Notes from Underground


We are all basterds now



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"Inglourious Basterds" marks a return to form for Quentin Tarantino. It is a brilliant, hilarious, artfully crafted, and wildly entertaining film, in every way on a par with 1994's "Pulp Fiction," the director's last brush with cinematic greatness. It is also the most disturbing movie I've seen in a while. "Inglourious Basterds" (the double misspelling is Tarantino's) glorifies wartime brutality to a grotesque extent, yet at the same time seems aware of its own excesses and subtly critical of them. It is a movie where the "good guys" commit several horrendous atrocities, and the camera never flinches from recording the full extent of their savagery.

Still, the vast majority of the viewing public aren't going to comprehend, or even consider, the moral dimensions of the violence depicted. For most of the (largely young and male) viewers, it will simply be "cool" and "bad-ass" — nothing more. Worse, they will roll their eyes and utter that tired phrase, "It's just a movie!" if anyone challenges them to consider the meaning or message of what they've just seen. Such people, like the poor, we will always have with us; the mass of moviegoers reflect the tendencies of the general public in being ignorant and intellectually lazy, and proud of it.

In the case of "Inglourious Basterds," Tarantino partly deserves blame for provoking such a reaction from his audience. The film undeniably glamorizes violence, and not just of the sort we typically see in "shoot 'em up" flicks. It portrays a world where enemy prisoners of war are tortured and killed in horrible ways, while the film's heroes look on with amusement, clapping and guffawing; where the same heroes eventually participate in a cold-blooded, indiscriminate massacre; and where it's not at all unusual to see unwitting passersby shot in cold blood simply for wearing the wrong uniform at an inopportune time. And throughout the commission of these acts, the audience is seduced into approval; the rationale offered is that fire must be fought with fire — in other words, and in this context, that in order to defeat evil you must become it.

One need not put too fine a point on just how dangerous that mentality is, particularly during wartime, when there already exists a prevalent tendency to dehumanize the enemy and to demand vengeance at every turn, to want your side to remove its proverbial gloves, and, in Tarantino parlance, "get medieval" on its foes. Yet if you look closely (and again, few will), you will see that the seemingly brutal message of the film conceals a radical counter-message. For as much as the film's heroes want to see the enemy as inhuman, Tarantino never lets us forget that in fact they are human; and, more, that they're capable of the same full range of decent behaviors and emotions as the rest of us. Thus, if we cheer their destruction, something catches in our throat, something like regret, or even remorse.

"Inglourious Basterds" is in many ways a World War II Jewish-revenge fantasy, one that audaciously rewrites history. As such, one imagines that it wasn't a very hard sell to the Weinstein brothers who produced it, or to much of the rest of Hollywood for that matter. The alternate history it envisions is one in which a group of Jewish soldiers, many of them refugees from Nazi Germany, are assembled, Dirty Dozen style, for a top-secret mission to infiltrate German-occupied France and wreak havoc. Their leader, non-Jewish Tennessee-born Lt. Aldo Raines (a frequently funny if somewhat one-note-ish Brad Pitt) assures them that Nazis "ain't got no humanity" and encourages them not only to kill Germans but also to mutilate their corpses. "I want my Nazi scalps!" bellows Raines, a man who claims some remote Indian ancestry.

The Inglourious Basterds, as the men of the unit call themselves, are only too willing to oblige. In an early scene, we indeed witness the scalping of dead enemy soldiers. But much more striking is the Basterds' behavior toward the living. One soldier is murdered with a gunshot, for no particular purpose beyond providing amusement to the company. Then a German commander is summoned forth and asked to divulge enemy positions. When the man declines to betray his own comrades, a swarthy, glowering thug known as the "Bear Jew" ("Hostel" director Eli Roth) is unleashed who proceeds to bash the officer to death with a baseball bat.

What's particularly interesting about that moment are the conflicting aesthetic messages expressed nearly simultaneously. On the one hand, we are undoubtedly meant to find this brutal atrocity grimly amusing. (One character cracks that it's the "closest thing we've had to the movies!") But Tarantino, to his credit, resists the temptation to stack the deck against the unfortunate "bad guy." The captain does not snivel or beg; he doesn't show any fear whatsoever in the face of certain, painful death. Instead, he stares coldly at the Bear Jew, never flinching, even as the bat is brought down upon the side of his head. We can't help but think, "Damn, that Kraut's got courage!" In fact, it might strike us that he shows a fierce integrity that is far more honorable than that of his killers.

