Revolution #195, March 14, 2010
From A World To Win News Service
From underdogs to uber-dog: Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds
November 2, 2009. A World to Win News Service. Inglourious Basterds is an immoral film. This might seem like an odd thing to say for two reasons: One, because it's a complete fantasy—a handful of Jewish-American soldiers and a young French-Jewish woman bring down the Third Reich. Two, because how could you ask for a more clear-cut case of "good guys" and "bad guys"?
Director Quentin Tarantino himself helps answer the first objection. His movies are full of references to movies. Among other things, this one is a tribute to American films about World War 2, Italian 1960s "spaghetti Westerns" and the German directors and films of the 1920s. While its audience doesn't need to know much 20th-century history to realize that the plot is wildly counter-factual and intentionally impossible, we can be sure that Tarantino's winks and nods to film history are as factually accurate as they are sometimes obscure. Motion pictures matter to Tarantino, and in this film they change history.
As for the second objection, Tarantino answers that one too. The moral viewpoint his film communicates is that the world belongs not to the "good guys" but those who are the most unflinchingly and single-mindedly vicious—the "basterds" who show no weakness in the face of the dirty work that in the filmmaker's eyes has to be done for "good" to triumph.
The film opens with a long, powerful scene in which SS Colonel Hans Landa (played by the award-winning Christopher Waltz) interrogates and psychologically toys with a French shepherd who is sheltering the Jewish Dreyfus family under the floorboards of his shack. The youngest daughter, Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent), escapes. Landa takes aim at her fleeing back, but does not fire. His men machinegun the rest of the family in their hiding place.
Three years later, the U.S. army puts together a band of Jewish-American volunteers to operate behind German lines in France after the Allied landing in Normandy. Their officer, Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), a wily ex-moonshiner from the Tennessee hills, explains the mission to his eight men: they are to torture to death every German they manage to take prisoner. He tells the men that they each "owe" him a hundred scalps carved off the heads of the corpses.
No distinction is made between zealous Nazi officers and reluctant conscripts. Just the opposite—they make a point of killing the lowliest just like the highest. Raine's soldiers are one-dimensional brutes and psychopaths, but there is a plan behind their assignment: to demoralize and weaken the German military. They always allow one man to escape and tell the tale to others. Raine explains that the entire German armed forces from top to bottom will lie awake in their beds at night in fear. Hitler himself eventually becomes hysterical about the Basterds' effect on his army.
Meanwhile, the Jewish little girl has grown up (astonishingly quickly, but everything in this film deliberately runs counter to realism). Now she runs a Paris cinema. Shosanna is pursued by the young German private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), a sniper returned from the front where he mowed down hundreds of American soldiers. He stars as himself in the upcoming film made by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, The Pride of the Nation. The German occupiers decide to hold a gala film opening night at her theatre. With the help of her assistant Marcel (Jacky Ido), a Black Frenchman, she figures out how to kill them all.
The plot goes through twists and turns as she receives the unwanted attentions of SS officer Landa, potentially foiling her plans, even though he doesn't recognize her. The Basterds also face complications in their scheme to team up with the famous German actress Bridget van Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) who has become a British agent, but she gets them opening night tickets. At that fateful soirée each team of Nazi-killers is unaware of the other's presence, but to make a very long story short, Shosanna's collection of hundreds of movies—made in those days with highly flammable nitrate film—burns the entire Nazi leadership alive. Footage she previously prepared projects her face above the smoke and flames as if rising triumphantly from the holocaust. The dying Nazis hear her gloat, "I'm the Jew who killed you."
What's this film about?
The film's four main characters can be considered two matched pairs. The young German soldier pursues the young Jewish woman but cannot connect with her. They seem to be opposites. The unsentimental Shosanna has clarity of purpose and is not about to let herself be distracted by the aggressively amorous Zoller. He, on the other hand, although celebrated in Goebbels' film as a single-minded exterminator for the fatherland, is sentimental and full of doubts about killing. Yet after shooting him because he gets in the way of her plans, she weakens and falls into a gesture of remorse, which allows Zoller, not yet dead, to kill the object of his affections. Both have been betrayed by their emotions, but her film trumps his after their death.
The second pair—Raine, the smooth-talking Southern "good old boy" who leads the Jewish soldiers hunting Germans, and Landa, the aristocratic SS officer in charge of hunting down Jews—are modelled on stock Hollywood and European film characters. (Again, this is a movie about film culture as national psychology—it's not for nothing that the planner of the Basterds' operation turns out to be a former film critic, an expert on German films and thus presumably the German mind.) Landa, too, pursues his counterpart. But when he captures Raine he reveals an unrequited longing for the American's admiration, while Raine also has clarity of purpose and like Shosanna unexpectedly prevails. Both men are sadists, but there is a difference: Raines coldly adopts sadism to achieve pragmatic goals but the emotionally complicated Landa needs to be sadistic.
