Alright, since the entire point of this post is spoilers, consider yourselves duly warned. I don’t like spoiling films, but I also really think that there is a lot of discussion to be had about the end of Inglourious Basterds. Only read on if you have seen the film, or know you won’t. Because there’s no going back. Seriously. It’s something you should really see for yourself before you make up your mind on it. Anyway, those disclaimers out of the way, here we go…
I made the point in my review of the film that Tarantino demonstrated how he’d grown up in handling the revenge strand of the story dealing with Shoshanna so well. It is true that the thread provides a strong ‘heart’ that most of his films seem to lack, as well as an honest and logical conclusion to a character arc we haven’t seen him provide since Pulp Fiction (her obsession with revenge literally consumes her as she dies in the booth and the flames eat away at the screen, giving us the errie effect of her face on smoke). Shoshanna is the hero of a Nazoploitation film – she’s a riproaring rampage of revenge in and of herself. However, Tarantino doesn’t quite give her the satisfaction of the big pay off he’s been building up to (and she would have received in an honest-to-god exploitation flick). Instead, her clever calculations go up in smoke (pun intended) as the macho basterds engage in loud and pointless violence for the sake of it.
There’s been a fair amount of comparison between Shoshanna and The Bride in Tarantino’s Kill Bill. This is understandable as the characters are superficially similar: both experienced a loss at the hands of an organisation that they then seek to exact revenge against. However, The Bride ultimately rides off into the sunset, seemingly vindicated by her actions and assured one of those ‘happily ever after’ endings that we only get in films (even being given part of her own family back as a reward for her bloodlust). This works well in the relatively juvenile fantasies of Kill Bill – revenge is justified; it is ultimately simply balance or justice. However, here Tarantino offers us a more mature reflection on how hatred consumes. Shoshanna does not get a glorious combat scene with her enemies. Indeed, when she dies, she does so pathetically. And – in achieving her revenge – she becomes like her enemies. She turns her cinema into a giant oven, frying everyone inside.
Tarantino doesn’t dwell on it explicitly in the context of that particular scene, but – given his focus throughout the film on presenting the Nazis as men with families and lives outside the uniform – it would seem fair to assume that there were dozens upon dozens of innocent people there. Even those with little or no affiliation with the party. People taken along as the escorts of German cinema stars, or the families of officials. It’s unreasonable to suggest that Tarantino deems their deaths entirely justifiable or necessary. Indeed, he seems to suggest that despite her incredibly understandable reasons, Shoshanna has learned cruelty from the Nazi regime and that perhaps she would have been luckier to die at the start of the movie.
There’s a tonne to be said about the cinema confrontation. The most obvious is the relatively mature point about the redundancy of vengeance. This kinda feeds into one of my favourite elements about the ending, which I’ll discuss later, but Shoshanna’s efforts are ultimately pointless, as are any of the three plots at work independently. Here Tarantino seems to be – superficially at least – taking aim at the old cliche of the good guy plot that fails at the last minute due to bad luck. In most movies one or more of the plans would have ultimately failed, leaving the last one to save the day (if at all). Here, Tarantino flips it on its head. Implausibly good luck leads to two simultaneous yet unconnected plots culminating at the same time, with a bad-guy-turned-opportunist-good-guy. It is interesting to note that Landa’s heel-face turn generally operates in the other direction. A member of the team who discovers he likes money, or who is promised the chance to survive and takes it. It works remarkably well on the audience, as Tarantino skilfully throws them for several loops. In fact, the biggest and best loop comes in the ultimate subversion of history itself: the plot to kill Hitler works.
It’s a very clever way to throw the audience off and jolt their expectations. And it’s effective. In many cases historical films sell themselves short as they seem to simply ‘countdown’ to the big title event. We know that the Titanic will sink. In Valkyrie, we know that the plot will fail. Here we know no such thing. It makes sense. The movie already takes place in a fictional Second World War. There was no Hans Landa; there were no Basterds. Why not take the next logical step? Why should the movie dove-tail back into history after already diverting? Everything else in the movie never happened, so why does the ending need to have happened? There are countless examples where the history presented in the movies differs from that read in the history book, but I’ve never seen a movie that does it quite like that. If nothing else, it’s original for a mainstream release.
Finally, speaking of throwing the audience off, I do quite enjoy the subtext of the final confrontation in the cinema. It’s oddly fitting for Tarantino to vanquish evil in that place. It has been consistently remarked (so I can’t take credit for it) that the scene is self-referential: we cheer at the mindless violence as the audience in the film cheered at the mindless violence of Nation’s Pride. Perhaps we are not so different after all. It seems a very odd thing for Tarantino to hide within his films, but an insidiously critical (or at least reflective) undercurrent runs through the film. Eli Roth, the man responsible for the torture porn of Hostel, literally finds himself covered with blood. In a way, Tarantino has found – in the Nazis, the one last group that it is fair to slaughter and massacre as he does on screen. The uniforms symbolise pure evil (though, as Raines observes, you can take off the uniform). So, surely everything that Tarantino does to them is acceptable?
Tarantino’s characters seem to adopt a black-and-white mortality, a very simplistic world view (befitting both the type of film that Tarantino is producing, but also the uneducated status of various characters – the title is a typo derived from the graffiti on Raines’ rifle). If you wear the Nazi uniform, you are a bad man. You are ‘vermin’, to quote the Basterds squad leader (the use of this phrase itself coming shortly after Landa describes the Jews as ‘rats’ is understandably disturbing). But the director himself eschews this. Though Pitt’s characters are nominally heroes, they engage in suicide bombing. They kill an unarmed soldier who just wants to go home to his newborn son (though they had no alternative). And yet Raines is unequivicably the nominal ‘hero’ of the piece (this is arguably the reason he survives to the end). This moral ambiguity is perhaps the best element that Tarantino has wholeheartedly imported from the Spaghetti Westerns (save Morricone’s music, perhaps). Taratino piles on the subtext and the deeper meanings in a way he hasn’t really done since Pulp Fiction.
There is a lot going on on screen, and a lot that isn’t. There’s a lot to think about and consider. The film may be the best film of the year so far, but it’s certainly the one that I have thought the most about.