Monday, August 24, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

By Elise Nakhnikian

As a German officer who refused to betray his troops was bludgeoned to death with a baseball bat by a gloating American soldier, the audience at my screening of Inglorious Basterds hooted and cheered.

Did writer/director Quentin Tarantino expect that reaction? And if so, did he want it to make us feel queasy?

I hate to say it, but I think the answer is yes and no.

I’ve loved every other movie Tarantino directed. I never get tired of watching him extract gold from the genre movies he grew up on: the adrenaline-fueled kung fu death battles and the spaghetti-Western bleached landscapes and no-name heroine of Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, the charismatic cool of antiheroes like Pulp Fiction’s Vincent Vega, the soulful soundtrack of Jackie Brown. I enjoy hanging out with his flawed characters almost as much as he clearly does. And I love how, for all the artfully choreographed violence, his movies are ultimately more talk than action.

But I don’t like this one.

The genre this time is the Nazi movie. Tarantino’s twist is to imagine an alternate reality in Vichy France, where Jews are the tormentors and Nazis the victims. Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a taciturn Tennessean, is in charge of a special unit of American Jews, the “basterds” of the title (Tarantino mangled the spelling to distinguish it from an Enzo Castellari WWII movie he bought rights to and meant to adapt, though he wound up creating something entirely new.)

The basterds have been recruited to terrorize the Nazis by killing German soldiers as brutally as possible. Raine, who‘s “part Injun,” demands that his men scalp each of their kills. He also carves swastikas into the foreheads of the Nazis he releases, in an eerie echo of the stars of David Nazis often carved into the chests of rabbis before killing them.

The cruelty of those acts, and the cold efficiency or glee with which they’re carried out, made me profoundly uncomfortable. Worse yet was watching a roomful of people trapped in a burning building trample one another to scrabble at a locked door. That scene in particular mirrors the horrific fate of countless Jews in Nazi Germany – but the victims are here Nazi leaders and their associates, and the trap is set by a Jew.

If I thought Tarantino wants us to squirm at this, thinking about how revenge can dehumanize its subjects, turning victim into perpetrator, I’d be fine with a little discomfort. But I think we’re just supposed to cheer when the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers get what they “deserve.”

I get that Tarantino is looking at the Holocaust less as a historical fact than as a movie genre, but I expect him to know better. After all, the way movies can affect our view of the world is one of the main themes of Inglourious Basterds, whose plot revolves around the fateful premiere of a war-porn movie produced by Hitler’s favorite propagandist, Joseph Goebbels.

For a little while recently, it looked as if Nazi movies were finally growing up, ending a long line of films that were black and white in more ways than one. A recent crop from Europe, including The Pianist (2002), Downfall (2004), Black Book (2006), and The Counterfeiter (2007), told tales about Jews who survived the war by any means necessary or Germans so devoted to Hitler that they followed him right into his bunker. The Jews in these movies weren’t just passive victims – some even collaborated with the Nazis to save their own skins. And the Germans weren’t cardboard villains; in fact, some were quite sympathetic, good people caught up in a bad system. That system was also given its due, giving you a sense of how tightly the Nazi regime and its collaborators clamped down on all aspects of public life and how perilous it was to oppose them.

Not that Inglourious Basterds ignores the risk of defying the Nazis. On the contrary, it revels in it, most notably in its tense opening sequence of a French farmer facing off against the movie’s deliciously evil villain, the suavely Colonel Landa (Christoph Waltz); in its long (too long, I thought) showcase showdown in an underground bar, (a “fight in a basement,” as Raine sums it up); and in a charged chat over strudel between Landa and the woman who later sets off that deadly inferno, a Jew hiding in plain sight as a Christian.

But these are movie showdowns: charged cat and mouse games between two empowered parties, which the good guys usually win. Aside from Landa and the sharp-eyed lookout in that cellar bar, the Nazis of Inglorious Basterds – starting with Hitler himself —- are cartoonish or clueless. That makes them -- and the system they represent -- seem as easy to outsmart and defeat as the buffoon Nazis of Hogan’s Heroes.

In this upside-down world, it’s the Jews, not the Nazis, who mutilate and torture their prisoners, muddying a historical record that desperately needs to be clear.

But the most unsettling part of this sadistic schoolboy revenge fantasy is its message. Tarantino and his heroes seem to think torture’s just dandy, as long as you consider the victim to be beneath contempt.

Isn’t that just what the Nazis believed?


  1. Your review was very thoughtful, but I am positive Tarintino did want us to think about how revenge dehuminizes its subjects. That's why he showed us many scenes (almost too many for me) where the Nazi audience was cheering at their hero on their screen. That was meant to mirror us, as we watched our heroes on our screen.

  2. You may well be right -- I hope so!

    I did think about how that Nazi audience mirrored the one I was watching with, but I wasn't conviced that QT wanted me to. I really struggled with my reaction to this movie, since he's so thoughtful and smart about his work that I kept wondering if I misinterpreted his intent. Maybe I did.