When it comes to representing the Holocaust on film, you can't win. Unless we're talking about Oscars, in which case you can't lose. Set a melodrama in a concentration camp ( Schindler's List), and the result is sentimental kitsch that wins seven Oscars. Extend any sympathy to the Nazis ( The Reader), and you wind up with a morally repugnant tearjerker—that earns its lead actress an Oscar. (The most enjoyable thing about The Reader was the degree to which it resembled that Extras episode in which Kate Winslet, as herself, tells Ricky Gervais she's doing a Holocaust movie purely as a grab for the gold.) Putting a German army uniform on a contemporary American actor (Tom Cruise in Valkyrie) makes for instant risibility, while placing a beautiful movie star in a fake concentration camp (Meryl Streep in Sophie's Choice) could be said to make a mockery of the real victims' undocumented suffering. The worst Holocaust movies may be those that aim for tragicomic uplift: Life Is Beautiful, Jakob the Liar, or Jerry Lewis' never-released The Day the Clown Cried. Perhaps Claude Lanzmann, who directed the 10-hour WWII documentary Shoah, is right and the Holocaust shouldn't be represented on film at all (or for that matter called "the Holocaust," a term which suggests sacrificial and redemptive suffering and which Lanzmann rejected for that reason.)
The event that's become (rightly or wrongly) our era's signifier for absolute evil poses huge questions to any artist who chooses to address it, questions that are ideological, moral, theological, and aesthetic. Quentin Tarantino cheerfully ignored them all—well, all but the aesthetic ones—as he plowed into the making of Inglourious Basterds (filmed largely at the historic Babelsberg studios in Germany). Tarantino's bravado, his sheer oblivious American buffoonery, accounts for this movie's raw pop power and for the aftertaste of shame and nausea it leaves behind.
Inglourious Basterds is divided into numbered and titled chapters that trace a converging group of stories from 1941-44. In an impeccably constructed opening sequence as indebted to spaghetti Westerns as it is to WWII classics like The Great Escape, a French farmer suspected of harboring Jews (Denis Menochet) is interrogated by an SS officer, Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz). Landa is known as "the Jew-hunter," and without giving away too much, I can say that he more than lives up to the name. But at least one Jew, a young woman named Shoshanna (Mélanie Laurent), manages to escape the farm. Four years later, Shoshanna is living in Paris, operating a movie house under an assumed name. Meanwhile, the Basterds, members of an all-Jewish U.S. army unit known for its merciless treatment of prisoners—"Bring me 100 Nazi scalps!" barks their commander, Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt)—are recruited by British intelligence in a plot to assassinate the Nazi high command, aided by a famous German actress (Diane Kruger) who's secretly working for the Allies.
Like Spielberg, Tarantino is director enough to elicit cinematic wows even at his most reprehensible. Though Basterds is overlong and undisciplined, it contains individual set pieces—that opening encounter in the French farmhouse and a later scene in which the Basterds go undercover as German officers in the basement of a tavern—that are near-perfect examples of taut, suspenseful moviemaking. The dialogue snaps, the score (by Ennio Morricone) swells, and many of the visual ideas (like a shot of Shoshanna in her Deco movie house that recalls an Edward Hopper painting of a lonely usherette) are breathtaking. And as always, Tarantino's casting is bold, counterintuitive, and generally spot-on. Brad Pitt overacts, genially and enjoyably, as the Tennessee-accented, folk-wisdom-spouting Lt. Raine. Austrian actor Christoph Waltz, switching elegantly from French to German to English, runs away with the movie as the exquisitely sadistic Col. Landa. Diane Kruger, the German beauty who's always struck me as mousy in her English-speaking roles (Troy, Copying Beethoven), plays her double-or-possibly-triple-crossing character with sexy verve. And smaller roles, like the British film critic turned spy Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender), are cast with types straight from an old black-and-white movie. The debonair Fassbender could be easily imagined trading rapid-fire quips with Alec Guiness.
But Tarantino's signature nastiness and his juvenile delight in shocking the audience undercut the movie's larger purpose. Which is what, again? Watching someone get beaten to death with a baseball bat, or having a swastika carved into their flesh in tight closeup, is sickening whether the victim is a Nazi or not. In the scenes where the bloodthirsty Basterds (one of whom is played by Eli Roth, the director of the ultra-sadistic Hostelmovies and a friend of Tarantino's) perpetrate these exploits, are we supposed to be cheering them on? Is the best way to work through the atrocities of the 20th century really to dream up ironically apt punishments for the long-dead torturers?
As a cathartic fantasy about kicking Nazi ass, Inglourious Bastards falls short even of last year's pallid Defiance. The scenes showing the Basterds in action offer plenty of Nazi-bashing, but they're dramatically inert. We learn nothing about, for example, why the unit is under the command of the gentile Lt. Raine or how the soldiers relate to him or to one another. The death camps are never directly mentioned, perhaps because Tarantino sensed that acknowledging their existence would shatter the movie's carefully maintained half-mocking tone. The idea of an all-Jewish unit is a joke that arrives fully formed and never goes anywhere.
If Inglourious Basterds is offensive—and in spots, it's wildly so—it's not because Tarantino tries to bring Hitler and comedy together. That's been done before—by Charlie Chaplin, Ernst Lubitsch, and others—back when the wound of the war was much fresher. The queasiness comes in when the movie unproblematically offers up sadistic voyeurism as a satisfying form of payback. As he's trying to extract information from a German soldier, Brad Pitt's character speaks a line that could function as the movie's motto: "Watching Germans get beat to death is as close as we get to going to the movies." Tarantino's radical rewriting of the war's ending is audacious and perversely enthralling. But if Inglorious Basterds were about something more than the cinematic thrill of watching Nazis suffer, itcould have been a revelation.
Slate V: The critics on Inglourious Basterds and other new movies: