Inglourious Basterds follows the exploits of a fictional squad of U.S. soldiers appointed to kill Nazis behind enemy lines during World War II. Each of the Basterds happens to be Jewish-American, giving the film the feel of a kind of revenge fantasy. The story bears that out, as the Basterds move through France on their way to Paris, where they participate in an attempt to take out all of the Third Reich’s highest officials at a movie premiere.
Without a doubt, the movie entertains. Its accessible storyline, inviting locations (especially the movie theater), and flashier moments (like the shot that drops below the floorboards in the first scene) consistently engage. Christoph Waltz also turns in a fun performance as the Nazi “Jew Hunter,” while nearly all of the film’s characters get their share of comedic moments. Director Quentin Tarantino clearly loves the movies, and there’s a heightened cinematic feel to all of the action, a stylized presentation that means to consciously push viewers out of the real world and into Tarantino’s more cartoonish vision of reality.
Due to the consistently ironic tone of the film, Inglourious Basterds possesses a certain measure of falsehood. Film critic James Agee offers a helpful comment in his 1943 review of The Moon is Down, a Nazi film based on a novel by none other than John Steinbeck:
I respect Steinbeck’s insistence that both the Nazis and their enemies are human beings, but too many things get in the way of any proof of the fact. . . . Irony, I am told, comes from eironikos, which could be translated as false naiveté. Steinbeck’s ‘little people’ use it so much that they become false and naïve out of all conscious proportions. So the irony itself becomes unpalatable, and the people become dehumanized victims of a well-intended, unconscious patronage. Worse still they become stagy . . . (Agee On Film, 18)
Agee’s particular definition of irony as false naiveté is not the case in IB. However, as a clear example of purposefully ironic filmmaking, IB leads to similar results as The Moon is Down. Each of the two male leads in IB—Christoph Waltz and Brad Pitt—play their characters in over-the-top fashion, indicating a comic tone in decidedly un-comic surroundings. This begins almost immediately as Waltz’s Nazi officer questions the French farmer in such an excessively delightful tone. After carrying this joyous attitude throughout the interview, he concludes by playfully calling for Shoshanna as she runs in terror from the home, her family just murdered before her eyes.
The same is true for Pitt’s character, though in a slightly different manner. Whereas Waltz’s Nazi comes off almost as a comic madman, Pitt infuses his character with a cowboy quality—including a ridiculous Southern accent—that seems ignorant of or apathetic toward the moral seriousness of his squad’s brutality. He revels in the revenge his squad perpetrates on those “Naa-zees,” mixing both comedy and bloodlust in his pursuit of the enemy.
These two characters set the ironic tone for the film. We enter this world through their eyes and experiences. And because Tarantino lays it on so thick and so consistently throughout the movie, the characters become, in the words of Agee above, “dehumanized victims,” and “stagy.” The characters in this cartoonish world are something less than human. They exist not as individuals who make their own choices in recognizably human fashion, but as puppets that exist to provide a thrill or a laugh—often both at once. This end reality doesn’t set Tarantino’s film apart from much else that comes out of Hollywood these days. But because of the way he gets there and because of the unique setting of this film, the use of such an ironic seems problematic at best.
Director Quentin Tarantino has stated that he thinks his ending undercuts the revenge fantasy, believing that in the final reckoning the dying Nazis morph from their status as evil incarnate to simple human beings. As he says,
I set up scenes and I jerk you off to have a climax. And in this movie I jerked you off and I fucked with the climax… At some point those Nazi uniforms went away and they were people being burned alive. I think that’s part of the thing that fucks with the catharsis. And that’s a good thing.
It may be true that on a purely narrative level, the climactic scene in the movie theater subverts any bloodlust the audience might have had for Nazis as they rooted for the Basterds. The Basterds mow down the high-ranking Nazis with machine guns. Fire consumes those hoping to escape in the other direction. Bombs explode and obliterate the rest. This is cold-blooded killing, and on a grand scale.
In my view, the turn Tarantino thinks his film makes is not actually present. Maybe it would have been, had any other group taken the place of the Nazis. But the weight of the overwhelmingly ironic presentation, along with the cultural baggage that comes with Nazis in the twenty-first century, is just too heavy to throw off with a simple narrative turn in the last few minutes of a film.