Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to grindhouse cinema and bloody carnage, so this is a case of "only Nixon could go to China" as anyone else analyzing just how much is "too much" when it comes to dehumanizing another human being would come off as softhearted. Here, Quentin Tarantino asks a simple question: is there a limit to the amount of torture and violence we can apply to a fellow human being even when they're enormous scumbags? Is there any critical examination of this going on or it just "us versus them"? SHOULD there be any critical examination? Does it matter if these are real monsters or not? It seems a tad hypocritical Quentin Tarantino made this movie then went on to make Django Unchained but, perhaps, this highlights he's aware of the dichotomy even if he makes no judgements on it.
Inglourious Basterds is a movie with three groups of protagonists. The Basterds, themselves, who are a cartoonish brand of psychopaths out to revenge their race on the Nazis (they're all Jewish with the possible exception of Brad Pitt's character). Shosanna Dreyfuss, Jewish survivor of Nazi hunters, who is a significantly more "real" protagonist out to avenge her dead family. Then there's the character of Hans Landa, who is an affable analog for Heinrich Himmler. Yes, I'd argue he's one of the protagonists as opposed to the villain (or is both).
The Basterds are an interesting take on the violent anti-hero as a great number of their war crimes during the movie are things the Nazis themselves did. The carving of swastikas into the heads of prisoners, the murder of prisoners for information, and torture of allies on the merest suspicion of treason. Several times in the movie, we see the Nazis (the title being applied to regular German military as well as members of the party) act in a manner significantly more human than our ostensible heroes. Yet, we cheer the Basterds because they're against the Nazis and on "our" side, no matter how horrific their deeds.
In truth, the character of Shosanna is the actual "hero" as while she wants revenge on the Nazi war machine, she acts in a much saner manner. Shosanna still wants to carry out murderous revenge against the Nazis but her plan is squarely aimed at Hitler. The indiscriminate torture and terrorism of the Basterds seems like a complete farce compared to her cold, calculating, and thoroughly justified Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge plan. Shosanna wants to lock Hitler and a bunch of Nazi soldiers in a movie theater and burn it to the ground. Even though it's a horrible death for many people, it's in the middle of a war and one cannot say she is not someone who is not justified in her actions. At least, unless you're a pacifist or don't believe in revenge.
The character of Hans Landa is a curious mixture of both hero and villain. A character based on Heidrich Himmler crossed with Sherlock Holmes, he is a mastermind behind the Holocaust and yet not Anti-Semitic. He kills people because that's job and he's good at it. He's a genius polygot played with tremendous charm and wit. Were he not part of one of the most evil acts in history, one could easily see him as a hero. Which, of course, is part of the movie's point. What values a hero espouses seem very unlike the reasons audiences root for characters. There's one seen where an audience of Nazis roots for a hero in a movie about killing people as the audience watches the movie about heroes killing Nazis. In the end, the characters all come together and there's bloodshed followed by a typical Tarantino ending. No lessons are learned, a lot of bodies are left on the ground, and the audience is left to ponder the question: what did I just see?
My answer is a mess.
For all my praise above, I think Quentin Tarantino doesn't really have a message here. He makes a valid point that heroes should be held to a higher standard than just being "guys working for the people we identify with" and that the Germans during WW2 were people too. You could even make a statement the movie highlights the Allies weren't all sunshine and roses (which they weren't). However, the movie loses me with the fact the primary target of the movie is Hitler's Inner Circle and an architect of the Holocaust.
The Basterds are horrible people, one and all, but it's hard to deny the appeal of retribution when one's people are being eradicated--which muddies the morality a good deal. The Soviets enacted a horrifying revenge on the German people during their retaliatory invasion. Their actions were not remotely moral, but I can't say I don't understand them. Murder and horror happen in war because war is murder and horror. Which is why it should be prevented in real life. Tarantino simply observes the horrors of his protagonists, villains, and everyone in-between without making a point. This robs the movie of any real point or power. In a film dealing with issues like revenge, the Holocaust, state-sponsored terrorism, and more--the most memorable thing about the film is Brad Pitt's hilariously over-the-top accent.
The Jewishness of the Basterds is almost incidental to the story compared to Shosanna's. Given she's a girl who has had her family murdered and would be killed for her interracial relationship with her black lover, it's hard to say there's any moral equivalency whatsoever. Even the sympathetic German soldier who likes Shosanna unquestionably serves a regime whose public face was horrible (let alone its private). In short, war is hell and you can't really talk about anti-heroes, villains, and moral standards without acknowledging the dehumanizing effect of it. Quentin Tarantino is more interested in talking about the dehumanizing effect of revenge porn on audiences--which I'm not sure exists. My great-uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge and barely survived. He had to deal with a lot of uncomfortable and dehumanizing things. Killing fictional people was not one of them.
Despite this, the movie does have much going for it. The performance of Melanie Laurent as Shosanna is amazing and I think should have received an Oscar nomination, if not win. Diana Kruger's Bridget van Hammersmark is an amazingly likable performance which I wouldn't have minded seeing in another movie. She plays the straight woman to the Basterd's gleeful murderous insanity and deserved a bigger role. As much as I criticize the character, Brad Pitt's Aldo Raine is as memorable as his gleefully hilarious one in Snatch. Christopher Waltz is both terrifying as well as charismatic playing the role of Hans Landa.
The movie has many memorable scenes which stick with you well after you leave the theater. A lot of these are homages to World War 2 movies made during World War 2, a propaganda practice which would be unthinkable today. The beer hall massacre, Han's surreal introduction, and the mother-of-all movie romance subversions in a projector room. The movie would have, in my opinion, been better if it had kept focus on one of its narratives or the other but I can't think of which one to sacrifice. Really, there's two very good movies here and I kind of regret we don't get to see both in their entirety.
In conclusion, I recommend Inglorious Basterds but it's nowhere near the top of my list with Quentin Tarantino. It's a frustrating film, though, because I think I would have loved either of the two films he's merged into an unholy Frankenstein's Monster. Unfortunately, the movie just doesn't give its characters enough room to breathe and suffers for it.