My piece on Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds is now live at Zeek. Although the time I spent watching some of my favorite World War II films preparing to write it may not be manifested in the finished product, I did work hard to do the picture justice. That meant containing my own spectatorial pleasure, programmed into me by my childhood years of fighting against scale model Germans. I really do love the film, but wanted to produce something that would inspire people to think, rather than simply emote:
Tarantino’s script plays so fast and loose with history, imagining an end to the Third Reich more dramatically satisfying than what actually happened, that it begs comparison to another historical film that was praised for its stylistic panache: D.W. Griffith’s 1915 feature Birth of a Nation. Although protested by the NAACP and sympathetic white intellectuals for its egregious bias against African-Americans, the film was a tremendous success. Audiences eager to heal the wounds of the Civil War thrilled at the opportunity to identify with both Union and Confederate protagonists, even if that symbolic reconciliation depended on the intensification of white supremacy. That this reconciliation also required the distortion of historical fact didn’t seem to bother most viewers either.
Because of the shorter average lifespan in the early twentieth century, Birth of a Nation shares with Inglourious Basterds the status of being a film about historical events that are no longer remembered by most of the population. Although President Woodrow Wilson, for whom Birth of a Nation was screened in the White House, probably did not make the famous declaration that it was “history written with lightning”, the statement does a beautiful job of capturing film’s power to promote revisionist history. As Thomas Dixon, the author of the unabashedly racist novel on which Birth of a Nation was based, explained, “I didn’t dare allow the President to know the real big purpose back of my film – which was to revolutionize Northern sentiments by a presentation of history that would transform every man in my audience into a good Democrat! . . . What I told the President was that I would show him the birth of a new art – the launching of the mightiest engine for moulding public opinion in the history of the world.”
Tarantino may not have been consciously thinking about Birth of a Nation when he wrote his screenplay. But the way he draws explicit attention to Joseph Goebbels’ micromanagement of the German film industry, not to mention the fact that he lets a Jewish woman and her black lover metaphorically lynch the Third Reich, suggests that Inglourious Basterds is not just an emotionally satisfying revenge narrative or another opportunity for Tarantino to show us his fetishistic devotion to genre conventions, but a commentary on the power of cinema to make history, rather than simply reflecting it.
To follow through on the analogy, Tarantino wants us to think about how nations are born through narrative, the sort of storytelling that film is peculiarly suited to perform. Repeated references to the film career of Leni Riefenstahl, director of Triumph of the Will and Olympia, reinforce the point that the Third Reich was fashioned, to a surprisingly large extent, from film. But that isn’t the only nation that Inglourious Basterds has in mind. Even though the story ends in 1944, it is abundantly clear, both from the film itself and from Tarantino’s comments about it in the media, that he is interested in telling the story of Israel’s birth or, to be more precise, retelling it.
I do think that the savagely visceral acts of violence in the film obscure the depth of its mad brilliance. It isn't just that Tarantino gives us a counterfactual fantasy of history in which Hitler and his top lieutenants die in a fire, but that he fleshes that history out with a counterfactual fantasy of film history, complete with pictures that never existed.