by Tony Dayoub
"We will be cruel to the Germans, and through our cruelty they will know who we are. They will find the evidence of our cruelty in the disemboweled, dismembered, disfigured bodies of their brothers we leave behind us, and the Germans will not be able to help themselves from imagining the cruelty their brothers endured at our hands, at our boot heels, and the edge of our knives. And the Germans will be sickened by us, the Germans will talk about us, and the Germans will fear us. Nazis ain't got no humanity! They need to be destroyed." - Lt. Aldo Raine
Happy Monday everyone. Hope you all had a great weekend. Let's get down to some way overdue business, and discuss the big movie this weekend, and perhaps this year, Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds. I saw it at noon on Friday, but held back on discussing it here for two reasons. One was my desire to contemplate the film a little longer than I usually do with other movies because it is complicated enough to merit such pondering. Notice I say complicated, not profound... more on that later. The second reason is because I plan on discussing it in toto, spoilers included. So anyone who hasn't seen it, please skip the rest of this post, go see it (requirement: you must see it in a theater), and come back once you have. Trust me, whether you end up liking the film or not, this is one flick that every movie lover should add to their lexicon.
Basterds is a World War II triptych with three protagonists: Nazi S.S. Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) a suave snake who has earned the nickname of "Jew-Hunter" for his ability to ferret out Jews hiding throughout occupied France; Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent) is a young French Jew who manages to escape Landa's clutches before he massacres her family; and Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is the commander of a band of Jewish soldiers, nicknamed "the Basterds" by the Germans for the brutal retribution they carry out against them, always leaving scalped Nazi corpses behind. Eventually each protagonist's storyline crosses paths in curious ways, even if they themselves don't always meet, until synchronicity strikes at the end of the film, with Shosanna exacting her revenge on the Nazi elite at a movie premiere in a theater she owns, which also happens to be where the Basterds have decided to wipe out Hitler and his goons.
Much has been made of Tarantino's highly fictitious postmodern Holocaust revisionism for, as some say, irresponsibly playing fast and loose with facts and casting the former victims as vengeance seeking "perpetrators" no better than their Nazi executioners. However, unlike the recent District 9, which tries to trick the viewer into passivity by deceiving him with the faux-documentary look at Apartheid, Tarantino clearly instructs us from the beginning to look at Basterds as an alternate history, a fantasy, by beginning the movie with the words, "Once Upon a Time... in Nazi-occupied France..." He continues to encourage a dissociation from any reality by rooting his story in the history of film versus the history of the world. For instance, most if not all of the soundtrack is made up of musical cues from other films (and anachronistic ones at that). David Bowie's theme from Cat People (1982) is heard as Shosanna "gets into character" before the climactic movie premiere. Italian Western themes are also ubiquitous. And I just about had a heart attack after I heard the "Bath Attack" theme from Sydney J. Furie's B-movie, The Entity (1981), when Shosanna is reunited with Landa midway through the film. Truth be told, I might feel differently about the "exploitation" of the subject if I had any Holocaust survivors in my family. But I don't. And from my perspective, it doesn't look or feel like Tarantino is being disrespectful of the historical facts.
Instead, by inverting the players in his drama, Tarantino is simply presenting this violent parable as a reframing of history to highlight the ease with which genocide occurred, calling into question whether the complicity and collaboration by many Germans can truly be justified by the loyalist fervor that was promoted by the Nazi propaganda machine. In this case, it is the audience that is complicit in the cathartic joy of vengeance, cheering the "Bear Jew" (Eli Roth) when he whacks one Nazi soldier with a baseball bat, delighting at Bridget Von Hammersmark's (Diane Kruger) rage-filled dispatch of a young soldier after a personal insult, and reveling in Shosanna's laughing visage onscreen and aflame as the theater burns with the Nazi High Command locked inside. Tarantino is creating an alternate propaganda here. This last image of the burning theater more than anything recalls the evil of the gas chambers (its setting accusing moviegoers, us, of participating in the same celebration of killing the Nazis did), and any pleasure we take in the film's climactic destruction of the Germans complicates our usually automatic dismissal of any justifications heard in the past by Nazi apologists who say they were swept up by the populist frenzy at the time since we, the viewers, are also guilty of the same.
It just may be that some critics are right in accusing Inglourious Basterds of luridly exploiting a horrid chapter in humanity's history. But at least it does so without hypocrisy.