese via bullets to the face. Watching the movie a few more times, I realize that, this was Quentin Tarantino’s intention: we’re supposed to cheer. Doing so though, makes us hypocritical, propaganda-loving brutes. By having this kind of reaction — the satisfaction of watching the “bad guys” be tricked and slaughtered — the audience is brought down to the same level of the Nazi’s in the movie. Keep in mind, all of the Nazi’s are watching the premiere of a movie, blatantly used as propaganda. This movie-within-a-movie is the key, so let’s take a closer look at it.
All of the high-ranking Nazi officials are attending the premiere of “Nation’s Pride.” From what we, the audience, see of the movie, it looks pretty simple, dull, and stupid. The entire movie follows one soldier as he sits in a tower and snipes countless Allied forces. That’s it. However, the Nazi’s absolutely love it! They find it riveting. While watching the movie, we look at their reaction and scoff, incredulous of their barbarity — how could this be entertaining to anyone? Now think about the main plot of Inglorious Basterds: a group of Jewish soldiers track down and slaughter Nazi’s. We cheer, get excited, and laugh at the antics of this rogue military force — they completely dominate any Nazi’s in there way. Now that the tables are turned, and the Allied forces are killing the guys we don’t like, it doesn’t seem so vulgar or barbarous. We are having the exact same reaction that the Nazi’s are while watching “Nation’s Pride,” but we don’t see the active hypocrisy in this until we leave the movie and think about it.
But the Nazi’s are bad guys in the movie, right? Sure. Hans Landa is shown in the first scene of the movie killing an innocent Jewish family. After that though, what? Besides being a bit goofy, imprudent, and rude, the German forces are pretty humane. We never see any torture, concentration camps, complete genocide — that is all baggage that we bring to the movie to begin with. It helps us dehumanize the Nazi’s in the movie. Take for example, the bar scene: most of the guys there are just having a good time, enjoying a beer. Hell, one of the German soldiers just had a kid, and most of them are there celebrating his birth. None of them walk out of the pub alive though, for what its worth.
Another example is the road scene, where we find that the Basterds have caught a handful of Nazi’s. The Basterds offer the Nazi’s a choice: give us the locations of your troops, or die. Almost all of these soldiers choose the latter option, and they die knowing that they’ve kept their brothers-in-arms safe for a bit longer. When the “Bear Jew” comes out, the Basterds make a point to ask one soldier “How did you get those medals on your chest? Killing Jews?” The German soldier replies “Bravery.” And when this soldier gets his head bashed in, it’s all the better — he’s a decorated soldier. In hindsight though, this wasn’t a guy who was obsessed with Jews, like Hans Landa, he was just an exceptionally brave grunt. This soldier stares down the black tunnel, unafraid — and when watching the scene free of historical context, the Basterds are clearly behaving in villainous ways (insulting, laughing, threatening).
The final, most compelling illustration of this point, is the climactic scene of the movie. Shosanna has conspired to burn the entire theater down, thus killing hundreds of Nazi officers. The main point of catharsis in this movie is watching all of these Nazi’s realize that they have been played for a fool, by a Jewish woman no less! We hear her laughter while the building burns down with hundreds trapped inside. Removing historical context from the scene, it’s an absolutely terrifying image: a face appearing on the screen, announcing imminent death, and being burned alive. The use of fire is appropriate here, mirroring the real-life Holocaust imagery. However, when we think back on the Holocaust, it’s hard to not feel completely devastated reflecting on the cruel ways Nazi’s burned Jews alive. But, when it happens in Inglorious Basterds, it’s not only a deserved death, it’s a feel-good moment. The one German that is genuinely a bad guy (as seen in the film), Hans Landa, isn’t present in this mass-scale incineration (although he does get his by the end of the movie). By this point in the movie, we are just as barbarous as the Nazi’s at the premiere. We are being fed propaganda, and we absolutely love it.
In the moment, the Nazi death feels completely justified, and for good reason. We come to the movie with the knowledge that the real-life Nazi’s were completely horrible, despicable disgraceful human beings. And that’s what makes the movie-Nazi’s love “Nation’s Pride.” It’s not just the wimpy sniper killing off Allied forces, it’s the sniper killing off what the Allied forces represent. We never see the Allied forces within “Nation’s Pride” do anything that actively run to their deaths — we don’t get any context behind them. And that’s what makes the audience of Inglorious Basterds worse than Nazi’s: we do get context, we do see directly that some of these soldiers have fears, emotions, families, and we cheer anyways. We’ve watched a propaganda film, and laughed/cheered at the death of the “other side” even when we do have context of their humanity. How could those Nazi’s applaud such a disgraceful movie in which hundreds of people are slaughtered in the name of a single purpose? Well, I guess the egg is on our face.