Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: ‘Inglourious Basterds’ and the Political Movie Theater

By  · Published on August 24th, 2009

Cinema itself, specifically the movie theater, has played a significant role within the narratives of a few of this summer’s most notable releases. Up perceives the movie theater as a place where dreams are born, encapsulated in a movie made by a studio that continues to progress cinema at large. Public Enemies contained its climactic moments around a movie theater while simultaneously displaying how Hollywood filmmaking has remained the same but different (even when it has abandoned the material of film itself). (500) Days of Summer, between its winking acknowledgment of frequent misinterpretations of the ending of The Graduate to its heartbreak articulated through homage to French New Wave and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona and The Seventh Seal, is a movie that shows how cinema shapes specific ideas of love and heartbreak within the cultural psyche. But with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, we have been bestowed a major late-summer release that not only frames its entire narrative trajectory around this popular social venue (and the potential power of this experience), but imbues every frame of its very being with an indebtedness to the sacred experience of the movie theater.

With his latest, QT has moved beyond his trademark superficial borrowing from and homage to a given canon of films, he has grown and matured from constructing mere collages of selected film history that revealed little more than his enjoyment of the medium, and has instead – through a highly entertaining, often silly, and, yes, even original film – made a lasting and successful tribute not just to his love of cinema itself, but presents a convincing testament to the essential importance of the medium within modern western culture, displaying in full force its equal ability to manipulate, entertain, inspire, persuade, and even revolutionize. Here we have found Tarantino becoming, for the first time in his career, a political filmmaker of sorts, not in that his film (consciously) endorses or pursues an active political agenda of its own, but that Inglourious Basterds exhibits the powerful political role cinema has played throughout the twentieth century.

Though the perspective that currently dominates mainstream views of cinema is regarding the medium as primarily a vehicle for entertainment (as if entertainment value was somehow contradictory to film’s ability to resonate, influence, persuade, and even actively inspire change) competing with other sources of similar entertainment value, such was simply one of many possible views of cinema in pre-WWII Europe. The first half of the twentieth century was a time in which cinema was bestowed an enormous amount of power (at least rhetorically) through creative experimentation, collective artistic movements, and, perhaps most importantly, the appropriation of cinema’s persuasive utilities through political movements and organized propagandists.

Cinema’s very importance and power is evidenced by its recognition via politicians and dictators as having both the equal ability to embolden a cause as it does to destroy it. Hitler and the Third Reich understood this all too well, and the rise in power and degree of success of the Nazi party can no doubt be partly attributed to the effectiveness of their propaganda, and essential to this effectiveness is an understanding of the potential power of the moving image. The Nazis notoriously collected, destroyed, and preserved certain works of art depending on whether or not it fell in line with their ideological objectives, and specific films were part of this interrogation. Films like Carl Th. Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Jean Renoir’s The Grand Illusion (1939) – both now considered essentials to any basic historical exposure to world filmmaking – only survived the efforts of the Third Reich by careful hiding and happenstance, and it remains nothing less than a miracle that these films exist for our viewing pleasure today.

But if some films are important enough to be viewed as harmful by a state and thus deemed necessary for obliteration, other films likewise are important enough to be exposed to the masses for the opposite purpose: active persuasion and manipulation. Joseph Goebbels understood how the control of the press and the published word was essential in establishing and continuing political domination and the successful promotion of an agenda, but the extent of his power an influence has to also be credited to his understanding of how art played an equally important influential role (both Goebbels and Hitler were artists at earlier points in their lives). Cinema, conveniently enough, fell into the realms of both art and popular media, and was thus doubly capable of such potential for manipulation. Cinema has been viewed by scholars as the technology that ushered in the era of modernity, as it possessed an ability greater than any train, automobile, or telegraph to condense time and space into a single immediate moment. And as the Third Reich perpetuated the first modern form of genocide (enacting the intended extermination of a culture through cold bureaucratic processes rather than hot-blooded hatred), it’s appropriate that their ideology was articulated through the most modern form of media at the time, that of cinema, through powerful works of propaganda like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935).

