Monday, November 09, 2015

Operational Cinema: Inglourious Basterds and You

Inglourious Basterds (sic)[1] is a World War II movie written and directed by Quentin Tarantino[2].  The film raises questions of historical accuracy, the validity of revenge, the costs of racism, and the acceptable usage of violence as told in five chapters. The film is long on plot and suffused with themes, so for the purpose of this review only the first chapter, “Once upon a time in … Nazi-occupied France,” will be summarized.
The film opens in the idyllic French cow country during the Nazi occupation of the country. A farmer (Perrier LaPadite) chops wood as a delegation of German military drive up the lane. The delegation is led by Colonel Hans Landa, who has been placed in command of the search for Jews in country. In fact Landa is so good at it he’s been dubbed “The Jew Hunter” by the people of France. Landa says he wants to visit LaPadite’s farm as a simple formality in order to officially close the file on the LaPidite family. What Landa and LaPidite both know, and what the audience gradually learns as LaPidite slowly realizes what already Landa knows, is that there is a Jewish family that has been hiding underneath the kitchen floorboards for the past year[3]. The last Germans who searched the farm didn’t suspect a thing, because they would never hide there themselves. The colonel interrogates the farmer and humbly brags about how he is proud of the nickname the French people have given him, “precisely because I’ve earned it.”[4]  Landa offers terms to LaPidite, who accepting, points out where the Dreyfusses are hiding. The Germans soldiers machine gun the floor, massacring the whole family, except for one teenage girl, who escapes the slaughter and runs out into a field, with Landa trailing her with his pistol, waiting for a sure shot, and right when it appears he has it, he shouts, “Au Revoir, Shosanna!” and drops his pistol to his side as she runs over a hill out of sight. Does he let her go because he can’t make the shot, or to let the infamy of the Jew Hunter circulate even wider? After all, anyone Shosanna would tell the truth of her tale to would obviously be sympathetic to the Jews, and hence would be even more afraid to continue giving aid to them if the Jew Hunter was on the case, just like LaPidite was when he found out who had come to call on him.
Tarantino sets up all of the themes of the film in this first nearly 20 minute scene. All the characters are playing a part throughout, save for the terrified Shosanna as she runs from the massacre of her family.  A theme that is central to nearly every moment, every image, every line of dialog, is that of performance -- of existence as a form of acting, and human identity as both projection and perception.”[5]
The second chapter, called “Inglourious Basterds” deals with a group of Jewish commandos, led by a descendant of Jim Bridger named Aldo Raine, who are dropped behind enemy lines undercover to terrorize the German forces.They are a propaganda unit to counter Goebbels' -- a movie at loose in the world. Forget Dresden, the Basterds are carpet-bombing the Germans with the most powerful weapon of all: fear.[6]” The Basterds, as the Germans call them are guerrilla fighters who kill German squads, but let one survivor go after marking him with a swastika carved into his forehead. The principle reason they give for doing this is that “We like our Nazis in uniform. That way, you can spot ‘em just like that. But you take off that uniform, ain’t nobody gonna know you was a Nazi. And that don’t sit well with us.”[7] This may seem like a simple case of a gruesome revenge fantasy, but many Nazis attempted to flee Germany after the war to avoid being prosecuted for their crimes, and many succeeded with the help of relief organizations as well as churches in escaping from justice and setting themselves up with nice new lives in places like Argentina..[8]
Tarantino never states whether the commandos are religious Jews, or just culturally and ethnically Jewish, but either way the fact that they mark their victims has religious and cultural significance to the Jewish faith. In Leviticus 19: 28 it states, “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh… nor print any marks upon you.” The fact that Jews were tattooed in concentration camps was disrespectful to their religion, to say nothing of their human rights. The act of the Basterds in marking Nazis is evidence of the belief of the soldiers that, in the words of Lt. Raine, “Nazi[s] ain’t got no humanity.”[9] The Basterds’ belief in this idea is shown by the fact that they mark their enemies in a way that is considered an abomination when it is perpetrated against their own people. The question is raised by the scenes of the Basterds killing Nazis simply because they wear a certain uniform, if killing people because of their political persuasions is moral, or not. And that’s a good question. But that’s exactly what wars are all about.
The issue in this film is that we are actually shown the faces of the Nazis.  We see how good they are at their jobs, we hear of their bravery in battle, we see the pride  and love they have for their children, and are even shown one Nazi’s tears of joy when commended by the Fuhrer. Shorn of context, these characterizations make us admire and sympathize with these characters. Interestingly, we are never shown anything of the concentration camps, and they are never even brought up! But we know they were there. We know what happened there. We know that they killed millions of undesirables purely for the sake of furthering their power.
Subtextual criticism is brought up in the film itself by film critic-turned-secret agent Archie Hicox, so it is safe to say this is a movie that openly invites audiences to bring subtext into the theatre with them. Does bravery in battle matter when one’s moral bravery has been abandoned? Does it matter that young Sgt. Wilhelm is a proud and loving new father, eager to share his favorite movies with his new baby boy? Does he deserve to live in a time of war when he has signed up with the Nazis? If one makes quality films but does it for the glory of racist fascists, should one take pride in the work?  So the question remains, is what the Basterds do up close and personal worse then what regular soldiers do in battle from the safe distance of a foxhole?
In the next chapter we see the decadence of the lifestyle of the Nazi high command when the escaped Shosanna has lunch with a German war hero (Fredrick Zoller), Joseph Goebbels, his mistress, and some SS officers who interview her in order to determine if the cinema she owns would be a proper place to host Goebbels latest masterpiece starring Zoller. The pampered poodles of Goebbels’ mistress sit at the table with the Nazi entourage. Tarantino lingers on lavish close-ups of delicious looking strudel and crème. Why? To show that these people have the will to power to have the best of everything, but instead of obtaining it and sharing the surplus with the people of the world, they waste it all in conquering, subjugating, and destroying their fellow man. Landa even describes the strudel as, “Not so terrible.”![10]
The last two chapters deal with a plot hatched by the American OSS and the British SOE, to assassinate the German high command (Hitler, Goebbels, Hermann Goring, and Martin Bormann) at Shosanna’s cinema during a gala premiere using the Basterds as the operatives. Shosanna has also decided to blow up her theatre to create her own oven to roast the Nazis. The two overlapping plots to kill Hitler[11] dovetail and intertwine in the last chapter as plot complications force the Basterds to improvise, to disastrous results, which leads Landa to detect their plot. Landa is a self serving piece of human trash, with no real loyalty to the Nazi party he has sworn to serve, so he makes a deal to let the bombs blow as long as history is rewritten to state he was a double agent for the allies the entire time. The deal is struck, so the Basterds’ bombs go off, as well as Shosanna’s undiscovered plot to set the theatre ablaze, but not before Shosanna is murdered by the previously thought of as nice Nazi Zoller., and the Basterds left at the cinema by Landa wreck vengeance on Hitler by machine-gunning him to death.
With the death of Hitler in the film, we see we’ve not been in our reality, but watching an alternate history. We should have know this the whole time. Movies are not reality. Tarantino never lets us forget we’re watching a movie, a hallmark of French New Wave cinema[12]as he uses chapter headings,  repurposed film score from classic films, voice-overs, constant references to characters watching movies, split screen, and ‘80’s rock songs as score. Tarantino’s intention is unclear here, but that is a hallmark of art films, where the director gives just so much, and leaves the rest up to the audience. The trailers for Inglourious Basterds promised a thrilling revenge commando movie, but what Tarantino made is a European art house movie about the actions taken on all sides during World War II. The film poses many questions, some extremely uncomfortable, about our moral logic, our duty to our beliefs, and the toll of war on societies[13]. The film is a masterpiece, and will stand the test of time. It is also fun. As Tarantino said,
Holocaust movies always have Jews as victims. We’ve seen that story before. I want to see something different. Let’s see Germans that are scared of Jews. Let’s not have everything build up to a big misery, let’s actually take the fun of action-movie cinema and apply it to this situation.[14]