Landa betrays his country and allows the Basterds to succeed, not because of any moral qualms about the Nazi cause but out of pragmatic considerations. Raine, after accepting Landa's surrender, takes it upon himself to ensure the German's life-long humiliation. He exacts the same revenge on this Nazi officer as he did on a young conscript early on, after the boy gave up military secrets so he could go home to his mother, carving a swastika deep into the German's forehead as a mark of shame and defeat. You can't help thinking that if only Landa had not hesitated to fire that shot at Shosanna when she was a little girl—maybe because he wanted to think of himself as a cultivated human being and not an animal, or out of some other weakness—he wouldn't have ended up this way.
What is the point of this? That good people should do vicious things to achieve good ends, and that bad people may be vicious but their emotions keep them unfocused and weak and they can be out-terrorized. This view does not correspond to the world as it really is, and it is morally wrong if looked at from the point of view of the fate of humanity.
First of all, how do you know who the "good guys" are? Why are we supposed to be disgusted by the sight of ugly Nazi leaders laughing at Goebbels' film of Private Zoller picking off American solders, while we're supposed to laugh at Tarantino's film when handsome Americans carve up Germans? Tarantino is doubtlessly aware of the irony—he is a specialist at getting the audience to wince at cruelty and giggle with uneasy pleasure at the same time. But still there is a self-aware, cynical logic. The implicit argument is that you can tell who the good guys are because they are "us."
His film is resolutely American nationalist. Even the defiant misspelling of "Basterds" (and "inglourious") in the film's title is a self-consciously Americanist and populist affectation.
Not only are the Basterds led by a "real American" non-Jew (maybe with the same thinking that makes Hollywood argue that white audiences can't identify with an all-Black cast of characters), but he is the quintessentially American movie hero. In contrast to the overly-articulate and overly-well mannered Landa, who knows his Champagne, Raine is a "regular guy" and "man's man" who has been kicked around in life. His weapon of choice is a Bowie knife, named after a legendary slave trader and killer of Indians and Mexicans. (Nicknaming him "Aldo the Apache" is a typical Tarantino touch, evoking the Indians while siding with those who exterminated them.) Here the director is playing around with film history, since Aldo Raine is such a well-drawn old Hollywood cliché (part Humphrey Bogart, who starred opposite Claude Raines in the 1942 Casablanca, part 1950s and '60s WW2movie tough guy specialist Aldo Ray).
But while Shosanna is the most sympathetic and heroic character—the film's real hero, Tarantino says in interviews—he lets his fans know that he wants them to identify him with Raine. Why else would he choose to make this character an anti-racist Tennessean with a partly Italian name and partly Indian background just like himself? The filmmaker calls Inglourious Basterds his masterpiece, by no coincidence the same word used to describe Raine's last artistic carving of a swastika. This is not just a fantasy movie; it is a simultaneously cynically sophisticated and deliberately crude display of a moral attitude.
Who were the "good guys" in WW2?
As for the alleged moral clarity of that "good war", World War 2, that Tarantino's film hankers after, in terms of what the war was about and how it was fought, neither the U.S. nor Germany were the "good guys".
The key to the defeat of Nazi Germany was the socialist USSR, whose conduct in the war was determined overall (if far from consistently enough) by its character and goals. It fought not out of imperialist rivalry but to save socialism and liberate mankind from imperialism. The ending act of the war, the U.S. atomic holocaust bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, demonstrated that the Allies and the Axis powers fought the war by the same kinds of methods because they fought for the same kinds of ends. The world that emerged from World War 2, with American domination of much of the third world and subordination of the other imperialist powers, was the world the U.S., like Germany, was fighting for all along.
Following American official history in general, Tarantino tries to appropriate the Nazi genocide against the Jews to make his Basterds look good. For the purposes of this review, it is enough to point out that while the death camps were central to the Nazi political project and ideology, the Allies went along with them. They kept secret their knowledge of what was happening to the Jews and refused to take any action to save them—for example, by bombing the rail lines carrying Europe's Jews to their deaths. Most of the Jews who survived in continental Europe either lived in the USSR or managed to make it to Soviet lines.
Means and ends
Tarantino's biggest fantasy is the idea that you could out-terrorize the Nazis or any other reactionaries. The German occupiers in France and elsewhere often employed a very effective method: when the resistance killed one of their soldiers, they would kill ten or a hundred prisoners or civilians chosen at random to demonstrate who had the most power and who could best terrorize the other side and the people. Further, it's ridiculous to think that knives and clubs could add much to the terror already felt by soldiers at the front.
In fact, Tarantino's idea is not original. The U.S. and UK practiced terrorism on a massive scale by carrying out incendiary bombing raids that turned Dresden and other German cities into infernos. But the massacres of hundreds of thousands of civilians did not necessarily have the desired effect, any more than the Basterds' bats. Instead, it may have reinforced German nationalism. The German armed forces tried to do the same in England, with the same effect on the British population.