The climax of Inglourious Basterds effectively depicts cinema’s ability to subvert and persuade, as the illustrious premiere of a piece of nationalist propaganda (the film-within-the-film Stolz der Nation) is swiftly interrupted by images containing meaning in stark contradiction to those presented before. The fire behind the screen and eventually burning up the screen and making its way out into the crowd literalizes cinema’s ability to take a decisive, immediate role in reality. For QT, and western culture at large, the role of cinema is never isolated to the screen itself, but permeates outward. Cinema here also shows its ability to manifest a legacy and distort reality, as the filmmaker commanding the inferno of the movie theater has not lived to see her film projected, but survives through her presence onscreen. The fiery hell that envelops the movie theater is in a way a literalized interpretation of a death of cinema at large, as the burning of the nitrate film and the destruction of the movie theater manifest cinema’s last hurrah in its old form as a powerful, imposing, and influential force on society, decades before it had to compete for attention through other forms of moving image dissemination (television, the Internet) and find itself dismissed as mere entertainment by the masses (my only major complain is that I wish Emmanuelle Mimieux/Shosanna Dreyfus’s film-within-the-film was more radical in form than a simple direct address to the audience, perhaps something akin to experimental French films that induced riotous reactions in the past).

Vietnam may have been the first televised war, but WWII remains the first war inundated with moving imagery, from Riefenstahl’s films to American newsreels (which were, in their own right, a form of propaganda) to 8mm and 16mm documentary evidence of concentration camps to the innumerable films since that have recounted every conceivable subject related to the war and the Holocaust since. WWII undeniably remains cinema’s favorite war to depict. Tarantino’s vision of the war, however, has come under criticism by organizations like the National Jewish Daily Forum who dismiss the film as “Jewish revenge porn.” Yet Inglourious Basterds, as indebted as it is to cinema history, feels like a refreshingly new take on the subject (and isn’t that what QT does best, appropriating the old and making it seem new?) because it doesn’t fall in line with the tired heroics and obvious moralizing of most films that deal with the war.

Sure, those canonized as the best of the genre, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), may introduce a gritty new realist approach to the material, but they don’t really explore anything that hasn’t been stated in film since The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). What came across to me – even though it’s probably far from what QT intended – was that the Basterds seemed so brutal and inhumane in their acts to gain notoriety and success in the war that they no longer held great moral authority over the allegedly evil enemy they were combating – that they became evil in order to fight evil. This line of which characters held the moral high ground (as codes of ethics rarely play a decisive role for characters of any QT film) becomes further muddled in the climactic scene where the image of a maniacally laughing Mimieux/Dreyfus reflected onto the smoke emanating from the movie theater’s burning floors takes on an Orwellian quality, as if she has become a dictator all her own; and this fictional, fantastical Jewish resistance is further mirrored with the Third Reich as the trapped German people shot down amongst the smoke and fire of the movie theater echoes the extermination of masses of people through the gas chambers and ovens of the concentration camps. Tarantino’s interpretation of the war flies in the face of the common depiction in Hollywood of WWII as the “just war,” one of few wars containing an unquestionable evil that had to be eliminated through any means possible, and instead depicts the meeting of evil acts with evil acts in a manner more reflective of current wars in which our nation’s own moral codes have been compromised in order to meet an objective (but of course, on the other hand, the commonly unquestioned evil of the Third Reich makes the intentionally entertaining violence of the film more enjoyable and less problematic).

But even more importantly, Inglourious Basterds spits in the face of the “realism” commonly utilized for WWII films, showing how potentially manipulative cinema itself can be within the narrative and thus arguing that QT’s deliberately anachronistic and historically inaccurate depiction of the war contains no more of a direct relationship to reality or true events than films like Saving Private Ryan or Downfall (2004). I would further suggest that QT’s film reveals those WWII films rooted in historical accuracy and filled with stylized realism to be even more dangerous than films like Inglourious Basterds because of the very fact that they allege themselves to be authoritative documents of reality, and are therefore more susceptible to frame, persuade, and manipulate how we perceive that reality. With cinema, it is often the more overtly fictional works – as they align themselves more readily with the fabricated nature of the medium – that potentially reveal with more potency and profundity the way we perceive history as a culture. Or, as Hans Landa put it, “Facts can be so misleading, where rumors, true or false, are often revealing.”

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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