[1] The title is purposefully misspelled. The only clue the film offers for this is a shot where Lt. Raine sets his rifle against a rock and we catch a fleeting glimpse of the words “inglourious basterds” carved into the rifle stock.
[2] Film is the most collaborative medium of all the arts, but for the sake of space as well as style, I will leave out mention in the body of the review of the contributions of the cinematographer Robert Richardson, editor Sally Menke (1953-2010), and other essential personnel.
[3] Doris L. Bergen, War & Genocide (Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), 185. Most of the Jews that were hidden in Europe were children, because it was easier to hide and explain them than adults. Boys were riskier to hide than girls as few European Christians circumcised their boys, and the Jew hunters of the time would routinely ask men and boys to pull down their pants to determine if they were Jews.
[4] Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds (New York: Weinstein Books, 2009), 11.
[5] Jim Emerson. Inglourious Basterds: Real or Ficticious, it Doesn’t Matter. Scanners With Jim Emerson. September 1, 2009.
[6] Jim Emerson. Some Ways to Watch Inglourious Basterds (Sic). Scanners With Jim Emerson. August 25, 2009.
[7] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 37.
[8] Gerald Steinacher, Nazis On The Run (New York: Oxford University Press Inc, 2011), 286-289. Shockingly, two large organizations that helped former Nazis flee justice were the Catholic Church, and the International Committee of the Red Cross.
[9] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 19.
[10] Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds, 66.
[11] Roger Morehouse, Killing Hitler (New York: Bantam Books, 2006), 322. There were many, many plots in real life to kill Hitler, a majority of which were plotted by members of the German military, but something always seemed to go wrong at the last second and Hitler walked away from them all. But not in this film.
[12] Aaron Koehler,” C’est Si Bon! French New Wave Cinema & Its Impact on Contemporary Film” (ENG 122-316, Community College of Aurora, 2013). Rough draft in my possession.
[13] The author has seen the film a total of four times.  On August 22, 2009, September 18, 2009 (both in movie theaters), December 25, 2009, and May 8, 2013 (on home video), and these and other themes, far too many to address in this essay constantly well up and present themselves with the smallest bit of intellectual effort on the part of the author.
[14] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Hollywood’s Jewish Avenger,” The Atlantic, September 1, 2009.

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