Contrast Inglourious Basterds with the example of the armed resistance against the Nazi occupation in real-world Paris, portrayed in The Army of Crime, a recent French film directed by Robert Guediguian travelling on the international film festival circuit and now playing in the UK (a DVD is to be released in early 2010). It is the dramatized but basically historically accurate story of the members of a revolutionary immigrant workers' organisation and others who were pulled together by the Communist Party to wage war against the Nazi occupation. Some were veterans of the Communist-led International Brigades in Spain; many were teenagers. About half of the 22 men and one woman eventually caught and executed were Jewish refuges from Eastern Europe. Three were French. The larger group (about a hundred) also included several German army deserters. The group carried out leafleting and other forms of agitation and propaganda to win over as broad a section of the French population as possible to resist and fight alongside them and the socialist Soviet Union for the liberation of humanity as they conceived it. They also combined fighting the German army with appeals to ordinary German soldiers to come over to their side. Their guerrilla army concentrated on military targets, assassinating high-ranking officers and sabotaging trains carrying war supplies, and avoided killing civilians, even civilian women who consorted with the occupiers.
This handful of resisters were only a few more in number than Tarantino's Basterds, and they didn't enjoy the support of the American or any other army in France. But they inflicted much material and political damage on the occupation in the spring, summer and winter of 1943. (The film makes it clear that the French police and administrators who finally tracked them down were the same kinds of forces, the same state organizations and some of the same people who carried out these functions after the war.) One of the filmmaker's main points is how these fighters struggled to fight an effective war while not becoming the same kind of inhuman monsters they were up against.
The real-life group of Jews and others did inspire some panic in Berlin. The tide of war had begun to turn against Germany with its defeat at the hands of the Red Army in Stalingrad. Not only were the Paris guerrillas hurting the Nazi war effort, but the French population had begun to lose its fear of the occupation and the French state. Many could be won over and organized to fight—which is what happened on a growing scale after the dismantling of the "army of crime", as the Nazis tried to label these "terrorists"—a word that does apply to Tarantino's Basterds, and not the Paris revolutionary fighters. While fighting from clandestinity, the resistance shook up the reactionary authorities by using their armed actions and agitation and propaganda to place the need to wage a liberating war squarely in the minds and laps of the people. Even after they were executed, the authorities felt compelled to launch a massive anti-foreigner and anti-Semitic propaganda campaign against their memory—which only made their example more powerful.
They were not bastards, and they were glorious. There was a consistency between their aims and the means they used to attain them.
Ends and means can't be separated. Communist morality is based on the goal of communism, the liberation of humanity from all forms of oppression and exploitation, which means that revolutionaries fight wars in very different ways than reactionaries because they seek very different ends. This, contrary to Tarantino, is a strength, not a weakness.
Where is Tarantino going?
One thing that has made Tarantino so popular ever since Reservoir Dogs is that this films feature characters many people want to identify with. The filmmaker and fans attracted by Tarantino's sympathies for the underdog should take warning from the Basterds who his heroes become.
As the American Jewish author Daniel Mandelsohn wrote, "In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino indulges this taste for vengeful violence by—well, by turning Jews into Nazis. In history, Jews were repeatedly herded into buildings and burned alive... in Inglourious Basterds, it's the Jews who orchestrate this horror. In history, the Nazis and their local collaborators made sport of human suffering; here, it's the Jews who take whacks at Nazi skulls with baseball bats, complete with mock sports-announcer commentary, turning murder into a parodic 'game'. And in history, Nazis carved Stars of David into the chests of rabbis before killing them; here, the 'basterds' carve swastikas into the foreheads of those victims whom they leave alive.
"Tarantino, the master of the obsessively paced revenge flick, invites his audiences to applaud this odd inversion—to take, as his films often invite them to take, a deep, emotional satisfaction in turning the tables on the bad guys... Do you really want audiences cheering for a revenge that turns Jews into carbon copies of Nazis, that makes Jews into sickening perpetrators? I'm not so sure." (Newsweek, 16 October 2009)
Tarantino greeted the audience at his film's Tel Aviv premier by shouting, "Are you ready to kill some Nazis?" The showing was followed by a ten-minute standing ovation. It would defeat the larger purposes of our analysis to label his film Zionist propaganda—the film would be disgusting even if Israel didn't exist—but the fact that, deliberately or not, this film has served that end should tell us something. It's not far-fetched to say that the Zionist state is a real-life fulfilment of Tarantino's fantasy, guided by a similar moral and ideological stance. Israel justifies oppression, brutality and ethnic cleansing against the Palestinians by arguing that the only sensible point of view for anyone from a Jewish background is to ask, "What's good for the Jews" (or "my people" or "me"), with a good dose of revenge thrown in. Israel isn't Nazi Germany, but morally it's not different enough: it preaches that a people can overcome their real or perceived status as victims by becoming victimizers. The underdog dreams of revenge and becomes, to echo Nazi terminology, the über-dog, the master race, the top dog in a dog-eat-dog world. That is the viewpoint of Inglourious Basterds.
A World to Win News Service is put out by A World to Win magazine (aworldtowin.org), a political and theoretical review inspired by the formation of the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, the embryonic center of the world’s Marxist-Leninist-Maoist parties and organizations.
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