Death by cinema: media reflexivity in Inglorious Basterds
The concept media reflexivity refers to the way in which films can reflect their own superficiality as representations. This has been done in various ways, and for various reasons, throughout film history. In this short essay, I will discuss the concept as laid out by Robert Stam and Sabine Hake, and examine how their ideas can be applied to the 2009 film Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino).
In writing that ”[a]ll artistic representation can pass itself off as ‘reality’ or straight-forwardly admit its status as representation”, Stam distinguishes between illusionism and reflexivity in film as two poles. The former describes films that fully embrace the spectator into the film’s diegesis, while the latter describes films that remind the spectator that they’re watching a film by “pointing to its own mask”. This idea has different significations. Sabine Hake discusses the ways in which early German film was self-reflexive and finds that many films had a self-promoting quality to them by depicting film production or the film industry. An example of this is the Urban Gad film Die Filmprimadonna (1913) (what’s left of it anyway), that stars Asta Nielsen as a film star who starts to take control of the film production of the film she’s starring in. Furthermore, early German cinema often used masks to cover part of the frame, like the famous keyhole shot where the frame was shaped as a keyhole to enhance the idea of looking through one. This both points at the presence of a limiting frame and actualises the idea of a voyeuristic spectator.
Moreover, Stam discusses what he calls interruptions and discontinuity in film as a form of media reflexivity, an idea that ties back to the Brechtian alienation effect in theatre as brought forward by the playwright Bertolt Brecht. Brecht, in turn, saw William Shakespeare as a source of inspiration. In his play The Tempest, there is a famous monologue that reflects on theatre as illusion. A film example of the alienation effect would be the last scene in Taste of Cherry (Abbas Kiarostami, 1997) where the spectator suddenly gets to see the filming of a previous scene with the director and cameramen present. Here, the illusion of a closed off world gets interrupted.
Inglorious Basterds is Tarantino’s sixth feature, and tells the story of a group of American Jews who decide to go to Europe to fight the Nazis during the Second World War. One of the subplots is about the French-Jewish woman Shoshanna who runs a cinema in Paris. As the inner circle of the Nazi party, including Hitler and Goebbels, pass through the city, Shoshanna’s cinema is chosen for a special screening of one of Goebbel’s propaganda films. Shoshanna realises the opportunity she is given, and together with her boyfriend Marcel, conducts a plan: they are to cut the film as to include a video of Shoshanna telling the audience that they’re going to die, before setting fire to a pile of film rolls behind the screen. The plan succeeds, and everyone in the theatre dies. The film lacks interruptions and discontinuity in the Brechtian sense, but I would argue that the film “points at its own mask” by reflecting on the nature of cinema. This is done in various ways.
First of all, the film reflects the materiality and the dispositive of cinema. As in Die Filmprimadonna, we get to see the process of filming, of cutting film, of handling reels and of projecting film. The film also recognises the physical danger of the celluloid film in its fragility and flammability, which has caused a lot of loss through film history. Tarantino is famous for his stubborn belief in photochemical film – all of his films have been filmed on film, and in an interview he states that it is on this condition that he keeps making films. He points out that movies are not actually moving images, but still images that create an illusion of movement, and to him, “[t]he magic of the movies is connected to 35 mm”. In that sense, Inglorious Basterds has a self-promoting quality to it, much like the early German films that Hake discusses.
But the film is not only a reflection on the physical power of cinema, but also the symbolical: the theme of falsifying history through film is reflected in the diegesis as well as in the film itself. As pointed out by Frida Beckman, the film makes for an interesting reflection of the relation between moving images and the way we perceive history and reality, in the way it toys with history and fiction. The commentary that Tarantino makes on the manipulation of history writing is made possible by the fact that (I daresay) no one will believe that Hitler died in a cinema fire – in other words, Tarantino cannot really be blamed for manipulation of history writing. There is a playful, almost childish sense to the film, as if Tarantino and his team wants to demonstrate that anything is possible in cinema. The fact that many spectators were surprised to see Hitler die in the film is telling of our strong belief in images – their verisimilitude have made them the perfect medium for manipulation through history. Perhaps the most common example of this is the powerful propaganda machine that Goebbels was in charge of in Nazi Germany, which is pointed out by Tarantino in the choice of film screened for the Nazis. Inglorious Basterds therefore works as a critique as well as a celebration of the (physical and symbolical) power of cinema.