Later, in an intricately scripted and dizzyingly convoluted scene in a basement pub, where an attempted rendezvous with a German movie-star actress turned Allied spy goes terribly awry, Tarantino introduces a character named Werner, an earnest young German soldier on leave whose wife has just given birth to a young son named Max. When the Basterds' attempts at subtle, undercover infiltration are found out, and things devolve into a bloody gunfight, Werner and the actress, Bridget von Hammersmark, are the only two left alive. Lt. Raines, who has been monitoring the fiasco from nearby, shouts to Werner that they'll let him go if he drops his weapon and allows the actress/spy to flee the now carnage-strewn tavern. Werner, who worships von Hammersmark as an on-screen icon, is shaken by the news that she's a traitor to Germany, but he agrees to let her go. He puts down his gun, and has some rude words for her. In response, she whips out her own revolver and kills Werner on the spot.

That is another moment when we can't help but be shocked by the callous behavior of the "good guys." A young father has been murdered, in cold blood, for absolutely no good reason, other than, perhaps, a woman's sensitivity to being called a traitor (which of course she is). Again, Tarantino refuses to stack the deck to make the enemy seem worse in order to make us feel better about seeing him suffer.

That motif recurs with an emphasis in the film's climax, where the Basterds pull off a daring (and ahistorical) caper: they are able to gain access to a movie theater in Paris where Joseph Goebbels is premiering a propaganda film celebrating a heroic German sniper who fought off hundreds of Allied soldiers. Hitler himself attends the event, as do several other Nazi bigwigs and around 500 high-level National Socialist devotees.

The film-within-the-film is a ridiculously violent affair, showing a full-on massacre of Allied soldiers who get picked off one by one. The Nazi audience — that is to say, the audience in the movie — are loving it, laughing heartily at the mayhem ... until suddenly the violence becomes real. The theater is set on fire, and the patrons run in terror, trampling one another in the process. The Basterds brutally assassinate Hitler, Göring, and Goebbels, as well as Frau Goebbels, then take to the rafters and fire on the screaming, terrified crowd. Soon bombs go off, killing everyone — in a Jewish-orchestrated suicide attack.

Of course, many in the real theater, the theater where "Inglorious Basterds" is playing, will hoot, holler, laugh, and high-five each other when the Basterds stage their rampage. The reflective viewer, then, is left with a sobering realization: there is no real difference between the fictional theater patrons who cheered when a German killed Americans in the Goebbels-produced propaganda film, and the real patrons who cheer when the Jews kill Germans in the Hollywood-produced Tarantino film. Both audiences are avidly engaged in dehumanizing an enemy that, Tarantino is ever-eager to remind us, is truly human, as human as we are. Yet again, we aren't spared the carnage; the victims of the Basterds' wrath are truly victims, who respond exactly as we would if someone were to enter our theater and open fire on us.

The genius of "Inglorious Basterds" is that it is all things to all people: at once a poisonously sadistic pro-war movie and an ironic commentary on the dehumanizing effects of war. Throughout his career, Tarantino has enjoyed wrestling with the moral implications of violence, even as he has seemed luridly fascinated and attracted to violence itself. No one who has seen the notorious torture scene in "Reservoir Dogs" could deny that the director finds it as horrifying as we do (the camera can't even look, at one point), and at the same time also thinks it's pretty cool. The same can be said for "Inglourious Basterds," but on a larger scale. Is it awful or awesome? Tarantino answers "yes" to both questions.

Neocon armchair generals and their many followers will no doubt find "Inglorious Basterds" a refreshing apologia for torture, mass murder, and other (in)glorious acts of alleged "moral clarity" that they believe are necessary in wartime. They aren't entirely wrong to read the movie that way, but they aren't seeing the whole picture, as it were. Tarantino's movie implicates their mentality as much as it celebrates it. By the time it's over, we're left with one inescapable conclusion: in an age of total war, we are all inglourious basterds.

September 21, 2009

© 2009 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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