(to see the review that spawned all this musing, click here)
In the discussion surrounding Django Unchained, Inglourious Basterds has been lumped in with it as an essentially equivalent film, with "the Holocaust" and "Nazis" swapped in for "slavery" and "slaveowners." While this is more or less accurate on a surface level—there's plenty of stylistic bravado and crowd-pleasing brutality to go around—it's ultimately an unfortunate generalization, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it ignores the central role that cinema plays in the action of Basterds, both as a plot device and as an active force in the characters' worldviews. Tarantino is always at his best when he's advocating for the power of cinema. For another thing, it ignores the way in which Basterds complicates its revenge-fantasy elements, using subtle tricks of image composition and editing to reveal an intriguing ambivalence toward all its mayhem. Django merely invites us to enjoy the fantasy, which is why it is a reasonably intelligent exploitation film while Basterds is a near-masterpiece.
If Inglourious Basterds has a signature shot, it's this one:
Here we see the world as a captured Nazi sees it: from the ground, staring up at two figures who loom over him with weapons and plenty of ill intent. This composition shows up a few times, including in the final shot of the film:
It's a potent shot. We feel the vulnerability and fear of such a position, but we're also enjoying ourselves a bit. We are being treated to the POV of a Nazi—one of cinema's most reliable monsters—just before he gets his just deserts. The moment has the frisson of all good suspense: dread is mixed with pleasurable anticipation. A shock is coming, but we're comfortable in the knowledge that the good guys are on top.
The shot's most galvanizing appearance comes at the film's climax. In Tarantino's alternate-history world, Adolf Hitler and his cronies are invited to a special screening of Nation's Pride—a propaganda film about a heroic German sniper—as part of an elaborate revenge plot. The guests are excited to see a film that lets them luxuriate in the destruction of the hated Allies. The lights go down, Hitler takes his seat, the film begins, and we're treated to this sight:
The angle is the same: we stare up at an enemy who brandishes a weapon in our faces. We are vulnerable; he is powerful. But now the point of view does not belong to a Nazi, whose impending doom we relish. The presumed victim is one of the good guys. The gun is pointed at us. Suddenly, it's not quite as fun.
Tarantino cuts between Nation's Pride and shots of Hitler laughing gleefully, his response uncomfortably akin to the American laughter that, thus far, has been greeting the grisly fate suffered by Nazis. We're watching the most hated man in history engaging in the same behavior we have been for the entire movie. In essence, Tarantino is comparing us to Hitler—the most hyperbolic insult of our age—for allowing ourselves to be seduced by his movie magic. That's a stupendously provocative statement for any director—let alone Quentin Tarantino, High Priest of Cinephilia—to make.
After this, Tarantino finally gives us the revenge we've presumably been waiting for. A Jewish projectionist sets fire to the theater, then replaces the propaganda film with a film of her own. Projected onto the giant screen, she laughs wildly as her Nazi oppressors burn and die. The image is simultaneously awesome and ghastly:
There is no equivalent to these tactics in Django Unchained.