When I saw the Pianist lo these many years ago, I had a peculiar emotional reaction that faded gradually over several days. I felt like if someone had given me a button capable of destroying modern Poland, I would have pressed that button.
That’s a crazy impulse, especially for someone who doesn’t even support the death penalty. But I wanted to press that button, I really did. I had never felt so bloodthirsty in my life.
The trouble with bloodthirst is you can never be sure what will slake it. One collaborator lynched? One village destroyed? One genocide? In the long run, of course not; I’m a progressive peacenik, for god’s sake. I have white-guilt and Jew-guilt and privilege-guilt disturbing my sleep just from living my life day to day. The nice thing about a button is that I could press it from a distance and avoid the immediate implications of what I’d done. Still, eventually I would have to face the repercussions, like America with Hiroshima.
What I could have used was some celluloid catharsis in the form of a darkly-comic historical fantasy as imagined by Quentin Tarantino. (WARNING: SOME SPOILERS AHEAD) God, I wish this movie had come out in 2002 when I also had to digest Shoah and Night of the Shooting Stars in film classes. Not only does Tarantino deliver the active response I was craving back then, he does it in a way that is funny (to relieve the tension), clearly fake (to relieve any revulsion you may feel), and over-the-top (so that you realize you don’t actually want what you think you do).
No one does vengeance better than Tarantino. In his hands, vengeance is not a mindless act of good against evil: in Kill Bill, viewers are encouraged to sympathize with the human targets, even Bill himself. Elle Driver is, I think, the exception, the only cartoonishly villainous character, and even she is so great that you don’t want to see her die.
This is why Tarantino gently raises the question of whether even Nazis deserved to be gunned down, roasted alive, scalped, mutilated, and otherwise inconvenienced. Of course the Third Reich needed to be brought down (and what a job he does of it, too). But no one, no matter how despicable, should have their head bashed in by Eli Roth. Watching Inglourious Basterds, you simultaneously get to enjoy the fantasy and let the fantasy go.