Inglourious Basterds (spoiler alert)
(Read on only if you’ve seen the film or don’t intend to see it. The post assumes the reader has also seen the movie.)
Tyler Cowen didn’t like Tarantino’s latest:
Tarantino made his Hong Kong movie, his martial arts movie, and his Blaxpoitation flick but I never expected him to dip into Nazi cinema. He sure loves hearing those Germans talk — boy are they eloquent — and fascist chattering takes up most of the movie. There is a veneer of a Jewish revenge plot against the Germans, but most of the movie strikes me as a re-aestheticization of various Nazi ideals, cinematic, linguistic, and otherwise. I’m not suggesting Tarantino literally favors the rule of Hitler, rather he probably got a kick out of getting away with such a swindle, right under the noses of Hollywood and with commercial success to boot. The Jewish assassin squad members hardly seem virtuous (in some ways they’re portrayed to fit Nazi stereotypes) [removed link, E.D.K see update below], whereas the German characters light up the screen and show extreme cleverness. (Hitler by the way is a “crummy Austrian,” not up to the more rigorous German ideal.) The sniper “movie within a movie” — which has Tarantino constructing a Nazi movie for a screening scene — is a stand-in for the broader enterprise. Throughout one wonders what are the implied references to Israel, such as when the Jewish suicide bombers strap explosives to themselves. There is homage to Riefenstahl, Pabst, Emil Jannings, Nazi “mountain movies” and other unsavory bits. I found viewing this movie a disturbing and negative experience. I’ve done a lot of work on the history of the state and the arts; if you don’t believe me, go away and research Nazi cinema and watch the film again.
I know everyone is entitled to their own opinions, and Tyler’s are usually top notch, but this time he’s just plain wrong.
First of all, the “German characters” do not “light up the screen and show extreme cleverness.” One German character does – Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) – and his cleverness and intellect make him all the more despicable and dangerous. While the other Germans are arrogant and bask in their own perceived cleverness, Landa really is quite brilliant (though it is also his fatal flaw). He is almost a machine, incredibly insightful and deceptively charming. We don’t admire him as the “rigorous German ideal” however. If anything we imagine how terrifying an ordeal his interrogations would be, how we would respond if we were in the French farmer’s shoes, battered by one venomous word after another.
(Would Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Göth, the charming villain of Schindler’s List, be subject to a similar critique? He was very human – even kind – at times, though, like Landa, he kills a great deal of Jews.)
That much of the movie is in German does not indicate that Tarantino somehow “loves hearing” the “fascist chattering” of his “eloquent” Nazi characters either. I recall an interview with Tarantino in which he expressly notes that his dissatisfaction with many old WWII movies is the language. The dialogue was always in English, he complained – even undercover Americans supposedly speaking in German, spoke on screen in English (as did their German counterparts). To Tarantino this was a distracting break from realism, an obstacle to be overcome in his own WWII film. This is the hinge upon which the entire tavern scene hangs. The British spy is almost immediately called out – not for his lack of fluency but for his strange accent.
Tyler also critiques the homage Tarantino pays to “Riefenstahl, Pabst, Emil Jannings, Nazi “mountain movies” and other unsavory bits.” The thing about Tarantino is that once he picks a subject he mines the depths of that subject’s film history and always steeps his screenplays in references to old often obscure films and actors. Basterds revolves around a movie theatre, and more broadly around the propaganda of Nazi Germany and Nazi cinema. The British spy is a film critic who specialized in German film. The final act takes place at a screening in a French movie theatre. Should we expect Tarantino to leave out references to German film in a movie about German film? Is it somehow “homage” to include these references?
Tyler also questions why the Jewish assassins “hardly seem virtuous.” Of course, this was also the point of the film. The Jewish assassins aren’t supposed to be seen as virtuous. They are Inglourious Basterds wreaking terrible vengeance on the Third Reich – the intentional opposites of the traditionally portrayed WWII era Jews: virtuous yes, but also victims. Victims on an awful, incomprehensible scale. Should such victims have watered-down, tepid avengers as their fictional counterparts?
No matter how much we enjoy the performance of Christoph Waltz as the brilliant SS officer, we nevertheless root for his enemies – we may applaud the actor’s skill, but we cheer his character’s fate and wish he could suffer more. We don’t want the Basterds to be virtuous. We want them to kill Nazi’s – however disconcertingly charming those Nazi’s may be. No matter, even, if some of them come across as brave as some of them undoubtedly were. We’re still rooting for vengeance.
Contra Tyler Cowen, I don’t see this movie as a “veneer of a Jewish revenge plot against the Germans” at all. I see it as a revenge movie, plain and simple. Like many revenge movies, the good guys are not always the most likable, virtuous types. Vengeance takes its own toll on normally good people. It is “a dish best served cold” – and it’s not the first time Tarantino has explored that theme. That the villains and the heroes are not all clad in black and white makes for a better, more dynamic film.
P.S. The movie title was taken from the Italian film, Quel maledetto treno blindato – “That bloody armored train” – which was released in America as Inglorious Bastards.
I had responded to an article Tyler Cowen linked to in his post as well. I realized afterward that the article came from a white supremacist site. At first I killed just the link, but after thinking about it, I’d rather just not respond to these people at all. So I have cut the response to that site from this post. I just don’t want to give any virtual time or space to these people.
Quite frankly, even if Cowen was linking disapprovingly, some sites simply don’t deserve linkage. I wish he’d remove his link as well, but that’s his call obviously.