Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Trailed as an ironic, video nasty tribute to men-on-a-mission flicks, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds instead reveals itself as a disquieting treatise on the nature of vengeance. If Kill Bill told a straight forward revenge yarn, embellished by sublimated best-of genre flourishes, then Basterds is the difficult flip-side: a fantastical reprisal reel, reeking of methodology, anchored in the flexible real of recent, historical events. Rather than diminish Basterds, making it a sleazy pantomime, it informs the piece. Lines are drawn, expectations placed.

There's very little need to further detail the atrocity of a Nazi machine so infamous that it has cast the regime as indefensible, stock movie evil. Such horror is a constant. Inglourious Basterds seeks to play with expectation, toying with the assumption that during the Second World War all Germans were Nazis. Tarantino's film clearly demonstrating that this is not the case. The vast majority of the men slaughtered by the American guerrillas are simply soldiers. They don't scream anti-Semitic slander as they die - all the better to rally against them - instead they weep for their colleagues, steeling themselves for a violent death.

The Jewish commando unit can be read as wish-fulfilment, their kosher carnage feeding into a desensitised audience's expectation for body-warping terror, but that's just half the story. Violence is either accomplished as a punchline, or carefully and precisely distended to evoke discomfort. The Basterds are mostly unsympathetic characters, a gaggle of barely operating psychopaths locked into an eye for an eye mindset. Basterds then is a towering monument to the schadenfreude impulse. We can enjoy the comeuppance if the transgressor truly deserves it, and on who better to demonstrate this than the Nazis? Further, how better to punish and implicate an audience than to rain misfortune on their favourites? Tarantino conducts a dangerous universe, in which lethal peril is just around every corner. One mistake, one dangling comment, and it's curtains. All this is text, if you seek it, but unobtrusive should you disincline, and revert to action-type. Tarantino is quite happy for an audience to lose themselves in the extermination, providing ample opportunity for us to do so.

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