So after over a week of classes starting again, the first-day party, having to wake up four hours after the first-day party for a class for which I’m a tutor, then hitching onto the Dave Campbell PhD defense party train, I was completely unable to blog. My ideas about Inglourious Basterds have been stewing in the back of my brain ever since then, and now I finally get the opportunity to lay them all out in a place where they might actually be read.
When the movie first came out, I remember some reactions saying Tarantino was anti-Semitic because it was so ahistorical. There’s always the temptation, because the Second World War carried out violence on so massive a scale that humanity itself could have approached destruction, to treat the period with reverence. To play with its history on anything more than a minor scale, like inventing fictional units that still conformed to the major sweep of the period which every such film did, could have been considered blasphemous.
But the only thing remarkable in the Second World War was the technological growth that made such mass mechanized slaughter possible. Humanity is always this brutal, and if the technology to do so had existed in any war in the past, it would have been used. The wars Hitler and Hirohito started were motivated by the same drives as any war of conquest and hatred throughout history. To fear the war as an absolute exception to humanity is to ignore its reality, to forget that it can be repeated and most likely will. The likelihood of the war’s repetition increases as we dehumanize its practitioners into figures of pure monstrousness, because we forget that the Nazis were people too, and as such we share their violent potential.
I think that’s why I was so refreshed by Inglourious Basterds. Daniel Mendelson’s review at Newsweek put the point very clearly when he said that Tarantino has turned Jews into Nazis. His mistake was that he considered this a negative point about the film. Inglourious Basterds explores the drives that make all people violent. Leil Leibowitz in Tablet talks about the Manichean worldview of good and evil that makes the Basterds the team you root for, while they are equally violent as the Nazis. But the trend among reviewers seems to be that while everyone remembers the massacre and fire at the cinema that destroys the German High Command, no one thinks of the girl who set that fire, Shosanna.
Mélanie Laurent’s Shosanna barely escaped the murder of her family by SS Colonel Hans Landa at the start of the film, and when circumstances lead her, years later, to be the owner of the theatre where the entire High Command will gather for the premiere of Goebbels' masterpiece, she takes the initiative on her own. She and her lover, Marcel the projectionist and the only black person in the film, formulate their own assassination plot alone. They never intend to survive the massacre themselves, and Shosanna herself meets a pathetic end.
The soldier/actor Fredrich Zoller (in my opinion, an even more disturbing sociopath than Landa, because when he acts innocent, you believe him) she finally guns down in her projection booth. And in an act of mercy, she leans down to comfort him as he lies dying on her floor, but he pulls a gun and blows massive holes in her abdomen as his last act. She doesn’t even get to see the footage she’s recorded and spliced into the propaganda film where she gloats over the High Command as the Jew who murdered them. However much we admire mercy, the merciful will always be taken advantage of and crushed by those who feel no pity.
As a final point, one thing I’ve noticed in discussions of the film from reviews and interviews is that many people don’t know why Tarantino misspelled Inglorious Bastards in his title. But the reason is clear if you can watch the film with an eye for detail that Tarantino himself has: visible for less than a moment, scrawled on the butt of Brad Pitt’s rifle in the central scene of act two, is the name of their unit: INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
The semi-literate Lt Aldo Raine misspelled the name of his own outfit. The wood being too tough to carve curves, he wrote the letters with jagged straight lines. The ‘s’ that ends both words is written just as is the logo for the SS, jagged lines that resemble lightning bolts. The message is clear, if distasteful to people who expect violence to be conquered with peace. We may admire people who refuse to bloody their hands in the face of their own death. We may admire those who refuse to compromise their peaceful morality and hide rather than fight. But those people are dead.
Christof Waltz as Landa makes a chilling speech at the beginning of Inglourious Basterds, talking with a farmer sheltering Shosanna’s family at his house about the image of the Jew as rat. He admires was he sees as the rat-like qualities of Jews, the ability to hide and cower their way through the hostility of their enemies. But this strategy always fails eventually, because someone will always get absolutely sick of a rat and call the exterminator.
Aldo Raine and Shosanna refuse to live under the floorboards any longer. They become just as brutal as their enemies, but when your enemy is as powerful as the Nazi state, the first to compromise with mercy or pity is the first to die. The Nazis weren’t defeated by the Jews, Roma, and gays who died in the gas chambers and killing fields. They were defeated by violent resistance movements, and the brutal Russian and American armies. It’s hard to admit that sometimes survival is a matter of your own violence and mercilessness, but truth hurts.