Spoiler Warning: This editorial discusses the themes and plot points of The Inglourious Basterds, and if you haven’t seen it, and want to do so without spoilers, you will need to watch it before reading this piece.
Quentin Tarantino has always been a pioneering and provocative director. With his last three films, The Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, and Inglourious Basterds he has evolved his skill at directing and screenwriting while tackling uncomfortable subject matter. While both Hateful Eight and Django Unchained have been excellent, Inglourious Basterds made me think.
The best thing any movie can do for me is make me think. Quentin Tarantino never did this for me prior to Inglourious Basterds. Sure, he’s fun and his movies are thrilling. But thoughtful? Not so much. His films, prior to Basterds, are pretty straightforward and his characters generally haven’t been complicated. His action is geared toward amperage rather than narrative importance. Tarantino is an energetic director who communicates as much or more information and emotion than the dialog itself through what he captures with the camera and how he uses space and pacing.
But have his stories been thoughtful? It depends on who you ask, but I’d argue that even if he has, it hasn’t shone as much as it does in Inglorious Basterds.
Inglorious Basterds had a profound effect upon me as I watched it. As it progressed I began to enjoy the main characters so much that it became a deeper and deeper sadness to me that they were destined to fail their task, as their goal was to kill Hitler. After all, that’s just not how he died. Three quarters of the way through my first viewing of the movie, I said to myself, “There’s no way they can win, because that’s just not how the war ended, but… I wish they would anyway. I want to see them go all the way.”
And I wanted that. Everything inside of me wanted deeply for these wonderful characters to win, to just gloriously triumph. You cannot imagine my complete and utter surprise when Tarantino delivered exactly what I was wishing for, and more. I got so much more than what I wanted as we move into the final act.
The film goes off the rails right at the climax. Shifting from the sense that all will fail imminently to extreme success. Trapping a theater full of unarmed people in an auditorium with two of the basterds firing mercilessly into the unarmed crowd, laughing maniacally with no regard for their own lives as they die in a suicide bombing. It isn’t a short scene either, indulging deeply in the carnage, and the violence.
All at once I’m seeing terrorists here, violent “freedom fighters” blowing themselves up on buses, and instead of characters from World War 2 craving violent revenge, which immediately makes me feel that I’m only watching a movie, divorcing me from the moment. What I’m seeing isn’t just the craving of the characters. I feel like I’m seeing the active present day hatred of the Nazis. This is present and this is intense conviction. This film is modern revenge on people who have been dead for years already, their crimes upward 70 years in the past.
The shift in tone takes me from my reveling in their success, I am transported instantly from a giddy indulgence in a fun and wistful film that goes off the rails. It went where I wanted it to go and then kept going till it turned obscene. Till it turned dark and cancerous in its poisonous hatred. The joy I wished I could have evaporated in a heartbeat and I was left with a hollow feeling. How did this revenge make anything better for anyone? How is the world supposed to heal from all of that damage if this is still there, festering, and rotting us from the inside?
My stomach began to sink as I felt like an accomplice to this contemporary hatred for relics from the past. How can a culture move on carrying that weight of hatred? Doesn’t getting better mean letting go, closing the wounds, recognizing it but not judging it? Shouldn’t this level of hatred for a time already long gone be reserved for the actual victims? What does it mean to feel this on their behalf?
Had the ending to this movie been milder, though, I wouldn’t have felt any of that. I wouldn’t have spent another minute thinking about it, and I’d have gone on with my life without the slightest interruption. In retrospect, after watching Django Unchained I don’t think that this complex series of emotions are what I was supposed to feel. As drained and conflicted as this made me feel, I just don’t think that I was supposed to feel anything but joy at watching Nazis get killed. That is profoundly sad to me.
If you haven’t seen this movie, you should watch it. I’d like to know what you thought of the ending. Did it give you a sense of catharsis that left you feeling triumphant? Or was there a part of you that felt guilty for what you were enjoying?