24 August 2009

Once Upon a Time in Nazi–Occupied France

Putting out the fire with gasoline

In a 1972 film essay, Jean-Luc Godard asked, "How can cinema help the Vietnamese people win their independence?" In 2009, Quentin Tarantino asks, "How can cinema help the Allies win the Second World War?" and then proceeds, over the course of 2 1/2 hours, to answer his own question. Inglourious Basterds, like its nearest antecedent, Jean-Pierre Melville's brilliant, torturous Resistance film Army of Shadows, is a genre picture cloaked in the trappings of Nazi-occupied France. Unlike Melville's deeply personal gangster movie (he was actually a member of the French Resistance) however, Tarantino's Basterds is an inversion–his celluloid Nazis are not cinematic representations of the real thing, but deserve, in fact, to be bound in quotes.

Indeed, the line on Inglourious Basterds is that it takes place "at The Movies," as the Village Voice's J. Hoberman put it. The criticism isn't new; ever since the 1-2-3 punch of Kill Bill Vols. 1 & 2 and Death Proof, the knock on Tarantino has been that his films are nothing more than hyperliterate exercises in junk genre tourism: intricately observed, immaculately realized, but ultimately devoid of meaningful content. Yet those films were essentially advertisements for the careers of others, whereas Basterds, though it certainly rephrases great swathes of sub-classic cinema–Tarantino himself has characterized it as a Spaghetti Western, and he has the Morricone score to prove it–is more an act of cultural criticism than a simple synthesis of tastes. Tarantino recognizes what is all but explicit: as the ranks of the World War II generation continue to thin day after day, the living memory of Nazi atrocities presses closer to extinction; soon, all that will be left will be the movies–Nazism as mediated by cinema. What Basterds says is that the vision of National Socialism likely to persist will be the silver-tongued, jack-booted version articulated by Casablanca, by The Guns of Navarone, and by (appositely enough) Raiders of the Lost Ark. Abstracted from any sociological, political, economic, or historical context, all that his left is the so-call banality of evil; an evil that, in the hands of the cinema, is not so banal at all.

Since the actual story of World War II is far too complex, depressing, and ambiguous to turn into a straightforward action film, Hollywood and its global intellectual subsidiaries have elided, sending small, appealingly international cliques of movie stars to eliminate this faceless, but appropriately high ranking Third Reich apparatchik or blow up that fictional bridge, train, gun emplacement, et cetera, et cetera. Tarantino obviously modeled Basterds on this genre: The Dirty Dozen is simply the most obvious influence (right down to its destroy-gobs-of-high-ranking-Nazis objective), with Kelly's Heroes, Force 10 From Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, A Bridge Too Far, The Train, and others too numerous to mention serving as spiritual predecessors. Where Basterds departs from these pictures (at least content-wise; formally, Tarantino is all over the map) is 1) that it envisions Jews taking their revenge on the Nazis, and 2) Tarantino bends the moral arc of the universe so far that he pushes it completely out of alignment with history. Indeed, Basterds is a maximalist fantasia: rather than simply use the Second World War as a backdrop for his story, Tarantino rewrites it, subbing in the actual Nazi high command for the usual fictionalized cadres of German officers who get rubbed out at the end of these things. In ripping open this complete breach between the reality of the war and his fictionalized version thereof, Tarantino realizes a vision of the film Nazi as a trope existing apart from the inconceivable real-world atrocities; it is an unmoored symbol, wholly bound by a cinematic grammar that accrues from movie to movie as the reality beneath becomes totally obscured. Once the symbol is stripped of its actual value, the boundaries of what is permissible are exploded; hence Tarantino is free to have Hitler and Goebbels mown down in a hail of Basterd bullets as the rest of the Reich is incinerated "by the face of Jewish vengeance."

Thus it is that the criticisms–that Tarantino is insensitive to historical fact, or worse, exploiting atrocity–are defused. To be sure, the Nazis in Inglourious Basterds are evil, but their evil, typified by Christoph Waltz's insinuatingly brilliant turn as the charming, sinister Colonel Hans Landa, is discrete, bounded by what we see on the screen. The sense of menace that pervades the whole proceedings is purchased by Tarantino's artful manipulation of a cinematic grammar established by the hundreds, if not thousands, of war movies that have preceded, and informed, his. The mechanized death of the real Nazis, the death camps and armored hordes laying waste to one end of Europe while strangling the other under a yoke of occupation, has a presence insofar as it purchases our fear, our revulsion, and, Tarantino hopes, our unyielding hatred. These two points–the reality of Nazi terror and the urbane, gleaming film analog–bear relation to one another, but also repulse one another. That they never occupy the same point is Tarantino's revelation. That he uses this fact to take brutal, ahistorical revenge against his Nazis is the ultimate expression of their unreality and perhaps a more damning indictment of the legions of filmmakers who have used the Third Reich as mere wallpaper for their Boy's Own tales than any that could be leveled against his film.