Furthermore, the film is self-reflexive in the sense that it recognises the ghost-like quality of film as a trace from the past. As such, film can be compared to the mummy, as Malin Wahlberg writes, in its ability to immortalise its subjects. This is visualised in a scene close by the end of the film when Shoshanna is projecting the film. Goebbel’s favourite actor Frederick, who has a crush on Shoshanna, decides to visit her in the projecting room, but get rejected by Shoshanna. After having forced himself into the room, Shoshanna shoots him, and get shot herself. They both die. Right after Frederick dies, we see and image of him projected on the screen in the cinema, and right after Shoshanna has taken her last breath, the film cuts and we see the enormous face of Shoshanna informing the audience that they’re going to die. They live on like ghosts on the screen after their death.
Finally, the film is self-reflexive of a certain way that film can work both for its film maker and its audience, namely as therapy. The film is a contrafactual, violent reckoning with the horrors of the Second World War, and like so many other Tarantino films, inherently about revenge. Almost as an answer to the caricatures of Jews produced by Nazi Germany, the Jews in Tarantino’s film are the cool heroes of the film, run by Brad Pitt, who eventually win over the Nazis and get their revenge. The concept of catharsis is relevant to mention in relation to this – a term that was introduced by Aristotle to describe how the tragedy (in theatre) could have a cleansing, almost medical effect on people because of the way it brought new realisations to the audience through emotional investment. I believe I’m not the only one who felt a sense of catharsis when Hitler, Goebbels and the rest of the party died in the film, and I am almost certain that this was partly Tarantino’s purpose with the film.
In accordance with Stam, one could argue that the sense of therapy invoked here is foregrounded by the fact that the film is illusionistic rather than reflexive, since it depends on the audience being engaged with the plot to the degree that it almost believes in it in order to get this sense of cleansing. However, it could be seen as an homage to the power of cinema: that we get a sense of cleansing even though we know it to be fiction. I would argue that this film works to demonstrate that Stam’s division between illusionism and reflexivity is not clear cut. The films that Hake discusses, for example, could pass as illusionistic rather than reflexive, since they “don’t straight-forwardly admit [their] status as representation]s]”. However, they do reflect on the nature of cinema, of film-making and of spectatorship. I believe the same goes for Inglorious Basterds. With Tarantino being a true cinephile, the film is not only mass entertainment. It also points at its own mask by reflecting film history, film as therapy, the ghost-like quality of film, spectatorship, the materiality of film and the role of film in our understanding of the past and the present.
Beckman, Frida. “Ambivalent Screens: Quentin Tarantino and the Power of Vision”. Film Philosophy 19, no. 1 (2015): 85-104.
Hake, Sabine. “Self-Referentiality in Early German Cinema“. Cinema Journal 31, no. 3 (1992): 37–55.
Koivunen, Ann. “Terapi”. In Film och andra rörliga bilder – en introduktion, edited by Ann Koivunen. Stockholm: Raster förlag, 2008, 187-202.
Macnab, Geoffrey. “Film vs Digital? In the same way that a new generation of music lovers are rediscovering vinyl, cinema enthusiasts are discovering, or rediscovering, celluloid”. The Independent 31/9 2017. Controlled 12/1 2018. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/features/dunkirk-film-digital-christopher-nolan-quentin-tarantino-paul-thomas-anderson-lawrence-of-arabia-a7918586.html.
“Quentin Tarantino comments on Digital vs Film”. Youtube 12/5 2011. Controlled 12/1 2018. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BON9Ksn1PqI.
Stam, Robert. Reflexivity in Film and Literature: From Don Quixote to Jean-Luc Godard. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Research Press, 1985.
Wahlberg, Malin. ”Dokument”. In Film och andra rörliga bilder – en introduktion, edited by Ann Koivunen. Stockholm: Raster förlag, 2008, 221-233.