For me, the proof in the pudding is the scene in which Marcel (Jacky Ido) goes around locking the theater doors: He doesn’t just turn the locks near the handles, he also flips locks at the top and bottom of the doors, and then he threads steel bars through the handles to barricade the doors for good measure. Marcel does all of this after first opening one of the doors to peek at the unsuspecting audience that is about to be burned alive. Only the most ignorant viewer could watch this unfold and not think about unsuspecting Jews being terminated in gas chambers, and, likewise, only the most ignorant (and dumb-lucky) filmmaker could make these cinematic choices without knowing he is making an overt historical reference to the very era in which his story takes place. Tarantino might not be as brilliant as he thinks he is, but he’s certainly not that unaware.
And so it was that on my most recent viewing of Inglourious Basterds, as the schemes of Shosanna and the Basterds come to fruition in tandem, with the screen catching fire and the Basterds unloading ammunition into the mosh pit of Germans below, I had two thoughts: First, what would cinema be without the Nazis, the only historical villains so unequivocally evil that (even despite Tarantino’s efforts) we can watch hundreds being helplessly slaughtered and still feel ultimately OK about it? Second, I wonder what Laughing Guy is thinking right now?
That latter thought needs clarification. “Laughing Guy” would be the dude near the front of the theater who’d been yucking up all the action from the moment the movie began. If you think Tarantino’s Hitler is over the top when Zoller’s on-screen exploits turn him into a cackling buffoon, well, you should have seen Laughing Guy, who during the Bear Jew’s bat-bashing scene rocked in his chair screaming in delight, stomping his feet and slapping both of his knees. I won’t go so far as to say that Tarantino condemns that sort of reaction, as there’s too much evidence to the contrary; Tarantino thinks violence can be fun. Nevertheless, I do think the “Revenge of the Giant Face” chapter is meant to give us pause, to make us question those previous impulses. In a moment we go from loathing the Nazis in the theater for cheering the deaths of anti-German soldiers on the field of battle to feeling compelled to embrace, at least in some way, the slaughter of an unarmed crowd. That shouldn’t sit well, and it doesn’t. If this is a revenge fantasy, revenge comes at a price, as you suggested, and Tarantino’s film is frank about that.
In a previous conversation I expressed my endless frustration with Fight Club, which I think preaches out of both sides of its mouth. Here I saw a different result. Is there ambiguity and contradiction to Inglourious Basterds? Of course! That’s part of what makes it a masterpiece. But while I still contend that Fight Club’s lasting impression is that Tyler Durden is super-cool, even though by the end of the film he’s unveiled to be everything he preaches against, here I believe that the violence of Tarantino’s film, while sometimes romanticized, is ultimately made to appear, well, inglorious. To miss that is to miss the obvious.
EH: The crucial difference between Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds, in the sense that you’re comparing them, is that Fight Club starts as one thing and then becomes something else altogether, a reversal of its earlier meanings, while Tarantino’s film is instead ambiguous throughout its length, vacillating between two poles in regard to violence just as it does between cartoony exaggeration and stolid realism. Sometimes the violence in the film is horrifying and deeply felt, as in the murder of Shosanna’s family and the movie theater fire. Sometimes it seems meant to provoke shocked laughter, as in the baseball bat sequence or the quick insert of the Basterds strafing a Nazi patrol with machine guns. I think this is part of what Tarantino’s after, getting his audience to a point where they’re not sure what to feel: both times I saw the film, the audience laughed uproariously when the Bear Jew beats that Nazi colonel, but once the killer’s extended, celebratory rant begins, the laughter died into more of an uncomfortable silence, punctuated by a few nervous titters. How much of that is just Roth’s off-key performance, and how much Tarantino’s deliberate effort to make the laughs choke in one’s throat? Either way, I don’t think anyone leaves this movie feeling completely comfortable. Maybe the Laughing Guys are able to shrug off the more unsettling moments and simply enjoy the thrill ride, but Tarantino seems to want us to at least think about violence, to think about its effects and its cost. He’s too much of an entertainer to assume a Michael Haneke-style moralist position and castigate his audience for enjoying the film, but certainly he wants to bring up these issues.
As you say, this is especially clear in the build-up to the big fire, as Marcel goes around locking the doors while, inside, Tarantino shows us the Nazis laughing as soldiers are killed. But Zoller, the soldier whose exploits are being depicted, is not comfortable with what he sees. What Tarantino’s engaging with here is the essence of his movie, the difference between reality and fantasy, and how they come together in the cinema. For Zoller, Nation’s Pride is simply too real, too close-to-home, and he can’t be entertained by watching the reenactment of all the men he really killed. For everyone else in the room, they’re not thinking about what they’re seeing as human lives being ended, just as Landa doesn’t think of his own job as exterminating other humans, but rather tracking down vermin. If the door-locking montage was the pivotal moment of this sequence for you, Zoller’s confession that he can’t watch his own movie is it for me. At this moment, reality and fantasy have come together for the young German war hero, and he is totally out of step with both the Nazis cartoonishly cackling and the Inglourious Basterds audience who had not so long ago been cheering on the sadistic Bear Jew.