I expected Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds to be a shallow, tasteless, and gratuitously violent revenge fantasy, in which a Jewish “Dirty Dozen”-style unit of psychopaths rampage across war-torn Europe, killing Nazis. I’d been excited by Tarantino’s earlier Reservoir Dogs, the first time I saw cinematic violence represented for what it is in the real world: a projection of broken desire that does not cleanse, heal, or make things better. Sadly, Tarantino’s later films left me disappointed—Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill in particular appeared to make comedy out of horror, and titillate the audience with ever more spectacular ways of killing on screen.
But whether Tarantino intends it or not, Inglourious Basterds invites us to reexamine our attitudes to war and the representation of violence in entertainment. The reasons are many, but the most shocking is simple: The film climaxes with a fantasy—the murder of Hitler and his chief lieutenants while they are watching a propaganda film in which U.S. soldiers have been massacred by a German sniper.
As the caricatured embodiments of evil are themselves killed, Tarantino misdirects the audience into cheering something that only minutes earlier horrified us. This notion, that he is both applauding and critiquing the power and danger of art, and confronting us—an audience that might like to think of itself as “civilized”—with our own tendency to slip into violence, left me wondering if I have been wrong about this director.