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Barbarism After Auschwitz: Inglourious Basterds Reviewed
David Moats , August 19th, 2009 14:09

Tarantino's Nazi opus plays fast and loose with sensitive subject matter but it's also one of the most interesting WWII epics in a year that's full of them. David Moats investigates

Hollywood has been churning out Nazi films like they're going out of style. Over the past year we've had The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Reader, Valkyrie, Good, Defiance, and soon we will have Nazi zombies in Dead Snow. It's almost as if the movie studios, all creatively bankrupt and resorting to remakes and the shameless rehashing of tired themes, are caught up in a mad rush to suck all of the cultural relevance out of WWII and the Holocaust before someone else does.

Adorno famously said that it was "barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz" — a statement which has been taken more as a dare than a recommendation over the years. While no one can be expected to abstain from artistic comment, most artists, writers and filmmakers have understood that the facts of WWII and the Holocaust are more fantastical and affecting than any fictional representation can really do justice to. For that reason it used to be the case, at least, that the sweeping Holocaust epic was the reserve of A-list, competent directors cementing their legacy — Mephisto, Schindler's List, The Pianist etc. It was such a sensitive topic, so easy to get wrong politically, that it was mostly handled with care, often by Jewish or German directors no less. It was also assumed that the Nazi film would make some sort of statement about the machinations of power, humanity's capacity for hate or complicity with evil deeds. One can't help but feel that this recent crop of Nazi flicks is made of less stern stuff. With seminal films like Night and Fog, The Man in the Glass Booth, and Downfall, its hard to make a Nazi film which is not derivative by comparison. It's an inevitable consequence of flooding the market — each entry into the genre of WWII epic becomes less memorable, less effort is expended, less interest generated from the public. The best stories have been told, the best films have probably already been made. These current directors appear to have less personal investment in and less reverence for the subject matter — using WWII as a mere award-baiting backdrop for whatever melodrama, action or fable is on offer.

And here comes Tarantino, throwing his considerable chips into the pot with Inglorious Basterds, by far the least 'reverent' of them all. This is Tarantino's opus, his Schindler's List (inconceivable as that sounds): 10 years in conception; 2 hours plus in length; A-list actors; hard rock soundtrack(?!). The surprise is that it's not only one of his best films, it's the most interesting WWII film in ages, all because of his profound lack of respect. While the rest make safe, measured, sentimental crap, Tarantino has made something genuinely provocative and entertaining. Basterds is an homage to what is known as the Macaroni war film — violent, often silly Italian war-xploitation films of the 60s, 70s and 80s. It follows a band of Jewish soldiers massacring Nazis with extreme prejudice, culminating in an orgy of violence which doesn't so much rewrite history as wank all over it — Kosher porn, as Eli Roth called it.

It's the classic B-Movie revenge plot applied to the Nazis, the ultimate target of our cultural rage. But it's a more substantial film than its concept might have you believe. As Tarantino's films have become more and more outrageous, more steeped in kitsch and pastiche, he increasingly makes his audience earn the escapism he promises. His acts of violence are often more horrendous than they are satisfying. Unlike the cult B-movies he draws upon, Tarantino tends to show realistic bodily harm, forcing the viewer to suffer with the characters. The car crash in Death Proof is more traumatising than any driver education film. The sequence in which Uma Thurman is buried alive in Kill Bill is truly agonising and claustrophobic. But even more so, the viewer must pay the emotional price of violence. It is often the most endearing characters who are cut down without notice. At the end of Kill Bill Vol.2 after two films of build up, we were subjected to a genuinely heartbreaking conversation between hero and villain before the ultimate catharsis, making it more bittersweet than triumphant.

Everyone forgets that Tarantino's films are mostly dialogue, only punctuated with blood. The early films were about the juxtaposition of violence with the mundane and the everyday. Here, the conversations are about building tension. Most scenes are stretched to the breaking point, but packed full of wit and mounting tension like the ferris wheel confrontation in The Third Man. If you come expecting fast paced action, you will be disappointed, but if you like expertly crafted dialogue and characters, this is up there with his best.

Some of the over-the top style is uneven and certain experiments work better than others. The 70s-ass titles introducing characters are a bit tired, while the montage set to David Bowie's 'Putting Out Fire' is brilliant. Brad Pitt is almost perfect as the leader of the Basterds, except that his monumental celebrity means he will never get past the stage of "Brad Pitt in a mustache doing a funny Southern accent". Mike Meyers in his brief appearance as an old school English agent steals the show.

Even if it is a good film, one can be forgiven for being somewhat hesitant about such a willfully irresponsible endeavor. Although no group is perhaps more deserving of a revenge fantasy than the Jewish people, some might say that revenge plays a major role in perpetuating the Israel-Palestine conflict - it is precisely an obsession with past atrocities and changing history which prevents both sides from moving forward together. One might also argue that the film attempts to exorcise a moment in history which should remain an open wound.

But on the other hand, one of the very best films about Nazis ever was The Great Dictator in which Charlie Chaplin made Hitler look like a fucking moron - what could be more politically important than that? What Inglourious Basterds accomplishes is something akin to a collective effigy burning ritual - millions of people around the world cheering for the symbolic execution of racism and totalitarianism. It ain't poetry but maybe sometimes barbarism can be poetic.