Purging through cinema: From Inglourious Basterds to Ilsa

by Victor Rodriguez / Columnist • October 4, 2012

As of late, violence has dominated the screen. In Asian cinema, such as Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance Trilogy (composed of Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Oldboy, and Lady Vengeance), the South Korean director films everything from removal kidney surgeries to be sold in the black market, to an incestuous man cutting off his own tongue. 

Yet when asked at a conference if he is a cruel man in his personal life, he said he is not. That’s probably why his movies are so fierce. Film forces the creators and viewers to purge dark emotions. The big screen can project anything, illuminating a two hour getaway from reality. Whether you are followed by your dreams or nightmares, motion pictures can help satisfy unrealistic urges. 

In 2009, Quentin Tarantino’s witty dark humor and stylized bloodbaths in Inglourious Basterds managed to be enjoyable. It was as if we were waiting for the retaliation on the Nazis, and Tarantino was ready to give it to us. 

In an interview with the “Village Voice, Tarantino explains that he took the  raw power of proganda films from World War II to make this picture so appealing. 

“For people of my generation and younger, I didn’t want to trap the film in that period bubble, like all the TV movies about the Holocaust or the war movies or the Ken Follett miniseries with David Soul [The Key to Rebecca]. I was very influenced by Hollywood propaganda movies made during World War II.”

Inglourious Basterds would have been a failure at the box office (if it even got through production) if the roles were reversed. That would have resulted in a movie filled with brutality that is only comparable to Nazisploitation films of the 60s and 70s, such as the grindhouse film Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS. If Ilsa does not ring a bell, it is probably because its main plot (conducting sadistic scientific experiments to prisoners of war in a Nazi stalag) only appeals to a very small niche audience. The antagonism portrayed in Ilsa, needless to say, does not fly in this day and age; but Inglourious Basterds does.The seriousness and psychological reach of violence is dependent on the victim and victimizer.  

Thinking back to Inglourious Bastards, we cannot blame those who take a little pleasure watching counterstrikes against the members of the Third Reich. However, to smile at a film like Ilsa would be unsettling because our culture shuns sadism. 

Neither Chan-wook, nor Tarantino are necessarily violent men and, because of their movies, they might even be more mentally sane than the rest of us. 

It would be a degradation to call expression the sole function of film, because the big screen helps abolish the individual of repressed feelings.